My converts to Judaism should feel Jewish – opinion
By ELIE KAPLAN SPITZ
MAY 6, 2021
Rabbi David Eliezrie is my friend and yet, as a Conservative Rabbi, I see God and Judaism quite differently. I would want those whom I convert to know that in choosing Judaism they are joining the Jewish people, which includes a variety of authentically different perspectives on God and Jewish law. I agree with Rabbi Eliezrie, a leading voice of Chabad, that we must speak across a “theological divide with dignity and respect.”
Rabbi Eliezrie wrote a recent Jerusalem Post essay challenging non-Orthodox conversion. He writes, “I don’t believe in pluralism…. We simply believe in God and in His Torah as it’s been taught since the dawn of history…. Prior to the 19th century, development of the liberal Jewish movements’ disagreement about religious belief were centered on custom…. All [traditionally] subscribed to the foundational premises of the divinity of the Torah, the Exodus, and the centrality of the Jewish homeland.”
I do agree that prior to the 19th century most Jews spoke of Torah as a direct, Divine revelation. And yet, as a Jewish people, disagreements were about more than customs. When the Vilna Gaon in the 18th century excommunicated hassidim, he did so due to a disagreement over observance and theology. The misnagdim (“opponents”) of Lithuania objected to hassidim choosing to pray after the time-frame prescribed in the Mishnah and were outraged by the mystical assertion that God existed in all. For misnagdim, the claim that God was found even in manure was a heretical failure to distinguish between the holy and the profane.
Judaism was never static in its self-understanding of the nature of God or God’s relationship to the Jewish people. Let me share one sensitive example: whether Jews are born with a superior soul. This idea is not found in the Torah or Talmud. Scholars identify its first appearance in 12th-century Spain when Yehudah HaLevi wrote in his Kuzari, a presentation to the King of Khazars, why Judaism was the only true religion, and that those who stood at Mount Sinai were heirs to a supernatural-quality of elevated soul. This idea entered a wider audience starting in the 13th century with the dissemination of the Zohar, a mystical commentary to the Torah. For in the Zohar, Jews are repeatedly described as possessing a Divine soul and non-Jews as decidedly a lesser animal-soul. This idea persisted in hassidic writings, such as Tanya, the philosophical work by the founder of Chabad.
This belief does not necessarily define all Orthodox Jews, with many embracing all non-Jews as equally created in the image of God. But it does prompt a significant segment to espouse a soul-caste system, leading to a refusal to convert non-Jews or to hedge and say that those who seek to join the Jewish people are reincarnated Jewish souls. To claim the superiority of Jews by virtue of their birth is understandable for a time of severe oppression in which surrounding religions claimed the sole truth and even asserted that the Jews were less than human. And yet, for our time of greater choice and acceptance, I reject such a caste-system of souls as unreal and morally debasing.
As for Jewish change, the Bible accepts the owning of people as chattel, enabling the sale of their children. This was true throughout history until the 19th century, when machines replaced human muscle in the agricultural fields. For indeed, as economies and technology have progressed, so have opportunities and the recognition of the human dignity of the other. In the Bible, women are dependent on men for safety and sustenance. In the Talmud, a woman’s testimony is suspect and unaccepted for this very reason. Here too, change occurred in Judaism and in larger society slowly, and is still in process. Only after World War I in America, when women stepped up to do men’s work, did the women’s suffrage movement gain a popular following, leading to the grant of a women’s right to vote.
TODAY IN MY synagogue, women read from the Torah and lead prayers. Many are the first in their family to do so. I see God as celebrating with us, rather than viewing such equality as a rejection of the past. What was at the dawn of history as people experienced it defined the possible. We are fortunate to have more possibilities.
When seekers study Judaism with me, they are invited to engage the whole of our heritage without apologetics. I want them to know that although the ideas of the Torah have a history, it is still a sacred text that fuels a sacred quest to see the world through God’s eyes. When we read the Torah’s Exodus and creation stories we draw insights into justice and the challenge of seeing the world as foundationally purposeful and good. Those accounts have seeds in the past, but are neither literal history nor science. Knowing that the Torah’s very composition has a history does not detract from committing to the rhythms of Shabbat or choosing the dietary laws as an act of Jewish belonging and spiritual self-discipline.
My converts inspire native-born Jews by their adult choice to live Jewish lives. They are board members, regular attendees at services, lead our services and read Torah, and in at least one case, a doctor-mohelet who performs circumcisions as an expression of her Jewish commitment. I do inform my students upfront that Orthodox rabbis will not honor their Jewish commitment, which is comparable to Catholics not giving communion to Protestants due to a differing ritual understanding. And yet, I am aware that relationships are strained or even torn apart when families buy into the position that only Orthodox conversions are valid and don’t accept well-meaning future sons or daughters-in-law who choose not to live Orthodox lives.
Converts subjected to this invalidation on a regular basis are regularly put in the awkward and painful position of having to defend their deeply held identity. I want my converts to know that their conversion is authentic for all those Jews around the world who understand that a relationship with God and the Jewish tradition are both still unfolding, and most importantly, is the choice of Judaism that I hope feels most authentic for how they see they world.
I have pastor friends whom I admire for their skill in crafting community and even their insights into our shared biblical text. They are my friends even though they sincerely believe that as a Jew I lack the faith that will get me into heaven. It’s okay. My own faith leaves me secure.
I am okay with those Jews who do not consider a dynamic Judaism as authentic. My ongoing study of Jewish sacred texts and the world around me leave me secure in my beliefs and happy to teach. I warmly embrace Orthodox colleagues despite our sincere differences, acknowledging that we share a heartfelt desire for our people’s physical and spiritual vibrancy and that as individuals they are genuinely fine people.