In one of his most renowned statements from Pirke Avot, Hillel the Elder said: “Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death.” This means that every life is a work in progress that can only be fully evaluated in retrospect at its end. In few cases is this statement more true and more poignant, albeit painful than when dealing with the relationship of converts to Judaism with their communities. Many converts share the uncomfortable experience of being carefully monitored by their synagogues, rabbis, and families to see if “the conversion sticks”. Many converts, especially those that come from strong religious backgrounds or who do no fit easily in the ethnic make-up of their community (Jews of color especially), struggle through years of scrutiny and sometimes discrimination before being fully accepted as “one of us”. For some unfortunate lot, this scrutiny never ceases until the proverbial day of death. In some extreme cases, the suspicion and skepticism has lead some sincere converts to abandon their Jewish aspirations, hurt by the inability to find a warm place in the Jewish tent.
This phenomenon does not only play out in the realm of social integration and exclusion. Its most extreme manifestations can be observed in the current practice of some rabbinical courts in Israel who, countermining centuries of halakhic precedent, will retroactively annul a conversion even many years after the fact, when they feel that the individual is not living according to their standards of observance. This creates a very dangerous circumstance in which a convert’s Jewish identity is not only under constant scrutiny and disbelief, but can be legally terminated.
Both in the batei din and the batei kenesset, this phenomenon finds its roots in engrained social patterns of suspicion rather than in any normative Jewish value or text (certainly not Hillel´s opening statement). Our Jewish tradition teaches us that the convert has to be loved and cherished, included and encouraged. Furthermore, it teaches us that “once a Jew, always a Jew”; even if the convert were to go back to her previous faith and practice, says the Talmud and after it all mayor codes of Jewish law, she would still be considered a Jew, albeit a sinning one. On the contrary, its roots feed on centuries of tragic Jewish history that have produced an society-wide adversarial reflex of suspicion and otherness. Societal, cultural and even folklore-religion sanctioned stereotypes of what the “goyim” are, and do perpetuate the idea that conversion is an impossible endeavor. If the “goyim” are the complete opposite of the Jews, and their values (some even claim their souls) are polar opposites, how then can one pass from one group to the other? How can this transformation be something less than a miracle?
These fears are irrational but deeply engrained and it will take generations of education and peaceful coexistence in order to change them completely. In the meantime, however, I would invite us to reexamine our opening quotation of Hillel. “Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death” places the onus of skepticism and lack of complacency within the individual. Each individual must not be sure of THEIR OWN worth, but always strive to improve. For both converts and Jews-by-birth, this applies equally as an invitation to live a more engaged Jewish life every day of their life. However, if we turn Hillel´s statement to apply to our fellow man, as we often do, we create a situation in which we are unsure of everyone (sometimes with the notable exception of ourselves) until the day they die. This is the perfect recipe for a cynical society where all relationships are mere provisional means, since we can never really know what is going on in the heart of the other. Such society is doomed to its own self-fulfilling prophecies. Such society is not one where anyone, native or immigrant would like to live.email print