Converts Not Necessarily Wanted – An Open Letter to Arnold Eisen

Chancellor Eisen,

I just read your article in the Wall Street Journal, Wanted: Converts to Judaism, in which you advocate for “the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion.”  Considering that you are the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement, your words carry great weight.  And because of this, I am asking you to reconsider your position.

I of course agree with you that there is much beauty and deep meaning in living a Jewish life.  I am overjoyed when someone comes to me and says that she has decided to pursue the path toward conversion—whether it is because she has lived with a Jewish partner and raised Jewish children and now wholeheartedly desires to become a Jew; she has fallen in love with a Jewish person and thinks that living as a Jew could elevate her own life; or because, independent of any personal relationships, she has found Judaism and has come to believe that she is meant to be a Jew.

It is incumbent upon those of us who are rabbis as well as all people and institutions that are committed to Jewish continuity that we let all people, and especially those family members in our midst who are not Jewish, know that they are always welcome to become Jewish if that is what their soul desires, and that our doors are open wide.  As a rabbi, there are few things I have done that are more rewarding than accompanying someone on their journey to becoming a Jew. Conversion, when done for the right reasons, is a blessing for the new Jew as well as for the Jewish community.  But conversion isn’t the only option, and it isn’t always the right option.  And while I am sure you in no way intended this, I greatly worry that by advocating for conversion, the Jewish community will give the impression that any conversion is OK, even without the sincerity of conviction and belief that a genuine conversion would require.

I agree with you that we should ensure that “opportunities for serious adult study of Judaism and active participation in Jewish life” are always available.  Over the years, I have seen many family members who are not Jewish take Jewish learning very seriously, and I have seen such family members actively participating in Jewish communal life.  I am sure you have witnessed this as well. Sometimes family members who are not Jewish decide over time to become Jewish themselves (often before a significant life-cycle event, such as a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah).  Others choose not to become Jewish but to remain part of the community.  Their reasons for not becoming Jewish are as diverse as individuals themselves – including the fact that they may believe in and practice another religion; they may not want to convert out of respect for their own parents or other family members; or they may simply not believe in God, thus feeling that conversion to any religion would be insincere.

While I believe that family members who are not Jewish should always know that they are welcome to explore becoming Jewish and that we would be honored to have them as converts if this is what they truly want and believe, I worry that if  “Jewish institutions and their rabbis…actively encourage non-Jewish family members in our midst to take the next step and formally commit to conversion,” as you suggest we do, we will not only encourage conversions for the wrong reasons, but that we will also be putting undue pressure on family members who are not Jewish.  Rather than bringing them into the fold, as you desire, I fear that we could turn them away.

Instead, I think we need to send the message that we welcome family members who are not Jewish as part of our community just as they are (rather than trying to turn them into what we want them to be).  Rather than “explicitly and strongly advocat[ing] for conversion” as you suggest, I believe that we should let family members who are not Jewish know that we would be honored to help them become Jewish if that is what they wish for themselves, and we would be equally honored if they do not convert but make the commitment to raise their children as Jews.  What we really need to do is to ensure that resources are available for parents who did not grow up Jewish (as well as those who did grow up Jewish) to raise their children with Judaism in their lives, whether or not they themselves convert.

Toward the end of your article, you make reference to the biblical character Ruth, the “most-famous convert in Jewish tradition.”  While we often refer to Ruth as a “convert,” using such a term is anachronistic, since “conversion” as we now know it did not exist in Biblical times.  But, more important, as I point out in my blog Re-reading Ruth: Not “Ruth and Her Conversion” but “Ruth and Her Interfaith Marriage,” we cannot ignore the timing of Ruth’s conversion.  As I noted in my blog, by the time Ruth made her famous declaration of commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi and to the people and God of Israel, Ruth’s Israelite husband, Noami’s son Machlon, was already deceased.  This was already after Ruth’s marriage—not before it.

Ruth may have found, as you point out, “community, meaning and direction by entering deeply into her new identity,” but this didn’t happen because Naomi or anyone else in her family encouraged Ruth or advocated for her to take on a new identity.  In fact, the Book of Ruth explicitly informs us that after Machlon had died and Naomi was leaving Ruth’s homeland of Moab to return to Bethlehem, Naomi repeatedly urged Ruth to “turn back” (Ruth 1:11-15) rather than accompany Naomi on her journey.  Ruth uttered the words “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God  (Ruth 1:16) not because Naomi “actively encouraged her” but because Naomi had already accepted her for so many years for who she was—a Moabite, an “outsider,” that was married to her son.  It was because of Naomi’s unconditional love for Ruth that Ruth linked her future with that of Naomi, her people and her God—and ultimately went on to become the great-grandmother of King David.

Chancellor Eisen, you note in the first paragraph of your article that “Judaism needs more Jews.”  I agree with you that the high rate of intermarriage  “presents the Jewish community…perhaps, with a unique opportunity.”  But where we disagree is on what that opportunity is.  In my view, the opportunity we have is not to necessarily convince those who are married to Jews to convert.  Instead, like Naomi, we can help to ensure our Jewish “tomorrows” by unconditionally welcoming spouses and partners of Jews into our Jewish community and making it as easy and meaningful as possible for them to raise Jewish children.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Robyn Frisch
Director, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia

RE-READING RUTH: Not “Ruth and Her Conversion” but “Ruth and her Interfaith Marriage”

A version of this blog post was reprinted in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and can be read here.

The Book of Ruth“Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

These words, spoken by the young widow Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, are among the most well known and most powerful words in the Bible. They express Ruth’s commitment to Naomi—and to Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God. With this declaration, Ruth the Moabite cast her lot with the lot of the Jewish people, and she recognized the God of Israel as her God.

Often Ruth is spoken of as the first convert to Judaism. Of course Ruth’s “conversion” wasn’t like the conversions of today. Ruth didn’t attend an Introduction to Judaism class (I can’t imagine that any such classes were offered in Moab!); she didn’t appear before a Beit Din (a rabbinic court); and she didn’t immerse herself in the mikveh (ritual bath). And in fact, throughout the Book of Ruth, even after Ruth makes her declaration of commitment to Naomi, the people of Israel and the God of Israel, Ruth is constantly referred to as “the Moabite,” reminding us, the readers, that Ruth was still seen as an “outsider.”

Even if we are to accept that Ruth converted to Judaism (at a time long before conversion as we now know it), the timing of Ruth’s “conversion” is noteworthy. Having lost her husband and two sons, Machlon (Ruth’s husband) and Chilion (who was married to another Moabite woman, Orpah), while living in Moab, Naomi was preparing to head back to Israel. She told her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families, and Orpah followed her instructions. Ruth, however, clung to Naomi, and when Naomi told her to “return to her people and her gods” as Orpah had done, Ruth responded: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go….”

By the time Ruth made her famous declaration to Naomi, Ruth’s Israelite husband was already deceased. This was after Ruth’s marriage, not before it. This means that Ruth’s marriage to Machlon, which lasted about ten years, was an interfaith marriage! I can only imagine that Ruth’s great love for Naomi was based on the fact that throughout the period of the marriage and beyond Naomi accepted Ruth for who she was—making Ruth feel valued and loved.

So often today I hear a Jewish mother lament when her son marries a woman who isn’t Jewish: “She’s a lovely girl. If ONLY she were Jewish…” I can only imagine how this must make the daughter-in-law feel: that she’s not quite good enough, that she’s second class. That’s not how Naomi treated Ruth. While the text may go out of its way to call her “Ruth the Moabite,” to Naomi she was simply “Ruth”: beloved daughter-in-law. And what a remarkable mother-in-law Naomi must have been for Ruth to want to leave her own land and her own people to return to Naomi’s homeland with her after Machlon had died.

Just imagine what it would be like today if Jewish parents—and the Jewish community as a whole—could be as non-judgmental and accepting of their children’s interfaith marriages as Naomi must have been of Machlon’s marriage to Ruth. Surely some of the children-in-law, like Ruth, would fall in love with their extended Jewish family and the Jewish people and religion, and choose after a period of time to become Jewish. We see this happen all of the time: Someone who’s had a Jewish partner for a number of years converting after truly knowing what it means to be Jewish. (As a rabbi, I would much prefer that someone wait to convert until they’re sure that it’s right for them, rather than converting to appease a prospective in-law or just make things “easier” when getting married. A conversion just to make someone else happy seems to me to be “empty” and insincere.)

Of course even if parents-in-law and the Jewish community are non-judgmental and accepting of interfaith marriages, not every partner in an interfaith marriage who didn’t grow up Jewish is going to convert. Some people won’t convert because they still practice another religion, and others will decide—for a variety of reasons—that conversion to Judaism isn’t for them. And that’s OK too! Our community needs to honor those who’ve chosen to marry Jews, but who haven’t chosen Judaism for themselves—just as Naomi showed Ruth respect throughout the time that she was married to Machlon. As Naomi realized throughout the marriage, it wasn’t her place to tell her daughter-in-law how to live her life or what choices she should make. Naomi loved Ruth for who she WAS—not for what she WANTED Ruth to be.

At the end of the Book of Ruth, Ruth gives birth to Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Ruth “the Moabite” who was in an interfaith marriage to Machlon is the great-grandmother of David—not only a great King of Israel, but the progenitor of the Messiah.

Soon it will be Shavuot. It’s customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. It’s quite appropriate to read the story of a woman who demonstrated her loyalty to Judaism on the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. As Shavuot approaches, I will celebrate Ruth, who wasn’t raised Jewish, from our Jewish past. And I will also celebrate all of those people in our Jewish present who weren’t raised Jewish: those who’ve chosen to convert to Judaism as well as those who’ve chosen to join their lives to the Jewish community in less formal ways (by marrying Jews, by raising Jewish children and by participating in the life of the Jewish community). All of them, like Ruth before them, help us to ensure the Jewish future.