Response to “No Conversion Required”

Rabbi Richard Hirsh
April 18, 2013
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I appreciate the thoughtfulness in Mamie Kanfer Stewart’s reflections but one line gave me pause: “ We can say ‘thank you’ to fellow travelers who have chosen to raise their children as Jews…”  Stewart’s suggestion reminds me of stories I have heard of rabbis who have an aliya and/or misheberach on the High Holidays for non-Jewish partners/parents also to “thank them” for raising their children as Jews.

To me this begs a number of questions, which I submit in a spirit of respectful dissent and honest puzzlement:

Not to be insensitive, but what exactly are we thanking them for, and why? I find it hard to imagine the reverse: a church where the minister of priest or members are expected or invited  or motivated to “thank” Jewish parents for raising their children as Christians.

Is there something implicitly negative (even if subliminal) being suggested about Jewish identity such that a decision to raise a Jewish child needs an appreciation? Is there a suggestion that in doing so the parent(s) made a hard decision? Why would it be a hard decision except for intra-parental debate? In which case the Jewish parent might want to thank the non-Jewish parent for going along with her or his wishes…but why ought the Jewish community be thanking anyone?

I cannot imagine it is the intention of people who suggest non-Jewish parents are owed a “thank-you” that there is something negative, risky, or difficult about someone being raised as a Jew, but I wonder if that might be heard as a/the message?

Finally, I wonder whether “thanking” does not inevitably invoke a residual aura either of anxiety (“whew, we got another one!”) or implicit triumphalism (“Thank God he/she isn’t going to be a Christian!”).

My own sense is that there are pretty intense sensitivities in the Jewish community about what non-Jews think about Jewish identity and Jewish boundaries. Whether, for example, non-Jews can have aliyot or be in a minyan and the like are often argued as if “reserving” these for Jews is “restricting” them from non-Jews. But I have yet to hear a progressive Jew who is  in favor of giving aliyot to non-Jews complain the she or he is unfairly denied communion at a church and thus marginalized. It is at least curious.  Is it in some way connected to minority consciousness?  Is there perhaps insecurity and/or some form of residual internalized anti-Jewishness among some Jews (I am not accusing Stewart of anything like that, just raising the question)?  Is Jewish identity  seen as one that cannot stand on its own terms as equal to any other and not in need of apology?

Now I admit I may have, even likely have, way over-read into a relatively small piece of a much longer and more complex article. And I fear I may have given offense where none was intended. Mostly I am puzzled at the suggestion that I as a Jew owe a non-Jewish parent a “thank you” for raising a Jewish child. This  strikes me as something I cannot imagine a Jew suggesting of any other parent in any other circumstance (“Thank you for raising your inter-racial child as black?”).  And that, I suggest, tells us something about how even in the 21st century perhaps some American Jews may still not feel fully at home in America.

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Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and teaches future rabbis at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He was the editor of the journal The Reconstructionist from 1996-2006. He has previously served congregations in Chicago, New York, New Jersey and Toronto, was the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis and Jewish Chaplaincy Service (1988-1993) and was on the staff of the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council (1987-1988). Rabbi Hirsh received his BA in Jewish Studies from Hofstra University (1975), his MA in religion with a specialization in the New Testament from Temple University (1981), and was graduated as a rabbi from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (1981). Rabbi Hirsh was the chair of the “Reconstructionist Commission on the Role of the Rabbi” and the author of its report, The Rabbi- Congregation Relationship: A Vision for the 21st Century. His commentaries are featured in A Night of Questions, the Reconstructionist Haggadah and the Reconstructionist High Holiday prayerbook. He is also the author of the books The Journey of Mourning and Welcoming Children in the Reconstructionist Guide to Jewish Practice series. His articles have appeared regularly in the magazines The Reconstructionist and Reconstructionism Today, as well as in many other Jewish and general publications. For over a dozen years he has contributed commentary on the weekly Torah portion for the Jewish Exponent and the New Jersey Jewish News.

1 Comment

  1. Richard, thank you for raising such an important point in my essay. You are absolutely correct to ask “what exactly are we thanking them for, and why?” I understand your interpretation, but would like to offer insight into my perspective which prompted the statement to begin with.

    But let me start with a question – have you ever done something very important that you knew very little about, that took decent effort to do, and where you felt that many people were looking over your shoulder? This is often the position that non-Jews feel they are in. It is not that raising a Jewish child (or not raising a Christian child) is something to be thankful for. Instead it is that fellow travelers should be recognized for the situation they’re in – many are still learning what it means to live Jewishly themselves and yet they are also trying to role model and teach their children simultaneously. For example, while celebrating Jewish holidays is often a fun tradition for Jews, for fellow travelers it can be days of discomfort or even stress from not knowing the stories, rituals, and Hebrew language. Over time, a person learns these things, and yes, one could take Introduction to Judaism classes or do other learning to get up the curve faster. But, nothing replaces experiencing a seder for thirty years of your life.

    So we’re thanking them for not giving up, not turning away because we speak a different language and do things differently (which if you’ve ever been to a religious ceremony for another culture, you know can be very uncomfortable). We’re thanking them for continuing to be part of our community even when it’s not easy and, to be completely frank, when our communal policies and attitudes are often outright unwelcoming.

    I am not sure if this fully addresses your points, but I hope that it at least offers an alternative perspective and continues the dialogue.

    Posted by
    Mamie Kanfer Stewart
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