The first major league baseball game I attended (I was 11 at the time) was so boring I spent most of the nine innings trying to get the crowd to do “the wave;” the only sports I do enjoy watching on TV are the girly ones (gymnastics and figure skating); and up until recently, I was quite convinced that Lebron James was actually called “James LeBron.”
Needless to say, when I started seeing posts online about a guy named Amare Stoudemire who was discovering his “Jewish roots,” I had no idea who he was or what he did. When I found out that this Amare Stoudemire is a famous basketball player who recently took a trip Israel and had wonderful things to say about the Jewish people, land, and religion, I was instantly a fan.
After some extensive research (I read a couple articles and watched a video), it seems that Mr. Stoudemire is not “technically” Jewish but rather has developed an interest in Judaism due to his mother’s studying of it. Several times Mr. Stoudemire was asked during the interviews if he found a Jewish link in his family tree, and he responded with things like “we’re all Jewish” or “I’m a history lover, and it’s the original culture.”
Now in my personal opinion, any time anyone in the public eye has something good to say about Jews, Judaism, or Israel, we should be grateful for the positive PR, but positive PR or not, a love of Judaism alone does not a Jew make. At least not according to Orthodox Judaism.
Which brings me to the Orthodox definition of a Jew: a person born to a Jewish mother or someone who underwent an Orthodox conversion. This definition, unfortunately, leaves some people feeling excluded, and I remember very clearly, back in my pre-Orthodox days, how offended I was when I learned that Orthodox Jews don’t consider non-Orthodox conversions kosher. It meant that some of my friends weren’t Jewish in the eyes of the Orthodox.
After learning more, though, I decided that the Orthodox approach to converting is actually pretty reasonable. Orthodox Jews don’t look at the Jewish people an “exclusive club,” with a closed membership. On the contrary, we make conversion available to anyone and everyone who’s willing to undergo the process.
At the same time, we don’t go around proselytizing to non-Jews in an effort to “save” them since we believe that every righteous gentile has a share in the World to Come. A “righteous gentile” is someone who lives by 7 basic moral laws (the Sheva Mitzvos B’nei Noach) which include things like: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t torture animals, etc.
A Jew, on the other hand, is obligated in 613 commandments. So the most basic way to explain the concept of conversion (according to Orthodox belief) is that a person, who was formerly responsible for only 7 commandments, makes himself responsible for 613.
Now we come to the difference between an Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversions. Orthodoxy expects that if a person obligates himself in 606 new laws he will spend his life trying to fulfill that obligation. The non-Orthodox movements don’t require such a commitment from their converts since they don’t require such a commitment from their members who were born Jewish!
Perspective converts have complained to me that expecting so much of a convert seems unfair since someone who’s born Jewish gets to stay Jewish even if he doesn’t do a single mitzvah his entire life. And it’s true, once someone is born into the tribe, he remains a member no matter what he does or doesn’t do.
It should be noted, though, that while a lack of mitzvah observance is not enough to make a Jew lose his Jewish status it’s certainly not something that Orthodoxy encourages. Also, just to be fair, a non-observant Jew who was born Jewish didn’t exactly ask for the responsibility – it’s something that happened to him without his say in the matter. A convert, on the other hand, has the choice to become a Jew or remain a gentile.
And speaking of a gentile, although Mr. Stoudemire may have started calling himself a Jew – something he’s free to do, as it is a free country – for the record, it’s not just the Orthodox that don’t consider him one. According to Reform and Conservative law, without Jewish lineage or a formal conversion, a non-Jew remains a non-Jew.
Reform and Conservatives Jews don’t mean to offend people like Amare any more than Orthodox Jews mean to offend Reform and Conservative converts. Every major branch of Judaism simply agrees that there are certain standards as to what defines a Jew, and those who do not meet that criteria are not Jewish. Orthodox standards are of course stricter and therefore less inclusive than the other denominations, but the reasons behind the laws are not arbitrary and have been around for millenia.
Although the different denominations don’t always see eye to eye, I’m sure we could all agree that if Mr. Stoudemire ever did decide to officially join the team it’d be a slam dunk for the Jewish people.
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Fantastic article! I am the beginning of my orthodox conversion…
To me it is much like with children – if I bore a child it will always biologically be MY child even if he runs away form home and never talks to me again… but if I just take in a child to my home and let him call me “mommy” he can then leave at any point and sever all ties with me. For him to truly be MY child I would have to formally adopt him in the eyes of the law. Which means i would have to go take an oath before a court to swear to uphold the law and treat the child as my own forever more. The court the decides how serious they feel I am and would only allow the adoption to go through if it was clear my intent was honest.
This to me is in a lot of ways like being adopted into Judaism. It takes more effort to get there, but once I am there, I am there for good. and it is up to the Beit Din to make sure my intent is honest and I am willing to uphold my end of the deal. (roughly put, but you get the idea 😉 )
That is a truly awesome parable!!
This is a very accessible explanation of the Orthodox view on conversion. Thank you. It’s a sticky topic, and one which makes me nervous to discuss.
I cracked up about “James LeBron.” hehe.
Good luck with the conversion, Elle.
It’s a very sticky topic, Rivki! That’s why I took it on – because it needs to be addressed in a logical and compassionate way.
Well, if he wants to just affiliate with Jews without the obligations of living a Jewish life, he can always do something most un-Jewish, yet meaningful, like getting a tattooed with ‘Born to be Jewish’ (huh???).
Shvach, he already has a star of david tattoo!
Thank you, Allison, for a really excellent essay on conversion. You (and Elle, btw) handled this delicate topic better than I’ve heard in a long time.
My pleasure, Ruti. Please feel free to refer people to it if they’re looking for an answer on the subject.
While I recognize the role of external authority figures, isn’t religion (and legal statuses, including adoption and marriage) just an outward acknowledgement of an an inner “feeling”? There are a lot of people who are married in the eyes of the law that are not spiritually married, and there are a lot of people that are spiritually part of a religion that aren’t officially part of that religion. Shouldn’t that between you and the higher power, whether that be a deity or the spiritual/personal fulfillment of being married? Why should a court decide how serious they think a person is? How can a court decide someones spiritual state?
Great question, Lynn, but I’d like to start out by noting that it’s not just Orthodox Jews who require “outward acknowledgements” of “inner spiritual feelings.” All major branches of Judaism require procedures and documents and ceremonies for things like marriage and conversion. In fact, that seems to be the practice of society in general. Even secular governments require documents and judges for things like adoption, marriage, or change of citizenship.
But now I’ll get to Orthodox Jews specifically, since that’s my group. We believe that inner spiritual feelings are not sufficient in really any aspect of our relationship with God. Feelings are nice, but observant Judaism is an action based way of life. Even when we make a blessing, it’s not enough to think it in our head. We must say the words with our mouth. The idea is that we were given physical bodies that must be physically used to serve our Creator. Also, in terms of how a judge knows what our inner spiritual state is, it’s true that God is the ultimate judge and knows if our actions are sincere or not, but the way we measure committment in this world, on a human to human level is through actions. And a person who wants to enter into the people of Israel has to learn about our laws and customs and then show that s/he is committed to living a life based on those laws and values.
But playing devil’s advocate, what if a person said and did all the right things for the human judges and was allowed to convert, but in his heart of hearts, none of it was sincere. The conversion would STILL be kosher, because the Torah tells us “lo b’shamayim he” which means that the Torah is not in the heavens. Meaning, we must use the tools we have down here on earth to make determinations of someone’s sincerity, and if the person is living a Torah committed life in every way, that’s all we can require for a kosher conversion. Perhaps God has His own calculation for such a person in the next world, but when it comes to here and now, the Torah and its laws were entrusted to human beings.
Excellent post, very well presented. Personally I don’t like modifying Judaism with the term “orthodox,” because it’s the genuine Torah Judaism and needs no additon to its name. In Israel it’s just plain Yahadut.
A friend posted your “Are Orthodox Jews Sexist?” Youtube on his Facebook page. Nice. And, so I had to check out your website. Nice.
This conversion piece is also nice.
Simple and pleasant.
You should continue and grow.
Thank you for posting this article it’s really good.
Can you write something about a person who is married and that person wants to convert to Orthodox Judaism but the spouse doesn’t want to and a rabbi is unwilling to perform the conversion? Has there ever been a case in which, in terms of halacha, such has been done with the approval of a bet din?
Anonymous questioner, I actually did write about that already. It’s not an easy answer, but here’s what I wrote: http://www.jewinthecity.com/2008/10/i-want-to-convert-to-judaism-but-my-husband-is-not-jewish/
So what you are saying is that Orthodox conversions are in fact NOT open to anyone who wants to go through the process.
Thanks for your comment, Refa. Orthodox conversions are open to anyone who wants to go through the process but sometimes the process is extremely challenging.
Well articulated, as always. I’m curious though, why is it (or how is it discussed) that a reform or non-practicing Jew (say she comes from three or four generations of reformed but ethnically Jewish ancestors) can automatically “claim” (for lack of a better term) Judaism for her children. She could be living a “less Jewish” life than someone else who has converted or who only has a Jewish father etc. Just interested in what you think. Thanks!
Good question, Karen. It comes down to a spiritual DNA of sorts – you can’t get kicked out once you’ve been born with Jewishness which tells us that being a Jew is more than just how one acts or lives. When you get born into it (through your mother’s line) it’s because you’re spiritually connected to the Jewish people and history before you.
But despite the fact that we’re a nation with a history, we let sincere people join our tribe whenever they want. But to become a Jew – since one lacks the connection by birth – in this case certain actions must be performed to change one’s status and show one’s sincerity.
I found out that I was not ” Jewish ” after being raised as a Jew my entire life. I was adopted at birth and converted by a conservative rabbi. I was happily ignorant of my status until I became observant when I had children. I was heartbroken. It was my identity. First I was angry, now I just accept that from now on I will have to be conservadox. I cannot move to a place where there are 10 shomer shabbos families, i cannot send my four children to yeshiva….. they currently have a tutor and are homeschooled. It truly breaks my heart, because I did not choose for this to happen. I have recently met other people in this position who either lie or have renounced their faith. I refuse to abandon a path that was chosen for me and one that I am passionate about. Please do remember that some of us were infants when we were converted and now we are lost souls literally
I’m so sorry for your difficult situation. Sometimes our ideals do not match up with reality. I will say, though, that you should never lose hope. If you continue to daven that Hashem should help you find a way to a Jewish community and a way to a halachic conversion, I believe sometimes unexpected things happen and we’re able to reach our goals.
Hi, I log on to your blog like every week. Your humoristic style is awesome,
keep it up!