The Strange Strangeness of Rabbi Topolosky

Rabbi Topolosky recently penned On Being a Jewish Stranger, describing the strangeness of being a Ger, a convert, to the Jewish religion. It gave a quaint sense of the internal and external conflicts of being a Ger and was obliquely critical of traditional Judaism and its odd embrace/non-embrace of the “Stranger”.

It was also a profoundly disturbing article, on three levels.

On the first level, Rabbi Topolosky used the word Strange/Stranger as the translation of Ger. As a literary gimmick, it afforded him the opportunity to frame many normal and routine practices in an odd light. This might be wonderful were the purpose merely to stress the Ger’s feeling of strangeness and his/her difficulties integrating into Jewish society. However, the author uses the literary device to stress the supposed discomfiting attitude of Natural Jews as they embrace the stranger – in all of his/her strangeness. This is disturbing because it highlights the author’s lack of understanding of Jewish culture, or for that matter, the mechanics of any culture at all. More on that later.

On the second level, Rabbi Topolosky shares with us the confused and convoluted life of a convert. Family is family, after all, so

Chanukah was followed by Christmas. After Pesach, there was Easter. And Thanksgiving was huge. Huge. Coolers of beer, Notre Dame football, and my eight sets of aunts and uncles, and 26 Irish Catholic first cousins.

That, dear reader, is strange indeed. But more than it is strange it is foreign, extraordinarily foreign, to Jews, Judaism, and Jewish culture. It is a private “cross” that this particular convert must bear. It is a challenge that he must face, digest, come to terms with, internalize and move forward from. I use the term “from” because the conflict the convert faces is not something to be embraced but rather something unavoidable that should not mesh with his Jewishness, much as a visit to the mechanic should not inform one’s growth in mental health. One deals with the car trouble and moves on. One doesn’t, or shouldn’t, integrate car trouble into the grand scheme and philosophy of life.

On the third level, the author describes his article as

a read on Tisha B’Av at the author’s synagogue, as part of a program exploring “The Pain of the Stranger.

Readings on Tisha B’Av are of several sorts. There are dirges lamenting the numerous tragedies that befell the Jewish People, conversations between Man and G-d trying to understand the vehemence of the tragedy, and moments of introspection affording us a partial understanding of the mortal failings that led to the tragedy of Tisha B’Av, most notably, Sin’at Chinam, baseless hatred of one another. If this was the author’s “reading” on Tisha B’Av, it cannot be understood as anything other than a finger-pointing at the Natural Jew and an accusation of Sin’at Chinam toward the Ger as a contributory cause of the continuation of the State of Churban.

A Ger is not a Stranger, not an Other. He is fully responsible to G-d and to Torah as any other Jew. He is not Strange; he is Righteous, he is a Ger Tzedek, a Righteous Convert. In fact, in the Shemoneh Esreh, the prayer recited thrice daily, the Jew beseeches G-d to include us among the Tzadidikim (righteous), the Pious, the Elders, and the Righteous Converts. The truly Righteous Converts are considered to be on such a level that we seek to be in G-d’s good graces by attaching ourselves to their coattails. Nothing is strange about a Righteous Convert; nothing strange at all.

The term Ger that some translate as “Stranger” refers to “Gerei Toshav”, to those non-Jews that have embraced G-d and committed themselves to fulfilling the Seven Noachide Laws. That translation is a misnomer and more accurately should be translated as a “Sojourner”. In the Torah, this term is commonly used for those non-Jews living in Israel that are Gerei Toshav. They are not Jews, and are “Other”, but are to be welcomed and treated with love and equality.

There is another type of convert, one implicit in the term “Righteous Convert”, and that is the “UnRighteous Convert”. This would be the type of convert who constantly has a chip on his shoulder, who, rather than striving to grow spiritually and come closer to G-d daily, seeks to get pats on the back for being a convert and sees bogymen behind every Natural Jew. The one who lets everyone know “how much of a challenge it is” to be a convert, but bristles if the same topic is broached by anyone else.  They are the ones who resent that there are real qualifications and expectations that come with conversion.  The ones who celebrate the “holidays” with their non-Jewish kith and kin and want to share that experience with the Natural Jew and expect him to embrace that “otherness”  as a facet of their “enhanced Judaism”. The ones who complain that the process of converting is made too difficult and who seek the “royal road” to conversion. This is the type of convert whom we don’t refer to in the Shemoneh Esreh. This is the type of convert the Talmud refers to as “blisters”.

The reason one converts is not because of marriage, cultural acceptance, government benefits or for an extra piece of Matzoh. One converts because it is clear to the person that Judaism is the one true religion, that all other faiths are false and that the path to spiritual perfection lies only in Judaism. The convert who bristles at descriptions of other religions as not true paths to G-dliness is intrinsically flawed and at odds with the essence of the conversion. This is a convert who doesn’t understand his own conversion.

Rabbi Topolosky described his brother as

less forgiving. He too was a stranger, having visited that blue tiled pool in our father’s arms as well. And he was smart. Wicked smart. Smart enough to know that if the teacher was putting down the “other,” that teacher was putting him down too. When you’re a stranger, the “other” is still family. And you gotta step up for family. Even if it means regular trips to the principal.

Halacha perceives conversion as a “net plus” for the convert and thus allows parents to convert their children on that basis. The child, however, does not come to his Judaism through his own journey to truth but rather as part of his parents’ quest and may not really belong. He may bristle at the thought that the faith of his forebears is any less valid than that of his own. The ideals and journey of the Jewish People may not speak to his/her heart and mind.  That is why there is an escape clause for “child converts”. When they reach adulthood, they are given the opportunity to choose, once again, to embrace Judaism of their own volition. If they can’t do so, they may legitimately “opt out”.

Judaism does not seek converts but embraces the truly sincere ones. The operational theory is, “in for a penny, in for a pound”. It’s either all or nothing. If the convert is the real thing, he is someone to admire. If he isn’t the real thing, he shouldn’t sign up and complain.

Real Jews look to one’s adherence to Torah and Mitzvos, to one’s growth in spirituality, irrespective of whether one is Natural or Converted. Nothing else really matters.

A convert is not a stranger, Rabbi Topolosky; he is a Ger Tzedek, someone to be emulated. The only thing that is strange is singing dirges about Jews because of a chip on the shoulder. That is true Sin’at Chinam.

About the Author
Shaul Gold resides in New York and is a retired rabbi and educator.
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