Friday, January 6, 2012

Why Should You Convert in the Reform Stream?

Dear Tanta Golda-
I’ve become friends with two gentlemen who wish to convert, but I’ve been wrestling with the process they must go through. If only ultra-orthodox conversions are accepted in Israel and even in some of our own Jewish communities, why should a person convert in Reform Judaism? Why do we insist that they be more versed in Judaism than many who are born Jewish?
Struggling with Old Fashioned Conformity
My darling Struggler,
I’m glad that you have welcomed these proselytes, newcomers to our faith. A mitzvah on your head!
You have challenged Tanta Golda’s assumptions, so I’ve spent some time reviewing an excellent book on contemporary Reform practice – Jewish Living, by Mark Washofsky, for guidance on this question from your heart.
Even among the Reform, one does not become a Jew merely by declaring, “I am a Jew” or “I accept the Jewish religion.” One must either be born or become a Jew through a process recognized and administered by the community. It might help you to think of an analogy to citizenship.  Just because someone “feels” American and participates in many American traditions, even if they have a green card, they are still barred from participating in all the rights and obligations (such as voting) that someone “natural born,” or one who has completed the formal process of naturalization, is entitled to. Converstion is our form of naturalization. 
We ask the proselyte to undergo a formal process whose rituals evoke the experience of the Israelites at Sinai when we as a community accepted the Torah and all its laws. In a sense we all became converts at Sinai.
The Torah recognized that the ger-the stranger amongst us often does take part in some aspects of Judaism, and when they do “the same law applies to them as the Israelite.” However, the Torah also demands that we guarentee them justice. This very requirement testifies to their inequality in Jewish society - even Reform Jewish society.
Long ago there was a term - Ger Toshav - which refered to a gentile who had adopted a number of Jewish practices without converting. Jewish law no longer recognizes this semi-proselyte as a status. There have been some proposals in Reform circles to bring it back, to recognize the reality that exists within our congregations today, where non-Jewish relatives are not ‘outsiders’ but play an active role in our communities. I’m sure you can think of a number of examples within the TBI community.
However, Reform reponsa (written decisions and rulings given by scholars of Jewish law) do not accept this. Citing two reasons: 1) the term no longer has meaning as it applies to any monotheist -this was a bigger deal in ancient times when the term was first coined  2) this term for the ‘virtual Jew’ implies that they have the rights and obligations to participate equally, but except perhaps in the rare Reform syangogue, they don’t. These full rights come from full membership - just like your right to vote and serve on a jury come from full membership as a US citizen.
Continueing with the citizen analogy - are there ‘natural born’ US citizens who are all but ignorant of US history, the workings of government, or even how to read, write, and speak English well? Of course, just as there are ‘natural born’ Jews ignorant of Jewish history, rituals, and language. Yet in both cases these people are granted full rights and previlages just by virtue of birth. Should it be otherwise?  Well, this question is outside of Tanta Golda’s scope of advice! You have raised excellent questions and I hope I’ve given you guidance in your struggle. TG

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