One would need a heart of stone not to be deeply touched by the pseudonymously written column “A Convert in a Strange Land.” Here is the voice of a woman raised in the Jewish community, whose prospective conversion does not entail leaving a previous religion behind, who presumably has the support of her family – yet for whom, despite all this, an awareness of Judaism’s conflicting attitudes to converts is the source of great pain.

The author of this moving column is quite right in pointing to Judaism’s complex attitude to converts. In many ways, the tradition seems to welcome them, declaring that a convert is an Israelite in all respects (Bava Metzia 47b) and warning that one who derides the convert violates as many as 46 negative commandments (Bava Metziah 59b). Mishnah Bava Metzia (4:10) even forbids a Jew from reminding a convert that his ancestors were Gentiles.

However, as our writer correctly asserts, matters are not as simple as that. Indeed, the Jewish tradition has always been conflicted about conversion as a possibility and about converts as members of the Jewish community. The Talmud states in several places (Yevamot 47b among them) that “converts are as burdensome to [the People of] Israel as leprosy.” Other unflattering comments can also be found. This ambivalent outlook stems, in all likelihood, from the fact that the Jewish people is more than a theological community; it is a historical and ethnic one as well. One can adopt a theology, but it is much more difficult (and perhaps even impossible) to fully adopt a history or an ethnicity. Could that explain why the convert is called a ger, which means “stranger”?

One can adopt a theology, but it is far more difficult to adopt a history. Young Chinese men study Torah to prepare for their Orthodox conversion (photo credit: Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

One can adopt a theology, but it is far more difficult to adopt a history. Young Chinese men study Torah to prepare for their Orthodox conversion (photo credit: Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Joining a community that insists that you are wholly accepted and yet does not completely believe it has to be more painful than any of us who were born to two Jewish parents can begin to imagine. Our author’s crie de coeur ought to be a reminder of the pain experienced by many in our community. Even if we cannot eradicate the complexity of our tradition’s attitude to conversion (which reflects the complex nature of what Judaism is), we ought to at least heighten our understanding of the pain this complex attitude creates for those who seek to join us.

But no less important is the fact that there is something that we can do. The mere fact that the author of this moving column did not want her real name used, for fear that it would complicate her conversion process, shows how callous, and even vindictive, conversion has become in recent years. One of the points that we sought to make in our new book, “Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policy-Making in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Orthodox Responsa,” is that Orthodox rulings on conversion have sometimes gone to great lengths to recognize the emotional trauma that conversion or the refusal to accept a convert can entail.

Those rabbinic authorities that have increasingly turned the conversion process (both in Israel and abroad) into a needlessly cruel and dismissive process would do well to reflect on the profound pathos and empathy for the convert that once characterized the worldviews of their equally Orthodox forebears.

Compassion: Legalize it

To cite but one of the many halakhic authorities we discuss, Rabbi David Z. Hoffmann, the most important Orthodox German rabbi in the decades before his death in 1921, regularly refused to ignore the human dimension of cases that came before him. In the case of a man already civilly married to a Jewish woman who was pregnant, Hoffmann understood that the likelihood that this man would be ritually observant was close to nil. That, one might imagine, could have been enough for Hoffmann to turn him away. But Hoffmann noted that if the beit din refused to convert her husband, his wife would be humiliated and, should the husband leave her, would possibly be forced to dwell alone.

Hoffmann even expressed concern for the children who would be born from this union. These children, who were halakhic Jews, might be drawn after their father and his religion should he not be converted. “And these sheep,” Hoffmann mused, “how did they sin?”

In today’s Orthodox world, that man would stand no chance of being converted. Consideration for his wife’s loneliness or his children’s upbringing would almost certainly be ignored. Not terribly long ago, though, some Orthodox authorities understood that the greater the halakhic expertise, the greater was the latitude that could be employed to address human pain. What have we lost today? The halakhic genius, or the simple care for human beings?

What have we lost today? The halakhic genius, or the simple care for human beings?

Authors typically have many hopes when they write a book. Our primary academic agenda in writing our book was to illustrate that many Orthodox legal authorities saw themselves not only as halakhic arbiters, but as shapers of Jewish public policy. Yet books can do many things simultaneously. If our “Pledges of Jewish Allegiance” also helps to raise awareness of the ways in which Orthodox authorities once unabashedly factored simple human compassion into their legal rulings, leading committed Jews today to begin to demand that people like the author of “A Convert in a Strange Land” be treated differently than is too often the case today, we will be very gratified.

The Jewish community will, undoubtedly, be profoundly colored by the sorts of converts that it accepts. But it will be shaped, no less, by the pathos we muster as we formulate policy that is both halakhically sound as well as sociologically wise.

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Read an exclusive excerpt from David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis’s new book, ”Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policy-Making in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Orthodox Responsa.”