To the Editor:
In her moving and earnest depiction of her conversion from Christianity [“On Joining the Jews,” March], Nancy Yos identifies some of the key issues plaguing the Reform movement. She especially realizes that “social action is thin gruel to live on” and that a religious life requires something more substantive than “perfecting the world.”
At the same time, she puts her finger on the essence of Jewish faith with her observation that “it should be obvious . . . that when a people possessed of a simple and sensible worldview are promised by God that they will exist forever, and they do, then Something is happening.”
But it is a pity that such an honest and insightful person, through no fault of her own, was guided through a conversion process that is less than authentic according to halakha (Jewish law). She herself notes that the “Reform-style ‘court’” that examined her was almost meaningless. And while her conversion ceremony on the temple’s pulpit—in which she “promised to remain faithful and to raise the children as Jews”—was surely touching, the vagueness of her commitment is typical of Reform. What, if anything, was required of her went unmentioned. She was apparently unaware that halakha says nothing about conversion ceremonies on pulpits or about pledges of “remaining faithful.” It requires from converts something more: unconditional acceptance and fulfillment of the Torah’s commandments, among other things.
To her credit, Nancy Yos is clearly serious about her Jewishness and about raising her children as Jews. But how she can succeed in this, with a non-Jewish husband, is a serious question—though one that does not much concern Reform Judaism. Its temples are increasingly populated and even led by mixed-marriage couples—a sad fact that could in time transform “Something is happening” into “nothing is happening.”
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman
To the Editor:
How bittersweet it is to read the lyrical essay, “On Joining the Jews.” Bitter because it is the essay I wanted to write to celebrate my conversion to Judaism; sweet because Nancy Yos does it so well that I wish now only to compare it with my own experience.
I have been Jewish for only some months now, but like Nancy Yos I know my journey began in childhood. I grew up in a Protestant family that belonged to the “liberal” church, which meant we were neither Catholics, Mormons, nor Baptists. My few Jewish friends seemed to me to be no more than members of some other denomination, and we talked about our differences as if we were supporting rival baseball teams.
I stayed in a mainline Protestant denomination, taught Sunday school, gave guest sermons, and became an elder. Yet three aspects of my intellectual life were unsatisfying. As a professor in the natural sciences, I study and teach evolution, which even in the most liberal Christian communities produces tension; some of the leaders of my church voiced anti-Israel positions with increasing venom; and I did not believe that God would become incarnate and then, in a Trinitarian mystery, allow himself to be brutally killed for our salvation. In fact, I knew I was Jewish, but I was comfortable in the back pews, hiding my doubts.
September 11, 2001 tore that comfort away. I looked to my church and my denomination to provide some way to approach the events of that day with ethics and courage, but I was gravely disappointed. Increasingly, criticism of Israel became indistinguishable from sophisticated anti-Semitism. Instead of boldness in the face of evil, I heard only platitudes about addressing the root causes of terrorism. One morning, I left a service just as it began, resolving to find a rabbi.
I found both a rabbi who is an extraordinary woman of the Reform movement and a congregation that has been welcoming and friendly from the first day I arrived as a sheepish middle-aged man seeking a spiritual home. Through them, I discovered Reconstructionist Judaism—a movement I have now joined.
So from a different direction and at a different age, I reached the same destination as Nancy Yos: I joined the Jewish people, and now I live the eternally-challenging Jewish life. I thank Nancy Yos for describing so well the richness of coming to that life.
Mark A. Wilson
College of Wooster
Nancy Yos writes:
In their kind letters, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman and Mark A. Wilson touch upon the prime points of the convert’s dilemma as well as Judaism’s dilemma in coping with converts. In particular, Rabbi Feldman notes the discrepancies between what halakha would have required of Mr. Wilson and me and the more “welcoming and friendly” process (as Mr. Wilson puts it) of pledging faith to Reform Judaism.
Judaism struggles under this half-blessing and half-curse of being extremely attractive to the outsider, at least during certain eras, while tending to be, by default, almost impossible to enter into properly. In this Christian country, there are thousands of converts to Judaism who have perforce rejected the Trinity—the core of Christianity. There may be thousands more, here and elsewhere, who would like to do something similar, perhaps passing beyond their own faiths’ theologies to Judaism’s simplicity and sense. They—we—may be attracted not only out of impatience with our own religions or clergy but because we can grasp in Judaism a kind of lightning bolt that forks out from our hands to touch all kinds of things that matter in a completely-lived life: a past in which God really interacted in a plausible way with human beings, a God Who quite rationally still tells us how to be good, a people who have a history of telling the unflattering truth about their experiences to the world and to God Himself and so are forever learning how to be more human. We want to be like that.
Rabbi Feldman’s comments remind me forcefully of how the people and the law and the Master, all together in this system buzzing with electricity, whirl and buffet about in such a way as to make a stranger’s entry tricky. He is right: one should not beg entry to the system and then ask to submit to laws lawlessly, and it is startling to find in the Reform movement that this is just what is encouraged; a modern Reform conversion, warm and moving as it is, can indeed feel “less than authentic.”
But the individual insists on reaching God in the way of his choice. We are free, after all, to do so, just as we are free to suspect that the system of God, Torah, and Israel may never have been quite so closed and finished as Rabbi Feldman suggests. Two thousand years ago, Pharisee argued with Sadducee and Essene. A thousand years before that, King David’s wife Michal kept an idol in her house. Not commendable things—but indicative of a spiritual messiness that the convert can find weirdly encouraging.
Besides, the alternative to a less-than-authentic conversion—especially in adulthood, when a non-Jewish family may already be established—would be to pass, as Mr. Wilson says, “sheepishly” through life pretending you have not heard what you have heard, and are not thinking what you are thinking. I wonder if Rabbi Feldman might be swayed by the idea that, God having made us as we are, it is wrong to fail to grasp the possibilities of pursuing Him, flawed though they may be, which He allows to flourish in the world. Is it not better to regard truth as a lightning bolt that must be taken hold of, however roughly and incompletely, than as a room with its doors closed?
Among us all—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, newcomers—we have created an impasse. There is no arguing with the fact that since Torah means law, then you should follow it. At the same time, there is no asking converts to relinquish the identity that they think they have made an exhausting and praiseworthy journey to get, even if they do not do half of what the law commands. Frankly, I wish that halakha could come up with some way to deal with proselytes who know they are insufficient Jews but who would have felt cut off from God if they had not tried to enter in some way.
The one thing that binds us together is a jealous passion for Jewish identity. We all want our identity intact and acknowledged. We want to be remembered as being in the fold. Perhaps the answer to our confusions and quarrels is to defer judgment for a while—say, 200 years or so—hoping for the day when the various streams of the faith unite and run clear again. In the meantime, we can congratulate ourselves on living in prophetic times, when “ten men shall take hold, out of all the languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, ‘We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zechariah 8:23).