Friday, March 8, 2013

Response to Rabbi Cosgrove's Conservative Conversion Proposal

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York has caused quite a stir in the Jewish blogging community over a recent d'var Torah, entitled "An Immodest Proposal."

There is so much I want to say about Rabbi Cosgrove's "back-of-the-napkin," "trial balloon" proposal, but right off the bat, I would like to make a general observation about the conversion conversation. I would appreciate seeing the topic of conversion discussed more often in its own right, detached from the intermarriage issue. Yes, sometimes the two topics are related and warrant a joint discussion. However, just because some of us may have "found" Judaism through a relationship with a born-Jew, doesn't mean we converted "for" them or that the discussion has to include anything more on the interfaith aspect than that. I have ranted about my frustration with converting "for" someone on multiple occasions.

Moving on! Rabbi Cosgrove's sermon is worth reading in full, but I am going to pull out my "favorite" parts to discuss here. Please feel free to share your thoughts on my critique or on another part of his sermon in the comments!

"And while some of my Reform colleagues do not perform intermarriages, the unintended consequence of this patrilineal resolution, as you can imagine, is dis-incentivizing the act of conversion altogether. After all, if a rabbi will marry you and the kids are Jewish anyway - why go through the whole rigmarole at all?"
This is just one of many comments that Rabbi Cosgrove made throughout this sermon lamenting the "dis-incentivizing" of conversion, but why exactly are we "incentivizing" it? What happened to turning a potential convert away three times? And if the potential convert considers conversion an annoying "rigmarole" as a means to a handful of specific ends (a Jewish wedding and Jewish kids), then maybe they shouldn't be converting to Judaism in the first place. When you convert, you are supposed to count yourself among the Jewish people, take on a Jewish identity, and accept the mitzvot, so "why go through the whole rigmarole" if that's not your intention?
"Probably the most famous narrative about conversion in the Talmud is the story of the would-be-convert who approaches first Shammai and then Hillel, asking to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai hits him with a stick – effectively telling him to get lost. Hillel, famously, converts him right away, telling him 'That which is hateful to you, do not do your fellow. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.' The order of events is often missed, but it is instructive for us today. First Hillel converts, then Hillel teaches. First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it's all about."
I love this story - so much so that it inspired my blog name - but I think that it is being misused here. The life of a convert, just like that of a born-Jew, is (or should be) a life of continuous learning. Knowing "what it's all about" is not a prerequisite for conversion, but there are a few things you should know before committing to be Jewish for the rest of your life. In this story, Hillel teaches his convert "the entire Torah" before converting him. Traditionally, we read the entire Torah in a one year cycle (three years in some synagogues), so I could just as easily cite this story as precedence for the common practice of requiring one year of study before conversion.

I am also a bit confused as to how Rabbi Cosgrove's "convert them first" plan would actually be implemented. He suggests regularly scheduled conversion times at the beginning of every month with follow up classes about Judaism in which the convert would be automatically enrolled, with no guarantee that they would actually attend, of course. That aside, would they go through the beit din and mikveh right away? Would the beit din still ask them if they were ready to take on Judaism, the good and the bad? Who could possibly answer that question at such an early stage? Not only that, but at what point would you circumcise a male convert? I can't imagine that a man would agree to circumcision without fully understanding the significance of it and deciding to commit fully to a Jewish life. Coming to understand, appreciate, and love Judaism takes time and learning. He cites "na'aseh v'nishmah" ("we will do and we will hear") as another reason to convert first, teach second. I have commented on this phrase from Exodus 24:7 before in relation to conversion, so I will only say here that I think Rabbi Cosgrove is ignoring a key element of "na'aseh v'nishmah," namely that when the Jews originally said it in Exodus, they were already Jews. The "we will do" part that came first was about taking on the mitzvot, not an entirely new identity as a Jew.

"Quite frankly, given the option of being misled by would-be Jews lacking integrity, or running the risk of losing potential Jewish households, I would choose the former over the latter any day of the week. I am in the business, we are in the business, of creating Jewish homes."

I have to wonder how often, if ever, Rabbi Cosgrove deals with converts or potential converts who are doing it for themselves out of a personal love of Judaism and desire to be part of the Jewish people. His outlook strikes me as incredibly hurtful to that group of us, as we are the ones who would be (and currently are) lumped in with those "would-be Jews lacking integrity" and forced to overcompensate to prove our integrity. I, for one, appreciate the slow learning approach to conversion. I not only appreciated the time and effort my rabbi took with me during my seven month conversion process as an important preparation for Jewish life, but I appreciate it now as a way to safeguard against Rabbi Cosgrove's "would-be Jews" who cast suspicion on the rest of us.* I think the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative Movement's association of rabbis) put it best in their position paper on non-halakhic conversions: "These objective halakhic criteria, which alone protect the purity of Jewish identity, should not be compromised in the interests of an ultimately meaningless Jewish unity."

*I know I'm coming across as incredibly harsh here, so let me just state for the record that I am not at all suggesting that rabbis close their doors to potential converts. I am (and this should be obvious) pro-conversion. My negativity here stems from consistently for multiple years now being on the defensive about my conversion from people who question my motives and the motives of all converts. That said, it's not all bad. In fact, I think it's safe to say that most people I tell are genuinely supportive.

I will end on a note of agreement, because I like to stay positive.

" strikes me as problematic verging on hypocritical to ask or expect converts to live according to a lifestyle that I do not demand of the rest of synagogue membership."
I don't think that this double standard is something I have discussed on my blog and, to be honest, it's not something I think about much anymore, but it used to really bother me during my conversion process and right after my conversion. Converts are often held to a higher standard than born-Jews when it comes to keeping the mitzvot. My legitimacy can be called into question, unofficially or officially, if I am less observant. However, if I had been born Jewish, then I would be Jewish without question, even if I ate a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich every morning and never observed Shabbat. It used to really bother me that there are Jews who wouldn't consider me Jewish, because I didn't convert in their movement, while born-Jews get a free pass in a sense. I'm not really sure when that stopped bothering me; it just slowly phased out of my thoughts. My observance of the mitzvot is between me and God and it doesn't make a difference to my level of observance what the Jew down the street does or doesn't do. Nonetheless, I appreciate Rabbi Cosgrove's acknowledgement of this issue.

Shabbat Shalom! Don't forget to "spring forward" this Sunday for Daylight Savings Time!