Been a while. We’ve had one of those funeral runs we get at the shul off and on, and I have not had time to read the paper, play my guitar, see my family, or do just about anything else, let alone blog the last week or so. I have a few minutes so thought I would try to squeeze in the promised last piece in the ‘Strangers’ series.
The last issue to address is that of conversion. A month or so ago I posted a blog about the question of conversion to Judaism which was a response to an open letter written by a woman who converted and had studied with Barry Freundel, the disgraced rabbi from the DC area. She wrote about how demeaning the conversion process had been as opposed to warm and welcoming, how difficult and complicated as opposed to simple and straight forward. I suggested in my post that many of her problems would not have occurred had she converted in the liberal Jewish community. Even so, I wrote, we should make conversion even easier. The post was entitled ‘Great Expectations’ and was published October 24.
I was surprised when a couple of weeks ago an Orthodox rabbi named Shmuly Yanklowitz published an Op Ed in the NY Times in which he essentially suggested the same thing. Conversion should be easier, he wrote, not more difficult. Expectations should be reasonable, not impossible to meet. Standards should be relaxed, not made more stringent. Surprisingly there are other wheels in the Orthodox community moving along the same lines. But at this point they are few and far between. Much more commonly the conversion process in Orthodoxy has become so exclusive, the standards so impossibly high, that few people in their right mind would try to become Jewish.
Why? Why did the Orthodox community move in that direction, creating a structure whereby conversion would rarely take place, where candidates would often be rejected, where few would be considered ‘kosher’ enough? I think one reason is fear of the stranger, a bizarre yet strong sense that one who is ‘other’ – i.e. not born of a Jewish mother – should be prevented from entering the circle.
This is not rational thinking, and it is not good for the Jewish people. We need an influx of new ideas, new perspectives, new backgrounds. I think one of the reasons the Orthodox rabbi was able to be so original in his thought was that he himself is a convert to Judaism. His ideas are fresh and spot on. He understands that fear of the stranger is no way to run a religion. His column is ‘Judaism Must Embrace the Convert.’ It was published in the Times on November 23rd, and is well worth the read.
The truth is we need more people to think like that, and to speak out. Instead of closing Judaism down and circling the wagons we need to open it up and embrace the differences in each other, in other people, in other communities. If God wanted us all to be the same we would all look alike, think alike, and worship alike. I for one am glad we don’t.