I heard the term “fake Jew” for the first time at a small Shabbos dinner gathering many years ago. It was actually a celebratory pot-luck for a friend that had just had her Beit Din and had successfully converted to Judaism. She had an Israeli boyfriend and had planned to move to Israel with him, but her conversion had been a personal matter that predated this relationship.
One of the invitees in a quite varied group was an older lady, a born Jew of Sephardic heritage. She had at one point after the discussion of making Aliya asked my friend about her own parentage. When my friend responded and then commented that she has just converted, the guest nodded and quipped, “Oh, so you are one of those fake Jews.”
This wasn’t the last time that I have heard this term or some crass variation used. Sometimes those commenting simply are repeating something that they have unfortunately learned and on which they have never been challenged, others have driven the words into others’ flesh with the intent to draw blood. Some have no idea the pain and humiliation this epithet brings, others are fully aware and regardless hurl the insult.
Certainly when I first heard this term I did not realize that I would be spending years of my life in communities where such a term and its variations were not only commonplace, but the deeply held and publicly stated belief of the majority of Synagogue members.
Although our tradition indeed shows a great ambivalence towards conversion, ranging from Rabbi Eliezar ben Pedat in Tractate Pesachim who states: “The only reason G-d exiled the Jews among the nations was so that converts could be added” to the contrasting statement in Tractate Yevamot where it is written: “Converts are hard for Israel like a nasty sore,” the fact remains that halakhah explicitly allows conversion and in our weekly Amidah we praise the “righteous converts” right along the Tzaddikim and the Elders of our communities. Our tradition is filled with converts that have been significant contributors to the Jewish People and Religion. One could possibly laugh at the picture of Onkulus, the great and influential translator in Torah into Aramaic, being told by his contemporaries that he should be considered a “fake” Jew.
Yet the conclusion is today inescapable that we have developed a Conversion Wahnsinn – a sort of insanity around that concept of conversion that is disproportionate to the halakhah as well as various praises and critiques of converts in Jewish history.
Perhaps this can be most clearly seen in the events of past years with the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. Two incredibly disturbing types of events have occurred that should shock anyone with any knowledge of Jewish Law. The first consists of the retroactive annulment of conversions performed by National Religious rabbis in Israel based on the argument that the converts (sometimes of patrilineal Jews some times of children of Jewish mother’s that could not prove their status due to the reality of the Soviet Union) that had converted often for marriage sake no longer observed the mitzvoth to the satisfaction of the Chief Rabbinate after a divorce and therefore the conversions were invalid. The second involves rejection of conversions of Orthodox Beitei Din outside of Israel that have not been specifically sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel— there are so many problems with this alone it is worthy of another post. Of course those of us outside of orthodoxy already understand this reality and have no expectations that our conversions will be accepted by “religious authorities” in Israel (also something worthy of another post) but that Orthodox Beitei Din also suffer this, although certainly worth a bit of Schadenfreude, should also be quite a shock.
The idea that there might be “problems” with conversion is not a new idea. The fact that some might undertake the conversion process with ulterior motives is not a new concern. Rambam specifically addresses this in the Mishne Torah where he writes (Book 5, Issurei Biah Chapter 13, Halakhah 7):
“A convert who was not checked after or was not informed of the mitzvot and their associated punishments yet he circumcised and immersed in front of three ordinary people. He is still considered a convert. Even if it is subsequently clarified that he converted out of ulterior motives since he was circumcised and immersed he is no longer considered a gentile, however we still suspect him until his righteousness is proven. Even if he went back and worshipped idols he is considered as a rebellious Jew who performs idolatry whose marriage is considered a marriage.”
This is an unambiguous halakhah, completely ignored by the chief rabbinate, that wisely acknowledges the potential of a nasty slippery slope. In essence, without this halakhah successful converts (i.e. milah when appropriate, tevillah, beit din) would become subject to the whims of the interpretation of practice by a group in power exactly as is now happening. Rambam even goes as far as to say that when a converted Jew becomes an active apostate the apostasy must be looked at in terms of Jewish law for one with the status of “Jew.” Quite simply and according to this critical halakhah, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew is a Jew and no matter how much we might not like that we must deal with the Jew as opposed to retroactively annulling the status for the sake of expediency or that they do not conform to our definitions of a "good Jew," whatever that really means.
So how did we get to this point?
As we read the book of Ruth this Shavuot we enjoy the timeless beauty of Ruth’s words of conversion (1:14): “Stop urging me to abandon you // For wherever you go, I will go // Wherever you live, I will live // Your people will become my people // and your G-d will become my G-d.”
The meaning of these words are no secret and I am offering nothing new by pointing out that conversion must somehow include both the religious and the peoplehood aspects of Judaism. Put negatively, without both elements Judaism is not Judaism.
All of which leads us to the insanity of today.
I cannot directly speak to the underlying politics of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, only assume that the increasing fundamentalization of Haredi politics and religious views/belief/practice leads to the same extreme black and white extremism as all types of fundamentalism: “You believe/behave as we do or you are wrong.” Although this directly contradicts the very fundament of Rabbinical Judaism, namely the dialogic process explicit in Talmud, through this mindset the easiest victims are those without a “from birth” proof of membership in the tribe. “We can’t do so much about the Reform born Jews whose practice we so hate, so let us victimize those not born as Jews that do not follow our incredibly narrow interpretation of the Law.”
This I can do nothing more about than write and preach and point to the dangers of fundamentalism, but even more disturbing to me are the words of the non-Haredi in our midst that act with the same intolerance—those that uncritically utter the words “fake Jew” or even worse treat the converts in our midst as second class citizens at best. Make no mistake, this is a manifestation of “bullying” in our Synagogues and the emotional, spiritual and psychological effects are no less damning to the victims of this bullying than the children that suffer bullying at schools or the adults that suffer mobbing in their workplaces. Converts have become the focus of our own insecurities and we are making it harder and harder for Ruth to make her poetic statement of conversion. Today we meet “Your people shall be my people and your G-d shall be my G-d” with “but you, Ruth, will never really be accepted. You are not really Jewish.”
Even our language has changed. We utter phrases such as “half-Jew” or “quarter-Jew” as if these have some historical legal importance in determining Jewishness, and somehow with the sickest of ironies forget that we have begun defining ourselves through the racial laws of the 3rd Reich as opposed to the words of our Tradition. On the other side, we learn the lesson of Stalin that Judaism is a stamp of nationality on a passport without any religious content—we relegate Ruth to the status of an immigrant and forget she also accepted a specific way of interacting with the spiritual universe – with “G-d.” When we forget this of course conversion cannot be valid, as how could someone have a nationality to which they were not born stamped in their passport?
Standing with Ruth means that we remember Judaism exists only when it remains in dialogue with itself in both its religious and peoplehood aspects. Standing with Ruth means calling the bigotry of the Chief Rabbinate exactly what it is—a rejection of Jewish Law in order to further a hegemony that stands outside of normative Jewish Law. Standing with Ruth means that we reject defining ourselves as Hitler and Stalin would have us do. Standing with Ruth means that a convert is fully Jewish, period, and we embrace Ruth in the same loving arms with which we wish to be welcomed when we enter our communities as Jews.
Chag Shavuot Semeyach.