I’m in the Forward — and I’m coming out of the closet!

From my Bar Mitzvah 10 years ago

That’s right folks, I’m a patrilineal Jew! I underwent a conversion last year and converted to, er, Conservative Judaism.

Here’s my Forward op-ed:

I have always been a Jew — and after a cursory dunk, the Conservative movement agrees.

Shortly before this past Rosh Hashanah, I was joined by three rabbis and my father, Harold Wilensky (he just happened to be in town), in the waiting room of a suburban New Jersey mikveh.

I was there on that gloomy morning to convert to Judaism. It was something of an unexpected turn.

My roommates, non-Jews who know me as nothing if not a Jew, had a pertinent question: What, if anything, was I converting from?

Until my baptismal dip I was a patrilineal Jew — in some eyes a non-Jew.

[...]

The Conservative rabbinate protests that it cannot recognize patrilineal descent because that would violate its understanding of Jewish law. Coming from people who drive to services on the Sabbath, that reeks. When reality, reason and the changing worldview of the Jews in the pews have called, the Conservative movement has managed to trot out new Halacha that changes the previously unchangeable.

It is time for them to do that again; 1983 was a long time ago. We are growing up, we are starting families and, yes, some of us would like to join your synagogues.

[...]

Now go read the whole thing.

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13 Responses to I’m in the Forward — and I’m coming out of the closet!

  1. Larry Kaufman April 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    First, let me commend your scrupulous honesty in feeling you had to have the Conservative hechsher in order to accept aliyot, lead services, etc.  And I assume that you also wear a kipa when you do so.  

    I was reminded by the inference that Rabbi Roston was prepared to live with DADT of the situation of a friend of mine who converted to Judaism under Reform auspices, and who subsequently, when he joined a Conservative synagogue, asked the rabbi if he would be able to participate fully in the service at the then far-off time of his sons’ bnai mitzvah.  The rabbi said a Conservative conversion would be required.  When the time actually came, I asked him if he had gone through a conversion ceremony, and he said no, that the rabbi had conveniently forgotten.  DADT seemed to be the stance at the Conservative day school (non-Schechter) where my wife used to teach, and where there were many patrilineals.  

    Naturally my blood boiled reading some of the comments on the Forward site — although many were rational and substantive.  Your post and many of the comments made the points that the lifestyles of Conservative Jews are typically indistinguishable from those of their (non-halachic) Reform neighbors and that the Conservative movement has often demonstrated that, in Blu Greenberg’s formulation, where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.

    My rabbi used to say that if you want to know what the Conservative movement is going to do tomorrow, look at what we did thirty years ago.  Actually that timeline has shrunk, between the acceptance of women for a minyan or an aliyah and the acceptance of woman as clergy, and more recently the greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.  I suspect that the thing slowing down patrilineality is its non-acceptance by the Reform/Progressive movements in Canada, Israel, and the rest of the world (with the exception of the Liberal movement in the UK).  I suspect their reluctance to come aboard has to do with their minority status in their respective communities leading to not wanting to rock the boat unduly.

    Anyway, now that you are officially a Conservative Jew, your readers can now better understand why The Reform Shuckle had to go.  (In the Conservative shul where I grew up, shuckling was unknown!) 

      

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

      First, let me commend your scrupulous honesty in feeling you had to have the Conservative hechsher in order to accept aliyot, lead services, etc.  And I assume that you also wear a kipa when you do so. 

      Thanks, Larry. And you would even be right to assume that I have (grudgingly) gotten used to wearing one not only when I accept aliyot and lead, but when I step in the door. Though once she had to remind me to wear one while we went over how to lead Pesukei in her office.

      the inference that Rabbi Roston was prepared to live with DADT

      Feel free to make that inference, though I’m not sure how accurate it is. At the end of the day, they’re not gonna check everyone’s credentials so DADT really is the default setting for everyone (except for the Israeli rabbinate, of course). But I imagine that if she had found out some other way (if, say, someone ratted me out or I let slip something about my mother’s conversion taking place after my birth), she would have been compelled to say something to me about it.

      a friend of mine who converted to Judaism under Reform auspices, and who subsequently, when he joined a Conservative synagogue, asked the rabbi if he would be able to participate fully in the service at the then far-off time of his sons’ bnai mitzvah.  The rabbi said a Conservative conversion would be required.
      That sounds quite odd to me. I wonder if the Conservative stance on Reform conversions is less defined than I thought. Maybe it’s one of those issues left up to individual congregational rabbis. But I’m looking into it and I’ll get back to you.

      Naturally my blood boiled reading some of the comments on the Forward site — although many were rational and substantive.  
      Oh boy. I haven’t gotten to them yet, though I’m going to look at them shortly. This should be fun. I guess.

      Anyway, now that you are officially a Conservative Jew, your readers can now better understand why The Reform Shuckle had to go.  (In the Conservative shul where I grew up, shuckling was unknown!)  

      Well, I’m still using the word Reform for myself, but it has long since stopped applying to this blog’s predecessor. But there’s some shuckling at Beth El here in South Orange. I’ve actually stopped (I tend to twist left and right these days rather than rocking back and forth), but there are some older guys who do it and the rabbi does a bit sometimes.

       

        

  2. Randi April 17, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    If your mom had converted (as she did under the auspices of a Reform rabbi) before you were born, would you and/or R’ Roston still have felt that it was necessary to have a mikveh?

      

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 17, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

      No. As I understand it, left-of-Orthodox rabbis tend to cross-honor each other’s conversions.

        

  3. Rich April 19, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    DADT seems to be policy for a lot of Conservative communities.  I think that that fact suggests that they will be accepting patrilineality before too long.  As for Conservative recognition of Reform conversion, I think it depends.  In Minnesota, we have the Minnesota Rabbinic Association and as long as a conversion includes circumcision/Beit Din/Mikveh the member congregations recognize each other’s conversions.
     
     

      

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

      DADT seems to be policy for a lot of Conservative communities.  I think that that fact suggests that they will be accepting patrilineality before too long.

      I’m not sure that one indicates the other. I believe you’re halachically forbidden from outing someone publicly as a convert. And I’m not sure about this next bit, but I think a halachic argument has been made to the effect of: You should take someone at their word when they say they’re a Jew.

        

  4. Larry Kaufman April 19, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    While it would make sense for Conservative communities to accept as full Jews those who became so under Reform auspices but with milah-mikveh-det din, who says that things always make sense?  But certainly the Conservative movement gives its rabbis a lot of local authority, as long as they are not in total opposition to the rulings of their commission on law. 

    There is a Yiddish expression that kind of sums up DADT — az men fregt, siz treyf.  If you have to ask, you’ve already answered your question. As I suggested earlier, I think DADT will be the unspoken default for a while yet, and the question is whether the Conservative movement will follow or lead the rest of the worldwide Reform movement in accepting patriniality.

    In a peripheral issue with some of the same overtones, the Reform rabbi who officiated at my second marriage, which was also my wife’s second marriage, urged us to give/get Jewiish divorces, if only to protect any future children who chose to live in Israel.  Given that Reform didn’t/doesn’t require the get, should he even have brought it up? 

      

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 19, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

      Reform rarely requires anything! But that doesn’t mean they’re beyond the pale. On the contrary, I think it’s something the movement ought to think about. If you want to be relevant in people’s lives — and lots of people’s lives include divorce — you can’t limit your use of life cycle rituals to happy occasions alone.

        

      • Larry Kaufman April 19, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

        You can only require what you can enforce.  Most Reform congregations enforce certain standards for b’nai mitzvah; many Reform rabbis have requirements about the religious commitments of a couple being married — both Jewish, non-Jew commits to raising Jewish children, etc. 

        I don’t know all the reasons why Reform eliminated the get — but a good one grounded in Jewish tradition is dina malchuta dina, the law of the land is the law; and another is eliminating the sexism of the get, given by the husband to the wife if he so chooses.  And of course there are now Reform ceremonies and documents for the termination of marriages, although I don’t know how frequently they are used.  (Subsequent to writing this, I checked Washofsky, who has a good chapter on the pros and cons of Jewish divorce.) 

        While Reform may “require” less than those you are now hob-nobbing with, certainly a substantial number of members of Conservative congregations pay very little attention to such requirements of their movement as kashrut, Shabbat limitations on activities, observance of the festivals, etc. 

          

        • David A.M. Wilensky April 24, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

          Dina malchuta dina would be a great reason to eliminate the get — if it were we also looked at it as a great reason to eliminate the ketubah and everything else associate with the beginning of a marriage.

          Despite the fact that all of the practical, legal issues of marriage are now the realm of secular authorities, Reform Jews didn’t stop having religious weddings because it’s nice to mark a big event one’s life with a religious ceremony; it adds meaning to an important moment in our lives. While we look at marriage as possessing both secular legal elements and personal emotional elements, when it comes to marking divorce we like to pretend that it’s only legal. Religious rituals are conveniences for us, and since divorce is all about inconvenience, we don’t want to pile on.

          The gender imbalance of the get is irrelevant in the left-of-Orthodox world. When a ritual that we like, that we want engage with has an uncomfortable gender imbalance, we tweak it. When a ritual that we don’t like, that we don’t want to deal with has a similar problem, we use it as a reason not muck around with that particular ritual — all the while ignoring the fact that the real reason we’re not doing it is because we don’t want to!

          And as to your bit about whether people who attend Conservative shuls  pay attention to Conservative “requirements,” this is just further proof of what you and I have talked about before: The true difference between the vast majority of Reform dues-payers and Conservative dues-payers is their aesthetic preferences.

            

  5. james jordan October 6, 2013 at 6:44 pm #

    Its rather obvious that sense tribal identity comes from the father, Jewishness must come with it.  “So you’re of the tribe of Judah because your father was, but you’re not a Jew.”  That’s rather silly. 

      

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