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Conversion and Love

May 8, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

My boyfriend is an observant Jew, I want to convert, and my mother is freaking out.

Dear Rebbetzin Feige,

For about a year now, I have decided to convert to Judaism. I have not formally begun the process yet, but after spending a year tossing around the idea of conversion and letting go of Christian beliefs, I decided to become Jewish. How I got into Judaism is something which I am ashamed of mentioning since I am only 18 years old and fear that people will not take my desire to convert seriously. At school, I had met a Jewish boy who came from a modern Orthodox family. We began dating and are still together. Throughout our two years of being together, we have managed to keep our relationship hidden from our parents; my Christian parents would never approve of it, and neither would his.

As I learned more about Judaism, I began praying and studying Torah regularly, dressing modestly and became shomeret negiah. My boyfriend respects and supports my decisions. The problem I have is with my mother who is the most religious in my family. She has taken notice of my new love for Judaism and is showing her disapproval -- something which I understand and was expecting. She told me that she feels as though she is losing her child and has failed in raising me to be a 'good Christian.' She gets angry when I bring home kosher food, dress in long skirts, read Torah, and am reluctant to go to church and other "weird" things I seem to be doing, as she says.

She suspects that I may have a Jewish boyfriend and often tells me, "Do not convert for anyone. If someone really loves you, he will accept you as you are." I want to convert for myself, not for my boyfriend or for anyone else. And this my mother does not believe. Rebbetzin Feige, how can I bring joy into mother's heart when she sees me as a disappointment? How do I get the idea of a boyfriend out of her mind? I have tried to reassure her that she is not losing me, and that no one is forcing me to convert, but she still believes that an outside influence is pressuring me to be Jewish. What should I do?

My dear reader: Before embarking on the complicated journey into Judaism, there are a number of facts you should know.

Firstly, Judaism does not seek converts. Not because we are reluctant to share our spiritual wealth, but because in contrast to other faiths, we don't consider those who don't embrace our religion as damned or consigned to oblivion. The Jewish position is that if a person observes the seven Noachide laws that are basic to all civilized societies, (i.e. refraining from stealing, murder idolatry, torturing animals, adultery, cursing God and embracing the positive mandate establish a legal system), that individual can merit a portion in eternity. We don't need to "save" anybody. Decent human beings can travel their own path to their specific eternal portion in the world to come.

Though we may be eager to reclaim Jews for Judaism, we don't feel compelled to proselytize to the world at large.

An ultimate decision must never be at the mercy of a penultimate one.

Secondly, consider Larry and Charlotte who came to meet with us about Charlotte's conversion to Judaism. They were serious about each other and Larry's parents could not countenance their son marrying out of the faith. It became evident that Charlotte's interest in Judaism was no more than an attempt to mollify his parents and move on with their personal agenda. In the course of our conversation, we advised her that religion, a relationship with the Master of the world, the very author of our every breath, was not a casual matter to be taken lightly. It is, in fact, the ultimate relationship, the one that has to carry us into eternity. Decisions about whom we marry and with whom we spend our years on Earth, important as they are, do not come close to the significance and seriousness of who our God is and what we believe.

An ultimate decision must never be at the mercy of a penultimate one. My husband pointed out to Charlotte that her new religious interest was frankly not in Judaism but in Larryism. It was simply a means by which to get the man she wanted.

I am not suggesting, my dear reader, that your interest is insincere or ingenuous. What I do know from many years of observing complex human nature is that oftentimes a person is not aware of the many subconscious ulterior motives that lurk beneath the surface. We have seen people who discovered after much honest soul searching that their exploration into Judaism was motivated, deep down, by an effort to hurt their families who they perceived had betrayed them in a myriad of ways. Marriage, retaliation, status seeking, currying favor, etc., are not valid reasons for conversion. It takes a very honest and insightful person and a painstaking process to identify personal interest, ego agendas and to confront the truth. There is no technology that can be applied. It may take a long time for one to be sure.

Linda was a brilliant person of consummate integrity. She studied Judaism and came to classes for years. She was CEO of a huge company and sacrificed much to experience holidays and life cycles in the lives of our community. Her agonizing struggle and search for the truth came to an end when the Rabbi asked her if she was prepared to live a life alone and unmarried. Becoming a convert, he suggested, would further complicate her life and make finding an appropriate partner all the more difficult. She said that when she was able to give an unequivocal positive response, she knew that her search had come to an end and she was ready. She realized that she was committed to the point where no barriers could dissuade her or stand in her way.

Only when there are no strings attached will you get a clear and objective picture of where you stand.

Dear reader, one of the tests you might have to subject yourself to in order to strip away any doubt or semblance of ulterior motive would be to give up your boyfriend. With that personal bias laid to rest, with that subjectivity no longer an issue, you can then proceed to evaluate the merits of your interest in Judaism. Only when there are no strings attached will you get a clear and objective picture of where you stand.

Let me clarify the need for such clarification, and the possible consequences for ignoring it. What if your relationship with this young man should fail to materialize, as sometimes occurs over time with early infatuations? What if your friend's parents would object and the young man feels constrained to accede to his parents' wishes? Are you still committed to becoming an observant Jew? Do you become resentful or bitter to Torah because of the collapse of your romantic interests? I am not questioning your sincerity or integrity, God forbid, nor do I seek to denigrate your courageous attempt of commitment to mitzvoth. Rather, by subjecting yourself to this test, you will determine if your journey can be a proud acquisition of your own, independent of any other person or consideration.

I have the distinct privilege of presiding over a community of which a good portion are righteous converts. They are the finest and the best, and indistinguishable from the rest. In many instances, we are into their second and third generations with offspring who are distinguished rabbis, scholars, professionals and most importantly proud members of the Jewish people. These converts all had one thing in common -- no matter the cost, the pain and the sacrifice, they absolutely had to be Jewish!

Dr. Milt and Ann came to see us about becoming Jewish. I vividly remember that day. I was in a big rush. I had to catch a plane. The words I had said so many times before came pouring out. Jewish law requires that before embracing candidates for conversion, we must first attempt to dissuade them. I gave them the routine. Why would you want to join a people who have been persecuted time and again in the past; the laws of probability would certainly suggest God forbid, that the future will be no different? Our history has been drenched in blood -- inquisitions, pogroms, the Holocaust. Why associate with us and get caught up in our fate?

Furthermore, ours is not a once a week religious commitment to a house of worship. It is a way of life -- a discipline -- from the moment we awake in the morning to when we go to sleep at night, our behavior is circumscribed by laws, the Jewish way to do things. 613 commandments regulate the way we awaken each day, eat our meals, conduct business, interrelate, communicate with each other, inter-gender contact, the way we love, raise children, etc., etc. We are accountable on every level. Judaism is not for the fainthearted; it is very serious stuff. If you are not born into it, why would you voluntarily subject yourself to it?

They listened intently and respectfully until I finished my tirade and then responded very quietly, thoughtfully and emphatically. "Yes, you are right; it may not make perfect sense, but we just have to do it. Our souls yearn for it and we cannot ignore the calling." I tried and I failed. Today, they are beloved members of our community.

Your mother is another reason why you have to be sure your quest is not motivated by extraneous reasons.

Your mother, dear reader, is another reason why you have to be sure your quest is real and not motivated even minutely by extraneous reasons. Her pain is understandable. She raised you a certain way and the new direction you have taken feels like rejection to her. Whatever the outcome, you must reassure her that it is only because of the values that she instilled within you that you are able to seek truth.

The fact that you adopted and observe many of the mitzvot is highly commendable, especially those that are counter-culture, such as dressing modestly. You are clearly a high caliber and spiritually sensitive person who understands that there is dignity in modesty and privacy. It points to a young woman in tune with her inner self and the grandeur that resides within, that is grievously cheapened and compromised by a society that accepts the excessive focus and flaunting of body parts and flesh. You understand that the real you reaches far beyond the confines of your outer self.

My dear reader, I would urge you to consult a respectable Torah authority and tell him/her your story honestly and completely. Let him/her help you attain the clarity that you desperately need -- and may the Almighty lead you in the right direction.

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