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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Monday, April 30, 2012

An Open Letter to Lauren

So this morning, I got a note from Twitter saying that a woman named Lauren is now following me. I do next to nothing with Twitter, but I took a look and found a link to her blog, where I read an article entitled "Intermarriage: An open letter to Orthodox and Conservative rabbis".

I started writing a comment there, but it got really, really long, so I decided to replace it with a blog post here. Just as a caveat, particularly for Lauren, let me say that I'm not trying to hurt her feelings or be mean. But I know that some of the things I'm going to say are likely to rub her the wrong way. I wish there were some way to say this without that happening.

Lauren is 21. She seems like a cool person. She hates J4J, and that's a pretty solid plus in my book. But she's been beaten back and forth with people and their agendas, and I don't know if anyone has really taken the time to explain why things are the way they are.

Lauren, you say that you feel terrible when someone says "You are Jewish if your mother is Jewish." I'll be honest. I don't understand that at all. What they're saying is, "Your mother isn't Jewish, so neither are you." Of course no one is going to say that you should convert because it's your responsibility as part of the Jewish people. Because you aren't part of the Jewish people.

You say "To be told by someone that you’re Jewish one day and to be told you’re not the next, well it’s pretty disconcerting, if you can imagine." And I feel bad about that, but those who told you you are lied. Believe me, if I could stop them from lying to people like you, I'd do it.

You say "In the halachic world of categories and laws, I have no category." But that isn't true. Your category is non-Jew. Hopefully, it's God worshipping moral non-Jew, but that's on you.

You don't have to wonder if the words of the Torah were meant for you or not. They weren't. But why is that such a bad thing? A lot of the words of the Torah weren't meant for me, either, because I'm not male. Or because I'm not a Kohen. Judaism is all about such distinctions. It's the most basic concept we have. Havdalah. We distinguish between holy and profane. Between light and dark. Between Jews and non-Jews. Between weekdays and Shabbat. Between kosher and non-kosher. Between Kohen, Levi, Yisrael, etc. Between male and female. We don't blur distinctions, and I don't think anyone with any sort of connection to Judaism has ever given you mixed messages about whether you're Jewish or not.

Why is telling you that you're 100% gentile and that we don't care if you convert or not "hurtful"? I really don't get it. Maybe try looking at it from our perspective. It is, after all, the perspective you've been trying to join since you were 19. Do you really think that we should go against everything we are because what we are hurts your feelings? Because that's what you're essentially asking of us.

You ask "What do you suggest I do? What would be ideal?" That's easy. The same thing every non-Jew should do. Keep the Noachide laws, live a good and productive life, accept that the Torah was given to the Jews by God and that it contains the rules for how both Jews and non-Jews are to live. There are a lot of Noachide organizations around. Yes, a lot of them are ex-Christians, but not all of them.

You say "I love Judaism, I’ve never had another religion, I don’t want it to die in my family." But Lauren, it already has. You converting won't change that. A convert is not halakhically related to their birth family. If you convert, you are starting a new family line. It won't redeem your father's intermarriage. That ended that branch of the Jewish people. Am I happy about that? Am I telling you that "gleefully"? No. It makes me want to cry. But it is what it is.

And that's the thing, Lauren. If you aren't willing to accept Judaism *as it is*, why do you think you *should* be able to convert? The Jewish position about converts is complicated. Some of our best and brightest have been converts, or the descendents of converts. Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Meir. But... well, you know what would be good? Go take a look at Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva chapter 3. Any time a Jew violates a mitzvah, they harm themselves spiritually. They harm the entire Jewish people. And they harm the very fabric of existence. It's a huge responsibility. And to allow someone to convert who isn't 100% committed to avoiding that sort of harm would be self-destructive in the extreme. See, I mess up sometimes. And when I do it, that's a bad thing. If I wasn't Jewish, that same act would be utterly harmless. You... if you eat bacon now (just as an example), no harm, no foul (except to the pig and maybe your arteries). But do the same exact thing the day after converting, and you damage the fabric of existence. That's the responsibility that lies on *our* shoulders when it comes to conversion.

There is a view that converts should only be accepted when things are bad for the Jews. Because only then can we really know that the person is sincere. Because why would someone ask for that sort of trouble. Someone wanting to convert in 1938 Germany was either really, really, really committed, or really, really, really insane. Someone wanting to convert in 2012 America may be wanting to convert for reasons that aren't so great. Like family pride. A desire to be included. Can you see why that's problematic for us?

Now... despite that view, we do accept converts. But why have you been having such a hard time converting? I haven't read through your entire blog, so I don't know the answer to that question, but the fact that you're coming to us with complaints isn't a huge recommendation, if you know what I mean. Telling us we need to open our eyes. Using the word "revolution" (even metaphorically). That said, you're 21. And everyone who has ever been 21 should remember what that's like. So maybe your impatience is a little understandable. But honestly... try and look at this from our point of view. See whether you really think the responses you've gotten are that inexplicable.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Talking to those who won't listen

A number of years ago, I went to a talk in Jerusalem. The speaker was introduced by Menachem Gottleib, who was in the habit of opening with a Dvar Torah. There's one I'd like to give over here.

Why, when the messengers told Lot that God was going to nuke the Greater Sodom Metropolitan Area, did he immediately believe them?

I mean... Lot wasn't exactly a frum guy. Given his options, he chose to live in Sodom. He seems not to have learned a lot from Avraham Avinu, and what he did learn, he got messed up. He offered hospitality to the messengers (good), but offered his daughters up to the mob in order to protect them (bad).

And yet, consider the difference between Lot and his sons-in-law. When he tells them that the end is nigh, they laugh in his face. What's going on? After all, Lot and his sons-in-law aren't really all that different.

The difference is that Lot heard Avraham Avinu. He may not have paid a lot of attention to what Avraham Avinu said. He may have rejected it. But he heard it. And as a result, when the time came, that seed, left there inside of him, was able to sprout enough for him to hear what God's messengers were saying.

A lot of the time, it feels like telling the truth in an environment where people just aren't listening is a waste of time. Sometimes there's a great temptation to sacrifice the truth of your position in order to get people to meet you half way. But this only teaches them that even you don't really stand by the truth you claim to believe in. It's ultimately counter-productive, even if it feels like it's resulting in positive results in the short term. One Modern Orthodox rabbi has argued in favor of that approach with the question: "Are you trying to win arguments or people?" But that's more than just a false dichotomy. In the end, fudging the truth in order to win people doesn't work. They don't stay. And in my almost never humble opinion, doing that is a form of flattery, which the Torah forbids.