Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Shavuous Message from a Convert

Guest Post

I was forwarded the following letter from a friend. It was written by a righteous convert. It speaks for itself and requires no further commentary from me. It has been edited for brevity and somewhat for style. But I believe it captures the essence of this woman’s message. And though it is still a bit longer than my usual posts it’s message is too important to ignore. - HM

Twenty-one years ago last week I was converted through a halachic Beis Din by 3 Orthodox rabbis. Their credentials and authority to do so would not be questioned. In fact, they are considered to have some of the strictest requirements for conversion.

My desire to be a Jew was preceded and nurtured by years of study. My desire to be a Jew was not based on love for any man or for money, prestige or power. It was – and is – purely out of love for G-d and the truth and wisdom of Torah. Never, ever have I felt that it was hard to be a Jew. Quite the contrary, I cannot fathom how I would live the full, productive enriched life that I lead had I not accepted upon myself to live a life of Torah and mitzvoth which I strive to do every single day.

In the last 21 years, I have been blessed with many and varied good teachers. I have sought them out, begging and bugging them for their time and knowledge to teach me halacha, Tanach, and the many other rich sources of Jewish wisdom. I have invested heavily to do so: A large library consisting of thousands of seforim that are opened and studied; a vast tape and CD library of shiurim by various rabbis and rebbetzins; and several trips to Israel for the sole purpose of immersing myself in learning.

Speaking of children, my 13 year old daughter is and has always been enrolled in Orthodox Jewish schools. So has my 10 year old son who is currently in what would be considered a “Chareidi” track of more intense Torah learning. Both children are good students, B”H. Both children present us with report cards that speak of their middos tovos and strong derech eretz.

During our 15 years of marriage, my husband and I have supported, to the best of our ability, various Torah institutions both in N. America and in Israel, with our time as well as with our money.

In a few weeks, my family and I are moving to the West Bank where we intend to raise our children, enroll them in Chardal-oriented schools, and live out our lives as Torah observant committed Jews.

And now, for absolutely no reason, no crime committed, a group of rabbis who have never met me or my children wish to throw a dark cloud of suspicion and doubt over the legitimacy of our Jewish souls.

Why? How?

The Beis Din who converted me 21 years ago is considered Chareidi. Its Vaad HaKashruth is recognized by all major Kashruth bodies. Its conversions have never been questioned and their converts have married into mainstream Orthodox Jewish society. This Vaad initially appeared on “The List” – the list issued by Israel’s Rabbinate of Who is Recognized to Do Conversions, or some paraphrased equivalent title.

However, for various ugly reasons which have to do with one person’s desire for revenge, the Vaad who converted me 21 years ago was now removed from The List.

A discussion and meeting with Rabbi Shlomo Amar by my rabbi resulted in assurances that “they were looking into it and, in any event, all conversions prior would be retroactively recognized”.

So, according to Rabbi Amar, I’m still a Jew and so are my kids. That is – until the next rabbi comes along and decides something else.

At what point do my children and I no longer have to even think that somebody would unilaterally and arbitrarily remove the cloak of Torah and Jewish identity out of our definition? How many years – 30, 50, 100 – never?

Does this mean that if I ever speak a drop of lashon hara, or some of my hair peeks out from under my tichel, or my elbows become uncovered, or I wear my sandalim without socks, – that I must reckon with someone’s claims that this is sufficient evidence to disclaim my Jewish soul? These are not dramatic questions.

Much is written in our literature about the convert. Yevamos 47b tells us that a convert is as injurious as “sapachas” -a scab - to the Jewish people. The reason is two-fold but for diametrically opposed reasons. On one hand, “shekal Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh” - all of Israel is responsible one for the other (Shavuous 39a). So, my sin will hurt you (but my mitzvah will help you, too).

On the other hand, Tosafos cites several sources that teach something else: Because a convert can be more exacting and meticulous in their mitzvah observance, the bar is raised in judgment for the born Jews which could result in less favorable judgment due to the increased relative standard of expectation.

So one may argue, why not nip these potential problems in the bud and refuse to accept any converts – no matter how sincere and righteous?

Well, this was tried at least once but with disastrous consequences which accompany the Jewish people to this day, even “in every generation”(Shemot 17:16).

The prospective convert was Timna. This woman understandably admired the lot of Yaakov’s house – wealth, their ability to prevail over their enemies, the shem tov of this illustrious family. And she desperately wanted to marry into Yaakov’s family. Yaakov had a good reason for rejecting Timna, princess daughter of the Chief of Edom, for Timna mistakenly attributed all of these blessings to the roll of the dice. She wanted to be part of it.

But Timna did not acknowledge or understand the Divine Hand and benevolence in all of Yaakov’s blessings. This was a serious spiritual flaw that Yaakov could not tolerate in the spiritual gene pool – and he rejected her. The relentless Timna found another way – she married Yaakov’s nephew, Eliphaz – son of Esav, Yaakov’s brother. The marriage was consummated. The child born to Timna and Eliphaz was Amalek. .

Yaakov had good reason to reject Timna – after all, believing that our blessings are just life’s random gamble is outright kefira! But Chazal do not commend Yaakov – they chastise him!

Yaakov should have at least tried. It is possible that his efforts would have been in vain. This woman may have never changed. Or Amalek would have arisen anyway. But Yaakov would not have been blamed for it. If only he had not rejected her!

Let’s direct our attention for a moment to Shemot 23:9 – “Do not oppress a ger; you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim.”

Then, look at the very next pasukim, 23:10 - 11: “Six years shall you sow your land and gather in its produce. And in the seventh, you shall leave it untended and unharvested, and the destitute of your people shall eat, and the wildlife of the field shall eat what is left; so shall you do to your vineyard and your olive grove.”

The conversion machloket is occurring in a shmittah year – the very mitzvah discussed next to the mitzvah of not oppressing the ger! Is it too bold to respectfully suggest that the great rabbinical leaders of today give us some guidance as to whether there is a connection here?

Shemot 22:20 warns against oppressing the convert. The next pasuk, 22:21 gives the same warning regarding widows and orphans. And right next to that, 22:22, gives a very, very scary admonition without mincing any words: “If you dare to cause him pain – for if he will cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his outcry. My wrath will blaze and I will kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans.” There are some opinions that this Divine wrath also extends to those who oppress gerim.

If Gerim today are needlessly oppressed causing them untold agmas nefesh, just what kind of Divine wrath can Klal Yisrael expect? The Ibn Ezra comments that the Divine wrath will not be directed just toward the individuals who commit these wrongs but against the entire community!

Recently, a very kind-hearted, learned, and well-intentioned friend casually remarked, “What’s the big deal? The worst that can happen is that you will have to convert again and your children will also have to convert.” It most certainly is a big deal. As it stands now, my son is a Levi - my daughter can marry a Cohein. A new conversion would deny my son his spiritual status as a Levi and my daughter would be prohibited from marrying a Cohein. Why should they be deprived and stripped of these characteristics?

As we enter into Shavuos this week, when we read Megillas Rus, let us remember that this extraordinary woman was the great-grandmother of Dovid Ha Melech. There was a major machloket concerning Dovid HaMelech’s Jewish ancestry and legitimacy as a kosher Jew called into question by those who did not properly understand the halacha concerning a Moabite vs. a Moabitess – Ruth’s ancestry. Had they not been challenged, the Davidic dynasty would have been lost. The sparks of Moshiach would have been extinguished.

This horrible machloket had the power to derail forever the mission of the Jewish people. Today’s machloket on Jewish legitimacy is no less grave.