Dangerous Convert Rabbis (and the Pope)

Rabbi Juan Mejia
April 24, 2013
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“You might not know it, but convert rabbis are among us.  They have infiltrated our rabbinical seminaries for over two decades and, now, they likely run some of our congregations, hold influence and sway in our institutions, teach our children at day schools, Hebrew schools and Hillels across the nation.  These rabbis, my dear fellow Hebrews, are dangerous.  Their path is not our path, their Judaism is not their Judaism. Can you imagine a rabbi whose father and mother are a sheigetz and a shiksa? Better watch your language around them.  Can you imagine a rabbi who did not grow up in fear of the Holocaust, who did not grow up being bullied because of his Jewishness, who did not grow up every day of his life thinking of  Israel as his second home?  Can you imagine what kind of rabbi never had a bat-mitzvah, never ran for Youth Group president?  How can such a rabbi speak to me? To us? How can such a rabbi teach and safeguard MY Judaism?”

This slight exaggeration is a condensation of the anxiety that some sectors of the Jewish community may be feeling with the advent of a new generation of Jewish religious leaders who are converts. Some of this anxiety might have filtered out in a job interview, in a pastoral exchange, even in casual conversation, and to the Jewish community´s credit and for the future of converts in the rabbinate, it is diminishing.  However, taking the last question seriously: Can a convert rabbi truly be a teacher of Judaism, given that he or she might not have experienced first-hand some of the pivotal experiences of what being a Jew entails?  The answer is: depends on what you understand as Judaism.  If Judaism is mostly a religion or a moral wisdom encapsulated in series of texts and rituals with timeless transcendance, then the answer is a resounding yes.  Amazed by the positive change that these texts, rites, and practices have effected in their lives, many convert rabbis as well as many born Jews who discover tradition later in life, become their most passionate advocates. If Judaism is a path of the mind or of the spirit, such path can be rediscovered, renewed, and be taught and reinforced by those pilgrims from without.  If, however, Judaism is the complex and subtle ethnic melange that underwrites the majority of the American Jewish experience as “Yiddishkeit”, then the task of the convert rabbi is almost impossible.  One can learn to pepper one´s parlance with Yiddish, but one cannot retroactively acquire a bubbe or a zeide.  One can empathize as a human being and a Jew with the horrors of the Shoah, but one will never understand it haunting your family tree, every Pesach seder, every visit to Grandma’s.  One can be a Zionist and preach the centrality of Israel, but, depending on one’s converting rabbi and the current political climate, one may not even be considered eligible to be a citizen of the Jewish Homeland.  If Judaism is a path that runs through the neighborhood and shared recent memories, the convert rabbi will always be an incomplete Jew, a eunuch, if not a complete outsider.

Thus, the destiny of the convert rabbis and their ability to serve their brothers and sisters will be determined by the kind of Judaism that the Jewish people embrace.  And the trends are that, at least in the North American Diaspora, Judaism is being defined more in terms of a flexible and open-ended cultural corpus than a solid ethnic stereotype (Woody Allen and Seinfeld notwithstanding). In a Jewish people were more and more Jews come from racially,  ethnically and religiously diverse or blended households, whose personal identities might include several hyphens, loyalty to Judaism will not be an inescapable ethnic given but rather a choice among many possibilities. And convert rabbis, who have themselves chosen Judaism, will be particularly well suited to persuade others to make that choice or, as is the concern of most of the organized Jewish establishment, to persuade the descendants of Jews to continue to make this choice.  The Judaism of the future will necessarily be, given the evolving nature of the Jewish people, religiously (or ethically) value-driven, and ethnically lean and open ended.  In such a world, commitment, passion, and clarity speak louder than birthright.

A similar train of thought seems to have permeated the recent Vatican choice for a South American Pope. The Catholic Church seems to have realized that its future may not be in the gilded cathedrals of Europe, steeped in tradition, but rather in the bare but full brick churches of the Global South.  That vibrancy, humility, and honesty is what gets people attention and devotion.  Unburdened by the limitations of conclave, the Jewish people have started moving in a similar direction which defies the ethnic model upon which all of the Diaspora’s religious, social, and philanthropic machinery rested for over a century, and embraces a more fluid, diverse model where people will be inspired (whether in the brick and mortar world of institutions or the growing virtual shtetl) by leaders and rabbis who, increasingly like themselves, speak with a accent, have a non-Jewish parent (or both), feel themselves to be members of many peoples and many cultures.  In this world, convert rabbis will not be an oddity but an increasingly common phenomenon, and as such we might be able to transmit the timeless truths of Judaism not only to our Chosen People, but also to our native cultures and clans, so that they will be enriched by them, bringing us all closer to redemption.  In this sense, convert rabbis are not only good for the Jews, they are also a blessing on the Gentiles.

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Rabbi Juan Mejia was born in Bogotá, Colombia. After discovering the Jewish roots of his family, he embarked on a spiritual journey that lead him back to the religion and the people of his ancestors. He holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the National University of Colombia and a summa cum laude Master´s Degree in Jewish Civilization from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in NY. He plans to devote his life to the Torah education of both Jews and descendants of anusim wherever they may be. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oklahoma City, OK. He was recently appointed as the coordinator for the Southwest for the Jewish non-profit organization Bechol Lashon.

1 Comment

  1. Since when are all Jews Jews-by-birth? Hundreds of thousands of Jews are, in fact, Jews-by-choice, and millions of Sephardic Jews-by-birth–not to mention Russian and Ethiopian Jews–don’t relate at all to the Ashkenazic ancestry you’ve portrayed as a universal Jewish norm, which it clearly is not. Your concept of Klal Yisrael needs quite a lot of broadening to jibe with reality, both in the Diaspora and in Israel.

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