11/08/2008

Avoiding Extremes in Orthodox Conversion

Over the past 2 weeks, we have had 3 Shabbat guests who are in the process of conversion, two men last week and one woman this week. There could not be a more stark study in contrasts. This also came upon the heels of having done some translation work for an organization that works with potential converts, and which adds fuel to the fire.
I am not a stranger to the conversion process, nor am I a stranger to the politics of it. I have been intimately involved with a number of conversions over the past few years, I’m familiar with the halakha and with numerous modern responsa on the issue. On multiple levels, I am disheartened by the extremes that contemporary batei din for conversion tend toward and, ironically, I believe that there is a certain commonality to the two extremes.
Last week, we hosted two young men who were completing the IDF’s Nativ program. The young men were very nice, personable, and very respectful. However, they were not sincere candidates for conversion – not by a long shot. They spent Shabbat with us at the end of the program – and it was the first time they were spending Shabbat together as a group! Every other Shabbat they had been given off, to return to their (non-Jewish) families. They did not know anything about the rhythms and routines of Jewish home or synagogue life. They sad in shul and did nothing or wandered around outside. They had learned a bit of Jewish and Zionist history and TaNaKh, and that was the extent of their Jewish education.
Even more problematically, though I cannot be sure about it, I believe that at least one of them stepped out of my house for a smoke at some point over Shabbat. The area outside my front door usually does not smell of nicotine, as it did when I woke up on Shabbat morning (they had gone to a mandatory Oneg Shabbat while I called it a night). One of them carried his cell phone to shul for Maariv on motza”sh.
One of these fellows is a vegetarian for religious reasons- in other words, because that is the view of his community, the African Hebrew Israelites. This young man, it became abundantly clear, has no intention to leave his community. I’m all for giving the Hebrews citizenship – they have more than demonstrated their commitment to this country. But the fact remains that specious claims of being descendant of the King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba based on the visions of a latter-day prophet does not a Jew, or and Israelite, make. Even if this group would completely observe all of the mitzvot, conversion means becoming part of the Jewish community, and precludes remaining part of another religious community.
Upon the conclusion of the Nativ program, it is only a few more months until conversion. This program is a joke of a conversion program. It may be a good program for one to convert to being an Israeli, but not a Jew. I probably would not go so far as to say that these people are not even safek Jews after the conversion – even though the position that kabbalat ha-mitzvot is not me’akeiv or that a general willingness to identify as a Jew counts as a de facto kabbalat ha-mitzvot is clearly the minority position (as R. Lichtenstein pointed out in his letter of defense of R. Druckman, if you read between the lines) – but you can be darn sure that I would not count such a convert as part of a mezuman or minyan, and that I would insist that he or she go to the mikva if any of my kids ever comes home with one. This process of giyur is an absolute joke.
This past Shabbat we had an example of the opposite extreme. We hosted a student of my wife’s who is studying for the year at a seminary in Israel. She is the daughter of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who was raised with virtually no religion. She began her journey to Judaism in her early teenage years and began keeping Shabbat over a year ago, leaving home to spend Shabbat with a host family each week. She is serious about her observance. She was upset because she overslept her nap and only woke up after shkiah, and she had not yet been mechallel Shabbat as a good non-Jew must. Learning, davening, etc. – she was on the ball.
After becoming fully committed to observance 1.5 years ago, she approached her local Beis Din, who then told her that it would take 2 years before they would convert her. In the mean time, they gave her a list of books that she had to study and master, and keep tabs on her via monthly progress reports from her “supervisors”.
Some of the areas of halakha that this girl must study are completely superfluous. For example – she is learning some of the basics of slaughtering and salting fowl. She is studying the laws of niddah (which under normal circumstances she would only learn after becoming engaged) and the laws of aveilut (entirely superfluous, nost people do not study these laws until it becomes an unfortunate necessity; I studied it as part of my semicha from the Rabbanut). After completing this curriculum, she will have to take a comprehensive examination on all of it – an exam which lasts upwards of 15 hours.
This process is simply too much. Why does this Beis Din need to go so far beyond that which is required by the Shulchan Arukh, and beyond that which is advocated by the major poskim of the 20th Century. Is this part of the “universally accepted standards” shtick? Is there really a beis din out there that would “flunk” a potential convert because he/she doesn’t know how to salt a chicken or rays kri’ah?
The common denominator to both of these “processes” is that they do not get to know the prospective convert. Instead of having a rabbi who gets to know the ger and chaperone him/her through the process, keeping an eye on the ger’s integration into the frum community, answering questions, mobilizing resources, etc., you have a situation where the prospective convert must go through an impersonal standardized “process”. One process is designed to cover somebody’s idea of the most watered-down basics, and the other is designed to cover all bases, regardless of the needs and situation of the individual convert.
The ideal situation does not veer so far from the Shulchan Arukh – neither to the right nor to the left. The basic curriculum includes the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, and Brachot/ Tefillah (plus Taharat ha-Mishpacha where applicable), certain basic works of Jewish thought and attitude (such as “The Book of Our Heritage”), and a considerable amount of time spend living in and integrating with the observant community (including sending kids to Jewish schools, if applicable). And, of course, it is important that there be a chaperoning/ sponsoring Rabbi to make sure that the potential convert is progressing properly.
Unfortunately, the extremes seem to be carrying the day.
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