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Conversion Disorder

August 2, 2009 – 4:30 pm47 Comments
Ruth, the first convert, with her mother-in-law Naomi

Ruth, the first convert, with her mother-in-law, Naomi

By Rachel Sacks-Davis

The mikvah itself was a non-event, so much so that she wondered whether she had done something wrong. By that stage she already felt Jewish; the internal transformation had taken place sometime earlier.

Francis* didn’t have a Jewish upbringing in the classical sense, but she had Jewish ancestry. “We were assimilated,” she tells me. “It was very late when I realised ‘Oh, Dad’s Jewish.’” But earlier, when she was two years old, her family had left the Soviet Union as Jewish refugees, and ultimately the influence of her Jewish background became increasingly important to her.

As a young adult she felt strongly that being Jewish was her heritage. “We would never have left the Soviet Union if we hadn’t been Jewish. It changed the course of my whole life.” And similar to many other Australian Jews, Francis’ extended family had perished in the second world war.

So even though her parents hadn’t encouraged her to try to marry Jewish (it would have been somewhat hypocritical if they had), she decided that she wanted to date Jewish men. Although by the time she finally approached the Bet Din, she wanted to marry her Jewish boyfriend, the process that had taken her to that point had begun much earlier.

By that stage, Francis had already considered converting through Reform rather than Orthodox. “I tried to look at it analytically, made a pros and cons list, then realised that was the wrong way to go about it.” Given that Reform Judaism recognises patrilineal descent, converting Reform wouldn’t change Francis’ status. “I would still be in the same position. People could still say, ‘You’re not Jewish.’”

Before she contacted the Orthodox Bet Din, Francis spoke to people who were in the process of converting, read a lot, tried out multiple synagogues, settled on one, and started attending regularly. “By the time I got to the first interview, I had already done so much that I was exhausted, and that was just the beginning.”

Initially, they wanted to explore whether Francis might already be Jewish. Her mother’s ancestry was not well documented and all Francis could tell them was what she been told: her mother had Jewish ancestry but wasn’t halakhically Jewish. From that point on, her Jewish ancestry did not have any influence on the conversion process.

Neither did her age. By the time Francis began the conversion process she was thirty-four, and wanting to get married fairly quickly so as to maximise her chances of having children. I asked her whether the Bet Din tried to accelerate her conversion process. It wasn’t even a consideration.

They explained to her that the process would take at least two years. “One rabbi told me that it takes ten years to become observant. From their point of view, two years is short.”

The conversion process consists of eight core modules, and for each the conversion candidate (and where applicable, their partner) must become proficient enough to pass an oral exam. At each oral exam the candidate and their partner are also asked about their participation in halakhic Jewish life.

After completing the eight modules, the candidate is required to sit a lengthy written exam, which is divided into eighteen sub-modules. Candidates can take as long as they wish to complete the exam and can do different modules in different sittings. Francis completed the exam in twelve and a half hours. She describes the entire process as extremely thorough. When she spoke to friends with Jewish high school education about what she was learning, they were surprised. “They didn’t know that kind of stuff.”

Despite the thorough educational process, ultimately the main test is whether the candidate has taken on the mitzvot. In the final interview, Francis and her partner were asked numerous questions about her observance of Jewish law. For example, whether her partner was wearing tzitzit and kippah, and whether she was keeping kosher.

Some of the questions were extremely personal. The Bet Din were concerned that Francis was not socialising enough with religious Jews. “They want to know that you’re integrating into the frum community.”

The experience was particularly stressful for Francis because her father passed away after suffering from cancer for many years, shortly before she finished converting. In the final interview, when she was asked why she wasn’t making more of an effort to socialise with religious Jews, Francis had to explain that at that particular juncture in her life she needed support from old friends, and didn’t have the emotional resources to make new ones. “One of the dayanim asked whether my father had a Jewish funeral and that really upset me.”

The basic description of the conversion process that appears in the Talmud (Yevamot 47a-b) says that someone who wants to become a convert should be told about the dangers confronting the Jewish people (“they are persecuted and oppressed”), instructed in some of the major and minor commandments, informed of the punishment for transgressing the commandments, and rewards for fulfilling the commandments. If he accepts these terms, he is to be converted.

The idea that conversion entails a total commitment to observe the mitzvot is a relatively modern conception (Professors Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar date this idea to the nineteenth century), which arguably developed as a reaction to the development of non-Orthodox  Judaism.

Whilst it is important for converts to be properly inducted into Jewish life and learning, there is also an imperative to treat potential converts with respect. It says in Baba Metzia (59b) that someone who causes anguish to a convert thereby transgresses thirty-six commandments; some say, forty-six commandments. A more compassionate conversion process that is flexible and sensitive to the convert’s needs is essential and need not transgress the halakhot of conversion.

* Name changed to protect identity.

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