Dr Nechama Hadari
The seminar in which we worked at the Centre has worked in the shadow of two questions that have often remained unspoken: first, can Louis Jacobs himself be called Orthodox? And second, can ‘theological debate’ itself be considered to fall within the parameters of Orthodoxy? The answer(s) may be linked: if Louis Jacobs cannot be considered Orthodox (or must be considered a heretic within Orthodoxy), this is not necessarily because of what he said or wrote, but because he engaged in theological debate at all. In other words, to conflate the questions: is it possible to be an Orthodox Jewish theologian, or is this an oxymoron? I approach these questions obliquely: I am centrally concerned neither with Louis Jacobs nor with the parameters of Orthodoxy, and I deal with what seems to be a relatively tangential corner of Jewish theology – the understanding and nature of conversion. But the premise of my research has been that a close focus on giyur (conversion to Judaism) can offer us a unique insight not only into contemporary understandings of Judaism, but into the contested status of theology within Jewish Orthodoxy.
I embarked on my research in the partial hope of identifying core tenets of Orthodox Jewish belief and/or beliefs about what Jewishness is, through exploring what is taught to candidates for conversion. My assumption was that if certain core beliefs are regarded as essential for those considered ‘Orthodox’ (such as belief in revelation of the Torah at Sinai) they would be communicated to Orthodox conversion candidates during their years of study. ‘Jewish beliefs’ such as revelation, as well as ‘beliefs about Jewishness’ such as the meaning of ‘chosenness’, do form part of the curriculum for candidates for giyur within the Rabbanut system in Israel. Such beliefs, besides others about the nature of halakhah, ‘Jewish law’, and its relation to ‘ethics’, would combine to form what I would term ‘Jewish theology’.
Strikingly, however, not one of the converts who participated in my British research – which involved interviews with people from a wide range of backgrounds who converted to Judaism through the London Beth belief at all. They related being taught details of halakhah – correct Shabbat observance or the blessings to recite over food – but not the reason(s) for doing so. Although one female convert did relate having had a theological conversation with a dayan of the London Beth Din, her conversion had been performed in Israel rather than by that Beth Din. Moreover, she had been inspired to convert after studying Judaism at university and rabbinic texts on her own initiative.(2) In other words, the theological conversation between the woman I shall call ‘A’ and Dayan ‘Y’ did not arise out of the London Beth Din process.
It appears possible to draw two conclusions from such a lack of explicit focus on theology. First, it may suggest that in Britain (if not elsewhere) the notion of Orthodoxy is, as has sometimes been suggested, a misnomer which should be rejected in favour of an understanding of normativity based on Orthopraxis. That is to say: it does not matter what you believe, so long as what you do conforms to traditional Jewish norms. Second, it may imply that the London Beth Din operates on the assumption that Orthopraxis – the ‘uncompromising commitment to a halakhic lifestyle’, as they phrased it to one prospective convert – is in itself adequate evidence of Orthodoxy. That is to say, no rational person would volunteer to regulate every aspect of their life by reference to an intricate set of minutiae unless they believed that the system was commanded by a good God who would reward its observance.
I wish to argue that neither of these offers a complete and convincing explanation of the London Beth Din’s position – although both possess elements of truth. If no normative beliefs were required for Orthodox Judaism, there would have been no ‘Jacobs affair’ or rabbinic invective against ‘problematic’ books; and prospective candidates for conversion would have no hesitation in sharing their theological doubts with dayanim. But I have yet to speak with a convert who would be sanguine about the prospects of acceptance for anyone who did so. It is clearly possible to observe halakhot meticulously enough to conform to communal norms without having strong religious convictions. But the Beth Din itself seems on occasion to distrust ‘mere’ halakhic observance by a potential convert, especially if it is not convinced of her motivation in seeking conversion. I use feminine pronouns when referring to the typical convert partly because significantly more women convert to Judaism than men. But also, and more importantly, one of the central problems I explore is the conflict of expectations and understandings concerning giyur – the process, significance and results – between what I understand to be the three ‘participants’ in the giyur process: the convert herself, the community into which she converts and the bet din.
This conflict of understandings is much more intense for women than for men, particularly when (like ‘A’ described above) the woman’s decision to convert is based on theological conviction after a period of independent study and spiritual searching. Such a narrative of conversion arises out of a typically Western liberal notion of self and identity, wherein a man or woman makes an independent, autonomous and informed choice about their religious identity and personal lifestyle, and is able freely to pursue a chosen path. Such a person is a rational ‘agent’, perceiving themselves to be, to a large extent, in control of them-‘selves’ and their life path. (Choosing to be bound by a set of heteronomous norms, it should be noted, can be entirely consistent with the expression of such rational agency, so long as the decision has been autonomously taken.)
Such a narrative of self-definition through conversion, though quintessentially ‘modern’, is not entirely at odds with the pre-modern narratives of giyur available in rabbinic literature. I believe such a narrative to be implicit, for instance, in the classic responsum of Maimonides to Rabbi Ovadya ha-Ger who praises the (male) convert for a journey he defines as that of a spiritual-rational being in pursuit of wisdom, truth and connection to the Divine. Informed by this search in the non-Jewish world, the ideal convert comes to appreciate the greatness of the Torah, willingly accepts the Yoke of Mitzvot and thus becomes an ‘autonomous’ (and learned) Jew.
What Maimonides describes in his responsum is a person defined in the earliest halakhic sources as a ger tsedek (a righteous convert) who embraces Judaism l’shem shamayim (‘for the sake of Heaven’, meaning for religious reasons). The interviews I have conducted support the view that the ger tsedek so defined is indeed the ‘gold standard’ whom the London Beth Din is eager to support. The problem is, however, that that ger tsedek is, from a traditional point of view, deeply gendered. A significant number of female prospective converts may fit the paradigm, but dayanim find it hard to reconcile them with traditional (pre-modern) constructions of female gender. The female context, I argue, heightens the already problematic nature of an encounter between the Western liberal narrative of individual selfhood and the importance of choice in forming one’s own identity, and the rather less individualist philosophical outlook incorporated in observant Judaism. This ‘conflict of narratives’, I suggest, is one cause of a considerable amount of tension and dissatisfaction on both sides of the convert/bet din divide.
The archetypal female narrative of conversion (in contrast with Maimonides’s ideal autonomous ger) is that of the biblical heroine, Ruth. She expresses no particularly spiritual or religious aspirations and her motivation for ‘conversion’ is clearly relational.(3) So although there is a formal halakhic preference that conversion be motivated by theological factors (whatever the gender of the convert), and a widespread sense that conversions for the sake of marriage are discouraged or at best tolerated,(4) my research suggests that the bet din has achieved a certain comfort level in dealing with women converts who approach them for the sake of marriage, but not when the prospective convert is motivated by theological conviction. No female convert I spoke to described being given an unalloyed welcome by the bet din, and all female interviewees experienced a degree of trauma from the process. But those who converted for the sake of marriage described reaching a point where they were accepted into the process and, from that point, progressed steadily through learning, increased observance and examination. Those who converted out of a ‘love for Judaism’, on the other hand, typically found themselves subjected to a much greater level of distrust, scrutiny and prevarication.(5)
There are entirely valid reasons for the Beth Din’s difficulty in expanding the ger tsedek archetype to include female converts. The most practical may be that while the rich texture of religious life for the Jewish man renders the male convert’s decision to embrace Judaism for its spiritual potential eminently (for instance, the ritual donning of phylacteries and prayer shawl, thrice-daily prayer, intensive text study, the singing of haunting melodies around the Shabbat table) are not traditionally incumbent on or available to adult Jewish women. Thus the ‘theologically motivated’ potential convert (typically a single, university-educated professional in her twenties or early thirties) may be viewed as seeking an experience which is fundamentally (and problematically) at odds with that of the typical observant Jewish woman of her age.
Such a contrast has been highlighted for me by listening to converts’ descriptions of the time they were expected to spend living with an observant family. All interviewees who had been through this experience testified not only to the trial it represented, but to their retrospective feeling that it was a wasted opportunity. They had often liked the woman of the house, but as all the women I spoke with had been working during the time of their conversion process (this was necessary, as the process is expensive, requiring one to employ tutors, pay the host-family rent, invest in appropriate clothes and so on), they felt they missed out on what could have been the primary purpose of their living-in: namely, learning by ‘apprenticeship’ how to keep a kosher home, cook heimische food, prepare for Shabbat and balance personal and spiritual needs with the demands of a young family. They were simply not in the house while their female role model was doing these things.6
Finally, there may simply be an inability on the part of dayanim, who perhaps have particular expectations of gender-appropriate behaviours and aspirations, to understand the strikingly different behaviours and aspirations evidenced and expressed by theologically motivated prospective converts. Women who approach the Beth Din because they are seeking marriage with a Jewish partner tend to foreground desires such as establishing a Jewish family, minimizing conflict between the Jewish partner and his parents, providing an unchallengeable Jewish identity for their children (a contributing factor in the decision to seek an Orthodox conversion for more than one interviewee) and so are voicing concerns and motivations which conform to traditional gender expectations. Those who embark on a religious ‘quest’,7 by contrast, may inadvertently thwart those expectations and challenge (one aspect of) the very theology they seek to embrace.
The role of gender is, I argue, a central one in exploring the experience and meaning of giyur and has been largely ignored by those writing in the wake of the ‘conversion crises’ in Britain and Israel on either the halakhah or theology of conversion. However, as I noted earlier, the disinclination of the London Beth Din to communicate a theology through the conversion process extends also to male conversion candidates. One might argue that the self-conscious religiousness of prospective female converts (who ironically, at the outset at least, often try to stress the religious nature of their conviction and so differentiate themselves from candidates for the sake of marriage) may make gender a factor which emphasizes rather than creates the challenge that all ‘theological converts’ pose. I suggest that one facet of this challenge may consist in the fact that the very act of thinking about religious belief presupposes the ability to step outside its confines or parameters and subject it to some kind of critique. In other words, evaluating beliefs. One could theoretically arrive at a theology which holds ‘everything’ in the Jewish tradition to be true – i.e. an entirely Orthodox theology – but one would still have, in order to reach that point, to evaluate those truths in order to come to such a judgement.
When a person (male or female) decides to convert to Judaism for theological reasons, they must, of necessity, have had sufficient confidence in their rational faculty to have judged and rejected a previous belief system (whether religious or
not) and judged Judaism to have been ‘better’ – indeed, ‘true’ or at least ‘morally enriching’. The early rabbinic sources I quoted as lauding the theological convert arose in times and places where there was (willingly or perforce) extensive religious debate between Jews and non-Jews, and where persecution of Jewish communities was on account of their theological difference. In such a milieu, a person able to defend and argue Jewish theology rationally may well have been viewed as an asset (or at least a trophy) for the Jewish community. I wonder, though, what is communicated about our confidence (or lack thereof) in the integrity and defensibility of the traditional Jewish belief system when we evince a lack of willingness to expound and discuss our theology – even with those who are inclined to accept and love it?
- The wider context of my research compares the experiences and reflections of these British-converted gerim with those of a comparable group who completed the process in Israel.
- ‘A’ was by no means the only interviewee who came to Judaism through this ‘academic’ route.
- Although it is explicitly not romantic. Midrashic writers, perhaps aware that her seduction of Boaz might render her problematically ‘predatory’, desexualized her and suggested that Boaz was attracted by her zealous modesty and that their son was conceived through a unique and unrepeated act of coition. Celebration of nonsexuality in women is highly unusual in talmudic literature, alerting us to a level of discomfort with Ruth’s foreignness.
- According to Rabbi Nehemia, cited in the talmudic source, Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 24b, a giyur is valid if motivated l’shem shamayim, but not by ulterior motives, most notably marriage. The Gemara discusses whether a convert who is later found to have had such a motive is considered Jewish or not, but not whether such candidates should be refused, and ‘theological’ ones welcomed. This is echoed in medieval commentaries and the Shulchan Arukh, and only in the eighteenth century is the question raised whether a convert should be accepted if (s)he is already married to, or intends marriage with, a Jewish partner. Many post- Enlightenment responsa and rabbinic opinions argue for leniency towards converts in a relationship with Jewish partners, but none prefer a theological motive.
- Including an insistence that there must be a man ‘in the picture’.
- The fact that some converts (like ba’alei teshuvah) are attracted to traditional Judaism precisely by the opportunity to express femininity in a more traditional manner also brings problems in the ‘living with a host family’ requirement. One woman, ‘C’ (who was motivated by a relationship with a Jewish partner), described how painful it was to be surrounded by precisely the kind of warm Jewish family life she craved for herself, while being aware that she was older than the mother of her host family, and that each day delayed her chance to become a wife and mother. It is not only the dichotomy between lifestyles that can make the stay less productive than it might be; ironically, the convert may suffer precisely because she does accept the gender norms of the Orthodox world.
- The quest narrative is, of course, one which implies a (male) ‘hero’.