In the Mishnah, the foundational text of rabbinic Judaism and the first to institutionalize conversion to Judaism, we find the following intriguing ruling about limitations to the inclusion of a convert in the Jewish collective:
A convert (ger) also is obligated to offer the first fruits of the produce of his land to the Temple, but he may not recite the blessings over them, since he is not able to say: “… the land which God swore to our fathers to give us.” (Deuteronomy 26:3-10)
Put differently, this ruling does not allow a convert to include himself or herself in the biblical invocation of “our ancestors,” in the notion of “our” collective past. Biblical ancestry, so this ruling implies, is a matter of kinship. Its context is the legal circumscription of the first fruit offering that was to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, which was no longer in existence at the time the Mishnah was compiled at the end of the second century C.E. What intrigues me about this text, however, is not the historicity of this ruling. Rather, it raises the larger question of whether one can adopt a collective memory not one’s own — at least not by kinship association — and what that might mean. Clearly, to the rabbis who promulgated this ruling, this question informed their thinking about conversion and about changing people into members of “Israel.” The ruling informed my own thinking about conversion as well, but from a somewhat different angle.
I remember that I brought up this mishnaic paragraph in my conversations with Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman, who guided me through the process of converting in Berkeley, Calif., 17 years ago. I had approached Rabbi Finkelman to ask for his guidance, and he readily agreed, having known me for a few years already, both as a graduate student of rabbinic literature and as a participant in the life of his shul, Congregation Beth Israel (which I still consider my home shul). I do not remember how Rabbi Finkelman responded, but in all likelihood he would have suggested that I look into Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, where he contradicted the Mishnah’s ruling: There, Maimonides wrote that converts are commanded to pronounce the blessing, including the mention of “our” biblical ancestors. Similarly, converts invoke the “God of our fathers and mothers” in much of our liturgy. After all, as converts, we adopt Abraham as our “father” and Sarah as our “mother” for our Hebrew names, and we follow them on their paths. In Jewish practice, converts are not set apart liturgically nor much at all, other than, perhaps, the prohibition against marrying a Jew of priestly kinship.
Indeed, since my immersion in the mikvah in 1996 in front of a bet din of three Modern Orthodox rabbis in Oakland, Calif., I have lived most of my life as a Jewish woman and not as a convert. The congregations and communities I joined over the years, whether Modern Orthodox or Conservative, rarely made me feel otherwise. Only when I lectured to a Jewish congregation in the early years after my conversion were people curious about who I was and my motivation to become Jewish, as I was not driven by plans to marry a Jew. I had been invited to lecture as a scholar and teacher of rabbinic literature, and I was struck by the irony of lecturing to Jewish audiences about my conversion, since in rabbinic theory, my audience was enjoined not to remind a convert of her origins.
I continue to feel as though I am charting new territory for myself Jewishly; as a single mother, I am raising a little boy to appreciate Jewish life, Shabbat, the holidays, the dietary laws, and the ethics that they instill. Raising a child Jewishly, after all, does not come naturally, especially when one has not been raised Jewish. But even this makes me feel less like a convert and more like a Jewish mother trying to find her way. And so many of my friends are struggling in precisely the same ways with challenges and choices about Jewish education. I have never once regretted or second-guessed my own decision to convert, nor have I ever doubted my commitment to enabling a Jewish future for my son or myself.
Yet, there is a particular way in which the original rabbinic exclusion of converts from the notion of a shared collective past exercises its hold over me, and I would be remiss if I ignored it. I was born and raised in Germany, and it was the postwar culture of accounting for the horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany against the Jews of Europe that initially paved my path toward falling in love with Judaism. In that context, the collective pasts that we, the postwar generations, inherited, were diametrically opposed. And it is into this context that the German-Jewish public intellectual Henryk Broder introjected his caustic remark that Germans who converted to Judaism wanted to make it to the right side of history, adopting a collective past that was ethically, morally, and rightfully not theirs. It would be preposterous for a German convert, and here Broder is simply right, to claim the murdered European Jews as her ancestors — not that German converts really do, at least not the ones I know. But it is excruciatingly difficult to escape this particular ethical conundrum that comes with the conversion of Germans to Judaism. In that context, the mishnaic injunction may have a point.
And so the question of whether and how I can think of myself no longer as a “Jew by choice,” but as “Jewish” is premised, in part, on a geopolitical break in my biography. Having lived in the United States for most of my adult life, and having made my choice for a life lived Jewishly here, this is what I am to myself, to my child, and to my community. I am separated from the collective past I grew up with — that of my immediate family included — not only chronologically, but also by an ocean and a continent. But I do return to them regularly, for more or less extended visits, and I retain and nurture the bond with my non-Jewish and religiously largely non-affiliated family. To my family, of course, I am a “Jew by choice,” and my siblings in all likelihood describe me to their friends and colleagues not as “Jewish” but as “converted to Judaism.” So those visits with the family have something of a dimension of a return to “otherness.” That said, even this has been mitigated over the years by building ties with the Jewish community in Berlin, where we have lived altogether for a good year of my child’s life, and where he has gone to Jewish schools. Visiting Germany is no longer about visiting “goyish land.”
In the end, I teach my child to honor a God of life, and to think of the Torah as a guide to life and to a viable and sustainable future, and not only as an anchor to the past wherein we formulate our particular complex relationships. This is a much easier task in the United States, a culture that is comparatively more forward looking than German culture; here, the past rarely gets the last word. That is why Abraham’s view forward has to be the model, not only for those of us who convert, but for all of us.