Monday, April 11, 2011

Commitment

On Tuesday evenings, I participate in a Kiruv training program with the students at YU's Israel Kollel under the auspices of Ner L'elef. This past week, as the group learned about conversion issues, they heard from Rabbi Zvi Romm, who teaches at YU, serves as the rabbi of the Bialystoker shul on the Lower East Side, and also now serves as the menahel of the Beit Din for Giyyur in the Metropolitan New York area.
In his introduction to the topic, Rabbi Romm gave a broad outline of the conversion process, and noted how the way that we convert people today has very little in common with the process outlined in the classical sources, and especially Shulchan Aruch. There you'll find that if a gentile wishes to convert, he or she petitions the local Jewish court (Bet Din) to convert. The members of the court first try and discourage the potential convert by pointing out the degraded position of the Jew in the world ("You really want to be one of us? Really? Have you read the news lately?"); then they teach the candidate מקצת מצוות קלות ומקצת מצוות חמורות - "some of the more simple commandments (Don't kill) and some of the more stringent commandments" (No more Starbucks coffee. Just kidding.); they specifically don't tell him too much so as not to scare the person away. They then perform a circumcision (if necessary), dunk the person in the mikvah and voila! - It's a Jew! The process could take but a matter of hours.
Yet, that's not the way we do it at all. In general, any serious conversion takes at the very least a year. The Bet Din today takes great pains to ascertain the seriousness of a candidate, and must ensure that the candidate has learned enough to live as a practicing Jew. The candidate must live in a neighborhood within walking distance of a shul, and commit to enroll her children in Orthodox Jewish Day school.  These practices are commonly accepted now in conversions around the world, and if a rabbi stands ready to convert someone without these basic requirements, that fact itself would call the conversions he performs into question. His claims that he was, "Just following the Shulchan Aruch" would fall on deaf ears. That's just not how we do it anymore?
And yet I wonder: What happened to the Shulchan Aruch? When did accepted practice so far outstrip the demands of the classical sources that they no longer resemble the authoritative Code of Law in any way? Rabbi Romm answered simply and I think correctly, that the times have changed. People have changed. During the lifetime of Rabbi Yosef Caro (the author of the Shulchan Aruch), things were different in a number of different ways: the status of Jews was so degraded and so belittled that anyone who actually petitioned a Jewish court to convert had to be serious. Secondly, and I think more importantly, people then had a different perspective on religion. It wasn't that they were nothing, and somehow decided to be Jewish. Rather, everyone knew that you had to follow a God. The only question was, which one? You didn't need to know every rule, because the assumption was that if you accepted the Jewish faith, you accepted the entire faith, and could learn the rules on the fly.
That's no longer the case, not by a long shot. People have great reasons to want to be Jewish today: We're highly respected in the world. Being Jewish is an automatic ticket to Israel, a highly coveted country to live in with a standard of living above much of the rest of the globe. And, at a very basic level, people are entering into relationships that propel them to want to enter the faith for other that religious reasons.
To me, though, there's a deeper, more fundamental change in Western thought that has made the idea of conversion more palatable to the convert, but less desirable to the Beit Din, and a reason for even greater caution and concern: We have lost a sense of long-term commitment.
In the society in which we live, everything is temporary. I bought the computer that I'm typing this on knowing that I'd replace it within a few years. It will soon die, and I'll buy a new one. While people used to think that they'd work for one company until they retired, that notion today seems quaint, if not silly. Yet, forget about cellphones (a year at most) or cars (perhaps three). People also cannot commit to each other either. It's quite clear that to much of society, marriage is a temporary condition. When people vow, "'till death do us part," they don't really mean that. They mean, "or until we've outgrown each-other."
If you think I'm wrong, consider this: we all know what "commitment" means. The dictionary defines to "commit" as, "to give in trust or charge; consign." Yet, we also know the other definition of "committed." (#7 on the list) "to place in a mental institution or hospital by or as if by legal authority." In very real terms, someone who is "committed" really is crazy - or at least crazy enough to be placed, against his will in a mental institution. What about the person who's committed to his marriage? Or his religion? Is he also crazy? I think that in our current cultural climate, he very well may be, at least a little bit.

This derision of commitment in our society makes it difficult to convey to a potential convert the life-long nature of conversion. It's not something you "try", nor is it something we believe you can give up later on. When a convert later changes her mind and decides afterward not to be Jewish anymore, that's not a decision that she can make according to Jewish tradition. Once a Jew, always a Jew. So Judaism learned that the old rules can no longer apply. We can no longer simply take someone at their word and teach them later on. We must be sure that when they make that life-long commitment, they know, to the best of our ability to teach them, what they're getting themselves into.
This helps explain why we're so much more strict than we once were regarding accepting converts. It also explains some of the underlying causes of the "Shidduch Crisis."
But that's an entirely different post.