From SZ to KM

Hi,

I apologize for being so slow getting back to you. The kids have gotten off to school now, and it is quiet enough to think.

Your comments on why you were converting were helpful. It seemed to me that you summed it up when you said: "I want to be a part of a community that shares my beliefs/commitments/values."

I'd like to hear from you a little more what you see as your beliefs/commitments and values, especially since you didn't seem to find them in a Christian environment (neither did I).

Looking at those issues might help you make a better decision on the path you want to take.

Let me take on the Reform vs Orthodox subject just a bit.

When the Reform movement started, about 150 years ago, it was, in large part, a response to antisemitism. There was the theory that by becoming like everyone else, Jews would not be "different" and thus not be subject to bigotry.

Needless to say, it didn't work. Reform continued, nonetheless, adopting more and more of the trappings that were the norm in Christian communities, and rejecting more and more of what had always been uniquely Jewish.

You can easily see the Christian influence in the presence of the organ, the rabbi's attire (frequently a robe), choirs, the placement of the bimah, and the way the service is conducted with a sort of "directed" worship.

It would become most obvious after spending a few Shabbats with an Orthodox congregation for contrast.

Orthodox services can be very mystifying to newcomers, though--particularly (prospective) converts, whose understanding of worship has been created by their experiences in the church.

If you've never been to an Orthodox synagogue, then do make an effort to attend sometime. Since you aren't Jewish, there shouldn't be a big problem driving to a shul if necessary.

For the sake of appearance, though, park a bit away and walk.

(There is a concept in Judaism, "maaris ayin", which basically means that you shouldn't do things that would lead people to think that you were doing something wrong. )

Before you go, ask if the rabbi or someone else in the congregation would sit down with you and explain the various parts of the service beforehand, and for a woman and a man to help you and your husband (you'll sit separately) follow the flow of the service.

Try to get hold of an Artscroll siddur if they have them--it has English and Hebrew and lots of explanations.

I'd suggest leaving the kids behind on the initial experience--they'd likely be bored.

The reason I'm suggesting this isn't so you'll leave saying "Wow, that was an incredibly spiritual experience, I think I become Orthodox!" (Though that would be nice. :-) )

It's to give you some contrast between what Judaism has been for a couple of millenia, and what it has become under Reform.

I'd be really interested in hearing whether, after seeing for yourself, if you think Reform is more like Church, or more like and Orthodox service.

In reality Reform congregations are not a really homogenous entity, so your answer might not be as definitive as what I found.

You asked about my own experiences, what took me on the journey from rejection of Orthodoxy to embracing it. It's a hard question, but I'll do my best. You need to understand that this is my experience, with the Reform congregation that we belonged to.

Where to start?

I think that for us, we were members of a synagogue for a few main reasons:

We felt that, as Jews, we had an obligation to help the local community stay in existence. We needed a place to pray/be with the community on (some/most) Friday nights and on Holidays (we never went on Shabbos Morning/Day).

We wanted a place that we could "center" the Jewish education and socialization of our kids. Things that sound not unlike your reasons for conversion.

Why not Orthodox? First there was proximity. We did not live in a community with an Orthodox presence. Second, I think my "definition" of what was Jewish was formed in the Conservative and Reform social structure, as well as the stronger influences of the non-Jewish world. Third, I was not well informed, and had a lot of mis-perceptions as to the reasons behind things I saw in my occasional glimpses of Orthodoxy.

So, when I saw a mechitza dividing men and women, I thought: "I want to sit with my husband. It's not fair that women have second class seating and the men have all the "good parts" of the service."

When I saw men davenning, not in perfect unison, not in a perfectly orchestrated manner, I thought "It's chaos. It's all meaningless gibberish."

When the Torah was read in the traditional chant in Hebrew, I thought: "What good is it to do that? Tell it in English like a great story that everyone can understand."

The turning point came in stages: It's ironic that the Reform rabbi is the one who probably was responsible for me beginning the quest. He gave a very nice sermon during Rosh Hoshanah (maybe Yom Kippur) suggesting that each of us re-examine our spiritual health, including meeting with him for a sort of "spritual checkup".

I took him up on the offer--deep inside I was looking for more: more awareness of G-d in my life, maybe.

When I met with him, we discussed several things. I asked him a few key questions in the course of the conversation, one was: "What is the difference between being a good Jew and being a good person?" He answered that they were "pretty much the same but a good Jew, might do more mitzvahs, but of course the way Reform understands it that might not be so clear." I was really uncomfortable with this and asked: "Rabbi, if I only do 10% of the mitzvot, and my children only do 10% of what I do, what will be left?" No good answer followed.

I guess my discomfort showed, because he asked "What do you want--to join Young Israel [an orthodox movement]? " I told him "No, I don't think I could handle their views on women."

I went back home and thought about what I had said, and realized that I didn't really know what Orthodox views on women were. I had only drawn conclusions from what I had seen. I guess I felt a little guilty, so I posted a question on the net--soc.culture.jewish, actually-- and asked, in not terribly tactful terms, about Orthodox views of women. I got answers: Sincere, direct, honest and informed answers, not only from men defending their positions, but from Orthodox women, none of whom seemed in the least miserable in their lot. From them, I began to realize how little I knew and how many "assumptions" I had made without basis. With their encouragement and suggestions, I began to study a little more. I had promised myself to keep an open mind.

In the process of learning about Orthodox views of women, I learned more about Orthodox Judaism, the reasons behind the things I saw. They were no longer "monsters in the dark" but beautiful expressions of devotion to G-d and Torah. At some point somebody "switched on the light". I knew that, to be honest with myself, I had to totally re-evaluate my own relationship and commitment to Torah and Judaism. I found myself more and more wanting to express my love of G-d in truly Jewish ways, of wanting to find genuine continuity with the Jews of generations back to Moses. I found myself wanting to learn Halachah and not be so eager to reject it because it didn't "fit" my lifestyle.

In the process of learning I also found that, because I had not had an Orthodox conversion, the very community that I was suddenly wanting to be so much a part of, would not consider me Jewish. Further, if as soon as I took that next step--accepting Halachah as true and binding--a step that I knew I wanted to take, I would no longer even be permitted to see myself --or my children-- as Jewish. I would be going back to "square one" -- even further, in some ways. It was emotionally devastating, but I had no choice. My understanding of Truth had already radically changed. I went to an Orthodox rabbi, explained the whole story, and began the difficult journey home.

What I actually learned will take more messages than this. You might want to read a couple of books: "Ordained to be Jewish" and "Becoming a Jew" for a perspective on others who have converted (the first book is about a priest who converted). "Jewish Women and Jewish Law" by Meiselman [sp?] is an in-depth look at the view of women in Orthodoxy --a "heavy" book, but one which taught me a lot.

The most important things I came to accept: Torah is the basis of all true Judaism.

Oral Torah is the authoritative and best source we have for our understanding of Written Torah, and, every Jew is obligated to observe all the commandments in the Torah which are applicable to him/her -- including observing Shabbat, keeping kosher (in and out), family purity, properly observing holidays and on and on.

These are not optional.

They are not dependent on whether gentiles do them or even if other Jews do them. They define our response to G-d. We are commanded to love and serve G-d, the mitzvot define how we do that. Doing what G-d wants is far more important than having a nice warm fuzzy feeling (though I get that a lot from doing mitzvot, too.) And finally, I had to admit that the generations of Orthodox scholars and Rabbis took the study of Torah a lot more seriously than I ever had, so it would be ridiculously presumptuous of me to say that I didn't agree with them simply because it didn't "seem right" to me.

Judaism is not "feeling". Judaism is a commitment to the rules that have been set down before us in Torah. Any other expression of Judaism is hollow and without a sound foundation.

BTW women hold a pretty exalted position in Jewish thought, on the whole.

While while women are considered more innately sensitive to the spiritual dimensions of life, men are understood to be more physical in by nature. Torah demands that this physicality be channelled into sacred pursuits--hence the greater requirement of men in physical mitzvot, like lulavs and esrogs and marching around with Torah and the like. Men are also seen as needing to be in a "group". Judaism demands, therefore that this "pack mentality" be channeled for a holy purpose, hence the minyan.

Women are not seen in the same light, they have no need for a minyan.

This is a compliment, not a put-down. There is also a definite understanding that men and women are equals, but not the same.

We each have our own functions, just as the heart and lungs are not the same, but equally important to the body.

Women are never seen as "sex-symbols" like in the rest of society, but more like valuable pearls, to be highly regarded.

You mentioned that "I am not sure that I agree that everything that Orthodox Judaism says is true. I believe some of the liberal interpretations have been very important and are true. "

What do you base your concept of truth on? How do you decide what is true? Do you just rely on a "feeling", on what makes life comfortable, or what you are used to? Or do you have some other criteria that you consider important? I'd be curious how you make decisions as to what you feel is "true" in Judaism. I'd venture most folks don't go much beyond the "personal opinion" stage. Do you?

To answer your question: No, I no longer believe that liberal interpretations of Judaism are true. I think that they were formed from an attempt to mold Jewish values to fit Western morality at the expense of losing sight of the most fundamental Jewish values which have sustained our people for millenia.

On the subject of children:

Names:

When a conversion is done the child is given a Hebrew name. Very often in the Orthodox community, the person uses this name intracommunally, while keeping their English name for extra-communal contacts. There's no particular need to change it officially. I don't think concern over one's existing English name should be a big deal.

Circumcision/Conversions

If, in the end, you elect to have an Orthodox conversion for your son, the bris will not be optional. If you decide to convert Reform, it might be. You need to know, though, that Reform conversions will seldom be accepted outside of the Reform community, and definitely rejected if their was no bris.

You said:

"My personal belief is that G-d knows who and what we are....and loves and accepts us. I believe that would be true whether we converted Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. This is probably a major point on which we differ."

I don't differ at all in believing in G-d's acceptance and love of us, and His knowledge of who we are.

I do believe that a person only becomes Jewish through a conversion done according to Halacha, and that G-d doesn't give us rules and then ignore them. (Perhaps there we differ?)

You also said:

"I do find it important that the Jewish community consider us Jewish."

If it is important for you -- and your children -- to be accepted as Jews by the whole of the Jewish community, you need to look at these issues carefully. Orthodox conversions are the only ones which are recognized universally.

I don't know what else to say right now. I'd like to hear some more from you. What I guess I want most for you and your family is to make a choice from the basis of knowlege and learning, including being open to what Orthodox Judaism says. Please do get in touch with an Orthodox rabbi, just to feel more confident that you are making the right decisions as you go along, because you'll have access to a more complete perspective.

You might also consider attending a "Discovery" seminar if one is available. These are incredibly interesting, eye opening, low-pressure seminars that are presented by Aish HaTorah. I don't know where you live, but you can call them at (212)643-8800 and ask if they know of any coming up around you.

Please keep in touch. I hope I've answered a few of your questions. If not, try again, and I'll give it another go.

SZ

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