Archive for the ‘conversion’ Category

Today and yesterday we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which is the celebration of the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Because of this, the Ten Commandments are read in synagogue. Many communities also read from the Book of Ruth because Shavuot is supposedly the day of King David’s death, and he was a descendant of Ruth.

The story of Ruth is an interesting one: she is a Moabite woman who marries into an Israelite family, only to have her husband, his brother, and his father die and leave the women to support themselves. Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, decides to return to Israel, her homeland, and urges her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Oprah, to go out and find new husbands. Oprah, Ruth’s sister-in-law, heeds Naomi’s request and leaves, but Ruth responds with the following:

“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you” (1:16–17).

She promises to stay with Naomi, her mother-in-law, until death—to take on her faith and to embrace her people. This passage is seen as one of the first conversions to Judaism; the formal conversions that exist today in Judaism involving mikveh did not come into existence until a later period.

Personally, I find the passage to be a beautiful expression of love and a complete willingness to take on Judaism. And the fact that her conversion is simply an oath raises the issue of the problems that Judaism is having today about drawing the line between Jew and non-Jew, converts that count and converts that don’t. In an article called “Welcoming Converts to the Jewish People,” Dr. Marc Engel, rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, a prominent Orthodox synagogue in New York, discusses how the Orthodox movement is becoming increasingly stringent with its conversion process to the point of insensitivity in some cases (like Israel’s Chief Rabbi refusing to accept conversions from the Diaspora). He writes about how only a portion of the people who want to convert are eventually allowed to convert, and how that is detrimental to Orthodox Judaism because it only accepts converts that come from Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Engel ends with an emphasis on the idea that, although historically Jews have been cautious to accept converts because, unlike many other religions, Judaism is based on the idea that the righteous of all religions will have a place in the world to come, conversion is a phenomenon that cannot and should not be ignored. He says that for the honor of Halacha (Jewish law), the Jewish community must embrace those non-Jews who make the decision to enter the Jewish community, rather than push them away: let those who wish to become Jews become Jews and enter our community. And Rabbi Richard Hirsch, Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, a Rabbi from all the way across the Jewish spectrum, agrees. He says that acceptance and outreach to converts is incredibly meaningful and important, and emphasizes that “one who converts joins the Jewish people, taking on the culture, history, traditions, and rituals of Judaism as well as the faith of Jewish religion. The operative verb here is ‘belonging.'” Just as Ruth’s pledge of faith allowed her to be accepted into the Jewish community (she went on to marry a Jew and supposedly create the line that led to King David), so should others’ pledges of faith lead to a welcoming and sense of belonging.

It’s interesting to me that the text does not explain why Ruth converted; was it for the sake of her mother, for herself, or for some other reason? Maybe the fact that no reason is given has significance in itself: it does not matter why someone wants to convert to Judaism, only that they, like Ruth, are willing to take Judaism as a religion and a community upon themselves and embrace it.

Happy Shavuot/Chag Sameach!


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Ruth McBride Jordan physically died on January 9th although her identity has gone through several deaths. First came the death of Ruchel Zylska, the Orthodox Jewish two year old born in an Eastern European shtetl. Then came the death of Rachel Zylska, the little girl who immigrated to America only to be abused by her father, a rabbi and storekeeper. Then died Rachel Shilsky and eventually Ruth. Antisemitism murdered those names – the unkindness of those who “would not dance next to a Jew.”

Upon moving to New York, Ruth Shilsky became Ruth McBride when she met the African American minister Andrew McBride and converted to Christianity. She raised twelve biracial children in the ’50’s and ’60’s – a time when civil rights seemed unattainable and passersby would shout racist slurs at her young children.

Her son James McBride recognized how special his mother was and wrote The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. After the book was published, he wrote of his mother, “She had absolutely no interest in a world that seemed incredibly agitated by our presence.”

In a 1996 Times review, H. Jack Grieger wrote, “The triumph of the book – and of their lives – is that race and religion are transcended in these interwoven histories by family love, the sheer force of a mother’s will and her unshakable insistence that only two things really mattered: school and church.”

Who knows why Ruth McBride Jordan converted from Judaism to Christianity? Who knows if she identified as a feminist? All we know is that her actions speak more than words. We know that her actions must be remembered as courageous, anti-racist, and revolutionary.

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The other day I was watching Sex and the City and started thinking about Charlotte’s conversion to Judaism, and decided that it was time to introduce Sex and the City to from the rib? (After all, what kind of Feminist blog doesn’t have Sex and the City?)

Charlotte meets Harry, a nice Jewish boy, who bluntly informs her that he’s only willing to marry a Jew. And so, as she begins to fall in love with him, she decides that she, like Elizabeth Taylor, will convert to Judaism, and does (supposedly, with a somewhat great level of accuracy). But after her conversion when he doesn’t immediately propose, she gets upset, and tries to use her conversion as leverage.

Do you have any idea how hard I worked to prepare this meal for you? I went to Zabar’s everyday this week. I had to make 30 Matzo Balls just to get four that were the right size and shape, not to mention the months of studying and cramming like a maniac to convert to Judaism. And what have you done for me? Set the date! …You said you couldn’t marry me unless I was Jewish and now I’m Jewish. Set the date!

I have been raised, like Harry, to be wary of marrying outside of Judaism. All of my liberal-mindedness makes me unhappy to say that, but it’s something that I can’t fight, and so I understand what made Harry want Charlotte to convert. However, hearing Charlotte try to use her conversion to hook Harry into marriage makes me uncomfortable. Her Judaism does not seem to me to be her own, but rather a string that was attached to her relationship with Harry. And who does that benefit? Isn’t the point of conversion to form your own, personal relationship with God? If Charlotte’s only goal behind conversion was to win over Harry, then has she herself really taken on Judaism?

And as a Feminist, part of me thinks: isn’t religion something so personal that it should be something you choose for yourself, not something that a man asks you to do?

My problem is that I don’t know the answers to these questions; if I were Charlotte, I don’t know what I would have done. And if I were Harry, I don’t know what I would have done, either. I can honestly say that I’m not sure if love is a good reason to convert for someone or ask someone to convert, but that I’m also not sure what makes a “good” reason to ask someone to convert. Is there any?

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