Thursday, February 03, 2011

Three Questions for the Ger and the Baal Teshuva

Beyond Teshuva has an interesting set of questions up on a post today announcing an upcoming get together for Baalei Teshuva. They are presented as topics for discussion for that meeting. Three of those questions are of particular interest to me. I would expand these questions to include Gerim – converts.

Question number one: What inspired you to become Frum (Jewish)?

I have always seen the motives for both Gerim and Baalei Teshuva in the loftiest of terms. In both cases I see it as a search for truth and finding it in Judaism. But I realize that it is a lot more complex than that. I do think that in every case Emes has to be at the core. One cannot choose a lifestyle if they do not see any truth in it. I find it hard to believe that someone would so radically change his life just to live a life of lies – no matter what the material or emotional benefit. But I do believe that emotion often plays a big part in the decision of both the Ger and the Baal Teshuva.

There are other reasons to become Frum or convert. Some are better than others. Some legitimate; and some not. If the motivation is insincere and is done only to please another, we look at the potential Ger and Baal Teshuva differently.

For the Baal Teshuva it doesn’t matter what the motive is. Even if they are not sincere we encourage observance applying the principle of ‘Mitoch SheLo L’Shma, Bah L’Shma’. A Jew is obligated to Torah and Mitzvos no matter how he feels about it. So if they start observing them insincerely, we hope they will one day come to do them sincerely.

But a potential Ger who is motivated only for social reasons with no real intention to observe the Mitzvos - we tend to discourage them. Such conversions are considered a Sham.

Question number two: How have your family and friends accepted you becoming observant (Jewish)? I would also ask this question somewhat in reverse. How do you deal with your family and friends?

I imagine the answer given by each group is quite different. To a Baal Teshuva it could range anywhere from complete rejection to complete acceptance - going both ways. In some cases the parents become religious themselves. But when that does not happen the relationship should be – and often is often maintained to the best of one’s ability. That does not mean there aren't obstacles. Like what to eat when visiting an irreligious parent - and many other problems that could arise. How does a Baal Teshuva deal with all that?

But in cases of conversions there are other problems. I have to wonder how a convert deals with accepting and loving Christian parents – especially if they are religious Christians? And how do the parents deal with their converted child?

A conversion to Judaism means that the Halachic parental connection between them is severed. They are not Halachicly considered parents. But on an emotional level if the relationship was good in the past - no child will ever see a parent in any other way. It is almost impossible to break an emotional bond like the parent-child relationship. How does a convert deal with the conflict between Halacha and emotion?

What happens during holiday times like Christmas? I can’t imagine the difficulty a sincere convert to Judaism must have in dealing with parents and other family members during that time of year.

And what about children? How do they react to gentile grandparents? Is there any interaction? If they are fine and decent people which is probably most often the case I can’t imagine there isn’t. How is that handled?

Question number three is the Shidduch question. How does a Baal Teshuva or a Ger find a marriage partner?

I believe this is a huge problem for both the Ger and the Baal Teshuva. With the Shidduch crisis currently in full bloom even among those who were raised ‘Frum From Birth’ (FFB). The dating scene is hard enough without an unobservant or non Jewish history.

It is true that the two most important things to look for in a marriage partner is personal character and physical attraction. But background does not play an unimportant role. Unfortunately there is a bias among FFBs against dating the Baal Teshuva and even more so the Ger.

In fairness, background does matter. It gives one perspective on both life and religion. An FFB rarely has the lofty status of sincerity about his beliefs that a Baal Teshuva or a Ger does. But rarely do FFBs even look at that. Aside from the two important factors of attraction and character FFBs place a high value on background. They see Baalei Teshuva and Gerim as lacking the knowledge and sophistication that comes with a lifetime of religious indoctrination. The shared background experience is lacking.

That is a compatibility issue and not trivial matter. For a Baal Teshuva there may be at least some form of residual Jewish tradition in their familial past. But to a Ger there is none. How does a Baal Teshuva or a Ger overcome these obstacles? How often do FFBs marry a Baal teshiva or a Ger? And how successful are these marriages compared to a couples where both husband and wife are FFB?

These are just some of the thoughts and question I have. I wonder if a Baal Teshuva or a Ger considers all or any of these things before proceeding to so radically change their lives.

Just to be clear, I am not God forbid discouraging anyone from becoming more religious or converting. Taking a step towards a more fulfilling - purpose driven spiritual life is always a plus and should be encouraged. But one should always do it with their eyes wide open and - to the extent possible - know what to expect. If they don’t, they may very well regret the whole thing.