As my dear husband reminded me yesterday, today is the tenth anniversary of my conversion to Judaism (a la Orthodoxy). The following is a piece I’ve been working on for a few weeks, and today seemed an auspicious day to post it.
A few months ago, a fellow blogger on the JewsByChoice.org website for which I used to write posted a very thoughtful piece about why she identifies as a Reform Jew. Upon reading what she wrote, I was inspired to examine why I have chosen to pitch my tent in the Orthodox camp.
Despite growing up in a minimally identified Jewish home (apathetic Jewish father, non-Jewish mother), I wanted to be an Orthodox Jew when I was nine years old. I craved a clearer identity as a Jew, an understanding of the reasons for the rituals and holidays, and what the Torah says about Jewish living. I knew I wasn’t part of the Christian world, but felt totally alien whenever I was around Jews. I was spiritually homeless. The sweetest, gentlest, most devoutly Jewish of my relatives, my Great-aunt Ida, was Orthodox, and I wanted to be like her when I grew up. On some level, being Orthodox for me is the realization of a childhood dream.
As I grew older, I came up against increasing resistance to my being able to call myself Jewish. Two girls at my high school in the early 1980s told me that I wasn’t really Jewish since I didn’t have a Jewish mother. I soon discovered that no Jews anywhere would accept me as Jewish, and that what I’d been told about being Jewish all my life was untrue. This felt horribly unfair, since half of my relatives were Jewish, I was no less religious than most of my peers who had the yichus (pedigree) to call themselves Jewish, and I’d lost dozens of relatives in the Shoah, just as even the most frum Jews had. I seethed. One thing Orthodoxy came to mean to me was (near-) universal acceptance in the Jewish world. Yes, there may be people out there who are frummer than the halachah and as such don’t believe in the possibility of converting to Judaism, but since halachah is what I go by, I consider myself a fully kosher Red Sea pedestrian.
As I began to study in earnest for my conversion, I came to admire both the system of Jewish law and the dynamic, intelligent, open-minded people I met who were my teachers. My primary teacher was Rahel Berkovits, a granddaughter of Rav Eliezer Berkovits z"l. As with any of my teachers, I could ask her questions, challenge Judaism’s assumptions, or raise an eyebrow and say, "You’ve got to be kidding," and she would never take offense or fail to answer my question. For her, a commitment to tradition existed side by side with an ability to step outside her world and view it from other points of view. If people like Rahel and my other teachers could hold the Torah up confidently to the glaring light of my scrutiny and criticism and still believe in its value and ability to teach, then perhaps I too could come to see it as they did. For them, Torah and science (Torah u’madda) can safely co-exist. While observance of Torah laws has changed through the ages, the Torah retains its divinity and value as a basis for living.
Up to now, I don’t think any of my reasons for choosing Orthodoxy differ significantly from anyone’s who chooses Reform or Conservative (except perhaps the divinity of the Torah). However, there are a few things I like about Orthodoxy that are generally less uniform in the non-Orthodox world. One is the centrality of community. In a typical Orthodox community, the members keep a minimal level of kashrut and Shabbat, enough to allow members to eat in one another’s homes without asking questions and to bring each other food in chesed situations (e.g. shiva, birth of a baby). Because of the prohibition on driving, community members tend to live closer to one another, making it easier to socialize on Shabbat and holidays (especially where there is an eruv), to see one another during the week, and for children (who may go the same Jewish day school) to play and study together. Communities exist along a spectrum with variation in the role of women, of sanctuary design, nusach (style of prayer), and dress code. In a city with a reasonably-sized Jewish population, it is usually possible to find a community that complements one’s personal choices and style of Jewish living. (Critics of Orthodoxy sometimes call it insular, exclusive, or clannish, but the positive side is the closeness, support, and sense of belonging to a group with a common purpose, where everyone contributes and brings something unique to the enterprise.) The closeness of the community has been essential for my family, since our extended family do not share our dietary laws or observance of holidays. Community members (especially other converts and ba’alei teshuvah) have become an extended family to us, adopting us when we were single, lending a carnival atmosphere to our wedding, helping us through illness, hospitalization, and the birth of children, and even our aliyah and recent moving experience.
Another special feature is the slowness of change. As a college student (and part time radical feminist), I would have fainted had I heard myself say this. But age has given me a little more patience than I had then, and I have a level of appreciation for Orthodoxy’s generally bottom-up style, where individual rabbis poskin (give halachic guidance) for their own communities’ standards and based on the unique needs and situation of the individual congregant, and where change, while often painfully slow, is rarely looked back on as rash or temporal. In the Modern Orthodox world, where I’ve made my home, change seems to happen at a reasonable pace, where advances in science are embraced, women’s learning and prayer have taken on great importance, and halachah is consulted for its guidance in meeting special or unusual needs of individuals in Jewish life. My rabbi’s acquaintance with me, knowledge of my background, and familiarity with my temperament (!) always ensured that when I asked him for psak, he would balance the framework of halachah with his understanding of my own needs.
Having said all that, I do have my beefs with Orthodoxy. Relative prosperity of Jews in the West has encouraged many rabbis to become stricter in their psak than in previous generations. Jewish communities have sometimes taken on humrot (stringencies) for reasons which today seem temporal, frivolous, irrelevant, or unfathomable, which have assumed the stature of halachah over time. Some rabbis through the ages have felt authoritative enough to add to the tradition (e.g. the siddur) without ever taking anything out (resulting in some VERY long services). And there are some in the Orthodox world who would like traditional Jews to respond to modernity (and the accompanying laxity in modesty and religiosity) by rejecting that modernity and becoming more stringent, isolated, self-restraining and, as I see it, fearful.
I’ve elected to cope with my criticisms and frustrations in several ways. I choose my community and my friends within it carefully, making sure that eccentricity and non-conformity in non-essentials are welcome. I do as many of the mitzvot as I can, and about those I cannot do (because I’m not ready or because I have studied them thoroughly and still find them impossible to perform) I say, "Not yet." And I continue to study, to ask questions, to attend lectures and read articles, and have discussions with friends about issues that trouble me in an effort to work through them.
A few weeks ago, following his Shabbat morning talk, a neighbor of mine made the observation that to embrace the observance of mitzvot and halachah is a powerful act of free will. I thought about this, since I and my husband had more than once been accused by our secular or non-Jewish families of having become like sheep, mindlessly handing control over our lives to a deity or system of which we have no real knowledge or control. And yet for us, a convert and a ba’al teshuvah, it was quite the opposite. We came upon this choice as people unfettered by obligation, examined it thoroughly, studied it from different points of view, and with full knowledge of what we were doing, made the choice for ourselves. In doing so, we embraced a spiritual home represented by a life of study and prayer, acts of goodness, and elevating the mundane to holiness.