How would you feel if someone questioned your Jewish soul?
My wonderful husband does not understand this. No one has every questioned his Jewish soul, and why would they? He was born halachically Jewish. Yes, I did make a point of saying halachically Jewish and not just Jewish, because, in the light of some recent events, I have something important to get off my chest.
The story I speak of is of a Jewish woman who converted in America and fell in love with an Israeli man. The rabbinical court in Petah Tikvah, according to reports in the Times of Israel, rejected her conversion in America and had further requirements for her marrying in Israel. She described the events as “humiliating” and I completely sympathize with her. I can only imagine how that would feel and my heart goes out to her.
The worst was continuing to read that these events then questioned whether other conversions performed by the same rabbi were legitimate, particularly that of a famous figure. When I read this, I looked up from my computer and asked my husband how he would feel if someone questioned his soul. He didn’t get the question. He asked why someone would do that and I simply replied, exactly.
The idea that a convert should need to justify or continue to prove their legitimacy concerns me. Don’t get me wrong. I have deep respect and belief in Jewish law, or Halacha, and try everyday to live by it. I understand the necessity of halachic conversions and acknowledge their importance in keeping the Jewish faith alive. Yet, even as a religious woman, I often wonder what would the status of my Jewishness be if I were no longer religious. The status of my Jewish soul can be decided by a Beit Din; can the same or different one therefore remove it?
A Jew whose mother is Jewish has a birth-right regardless of her/his level of observance. But do I have the same rights if I chose to be Jewish? This is something deeply personal and, as a woman, affects the Jewish identity of my children. I’m not writing to have an opinion on the rabbinical courts process. I lack sufficient knowledge to do that. I would, however, like people to better understand the sensitivities of such topics and the emotions involved. I understand that the rabbinical courts are not necessarily questioning a person’s motives, but rather the validity of their conversion process. Nonetheless, people must understand how that may make the convert feel.
For me, as a convert to Judaism, there are two distinct parts of a conversion. The first is the halachic requirements, which are important and necessary. The second is the spiritual story that is individual and deeply personal.
The halachic requirements of conversion are long and expensive — very expensive. It’s hours of study, lengthy exams, and interviews…and that’s on the basic level.
No one, I repeat NO ONE, would go through it unless they really REALLY wanted it. Yet, despite this, I still hear Jewish people question the motives of some converts. The most common being comments such as “she/he converted to get married.” This is a particularly horrible comment. Not only is it deeply offensive and arrogant to comment on another person’s connection to G-d, I have yet to meet someone who has actually used this motivation. I think what more commonly transpires is that a non-Jew meets a Jewish partner who sparks in them a connection to Judaism and that leads to conversion. This does not make their intentions insincere, and it often also leads to the partner, who is born Jewish, increasing his or her level of observance.
I was personally never subjected to such comments, as I converted long before meeting my husband. I did, however, have men say they wouldn’t date me because I was a convert (I am not talking about kohanim). I liked to think such discrimination was not hurtful. I told myself I dodged a bullet, which I did, but it still hurt. It still felt like an attack on my Jewishness.
My Jewishness, like that of every Jew, is deeply personal. I vividly remember receiving my certificate of conversion in the waiting room of the mikveh seven years ago. After two years of study, many interviews, tests and going through mikveh, I was told, “ Welcome, our sister.”
The final process of conversion is very intense. Sitting in front of three rabbis testing you on your knowledge and then asked over and over if you are sure this is what you want…yet, despite my conversion’s intensity, my particular conversion process, from start to finish, was positive and I have nothing but respect and appreciation for the people who taught me, guided me, and eventually got me through.
It takes years of study and, at the end, I sat before a Beit Din where they approved. So off I went to mikveh, This is when I was told my Jewish neshama, soul, would enter my body.
In the lead up to my mikveh experience, I had heard many conversion stories and many of them spoke of this feeling that came over them at the moment their neshama entered their bodies. Some said it was like a pulse of electricity and others described it as the most spiritual experience of their lives.
So when I went under water I shut my eyes so tight and waited…and waited…and waited, but I felt nothing. When I emerged, the mikveh lady was standing over me with the look of a terrified parent. She was yelling at me in her thick Yiddish accent not to hold my breath. I had been under so long that I had frightened her. I had been waiting. Waiting for that feeling. That feeling never came. I didn’t feel different. I felt just like I always had. I was happy to be finished, but no more.
Years later, I was telling my story to someone and remembered those lack of feelings and found them unchanged and it was then I realized why. I had always felt Jewish. I always connected with Judaism and the idea that my soul came into me because I met the requirements of Jewish law felt insulting. So I asked my rabbi at the time, how can it be that the Jewish soul is coming into the body of a convert at mikveh? Surely, they have always had one — thus the desire to convert! He replied that the Jewish soul was always been there, just not inside the physical body. It has always been knocking waiting to come in.
Today, I still think about that concept. Maybe that connection I had was my Jewish soul was knocking, I don’t know. These days, I feel more like a Jew who for generations had been lost from the tribe and re-joined. They say all Jewish souls were at Har Sinai, even the ones who weren’t born yet, or converted yet, so maybe this is why.
I am not trying to provide answers to the dilemma facing the American woman and others like her. I feel strongly for her and I just want Jews blessed with a birthright to understand the sacrifice converts go through and the great love they have for Judaism and the Jewish people. Converts deserve to be embraced loved and welcomed not publicly discussed or questioned.
All I ask is that, in the future, when tempted to discuss a person’s conversion, famous or otherwise, people can try to remember the love and sacrifice that conversion requires. The halachic side to conversion is important, but, equally, so is the spiritual and deeply personal journey that it involves.