Is Daring Within Us?

The two blogging Chavis have generated a spirited discussion about the issue of shuls asking potential members whether they have converted. Chaviva says it’s unnecessarily invasive to ask applicants for membership to tell the entire membership committee about their status – that should be a private conversation between the applicant and the rabbi. Kochava points out that the shul needs to know the halachic status of its members, and argues that the shul is within its rights to put such a question on its membership application.

It’s hard for me to evaluate this issue objectively because of my own experiences with Jewish status and conversion. I’ve resisted “outing” myself on here until now, because I know that as soon as I put myself into a box – “convert,” “BT,” whatever – I’ll get saddled with all the assumptions and questions that go along with being in that box. If I’m a convert, then I must have had a traumatic experience that made me radically alter my lifestyle. If I’m a BT, I’m running away from my past or rebelling against my family. To be frank, I like when people assume I’m FFB – and I can pass pretty seamlessly in most settings – because even the most liberal Orthodox communities are truly more accepting of FFBs than of BTs and converts. FFBs are more trusted in matters of halacha and more respected in general. There’s no getting around it. 

So I hope you won’t think differently of me, Internet, if I tell you that I’m technically a convert. I say “technically” because I don’t feel like a convert, I feel like a ba’alas teshuvah: my father is Jewish, and I grew up in a Reform synagogue, going to Reform Hebrew school and Reform summer camp. I can’t begin to describe the feeling of learning that, despite having felt Jewish my whole life, I wasn’t a Jew according to the Torah. That’s one of the many reasons why I don’t love being forced to revisit the gerus chapter of my life.

It is undoubtedly true that the rav of a shul needs to know the halachic status of every shul member, as well as where each member is with their personal observance of mitzvos. He needs to know who may be called up for an aliyah, who may serve on a bais din for hataras nedarim, whose children may lead the davening to mark their becoming a bar mitzvah. But the rav is the only person who needs to have this information. Converts who want to join a shul should not be asked to divulge this extremely sensitive, personal information to the entire shul membership board and whoever else may see their application. Whatever practical concerns there might be about removing the “convert question” from a membership application, the mitzvah of loving converts and of not reminding them of their past trumps them.

The name “Boaz” means “daring is within him.” One of my favorite teachers and scholars of Torah, Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, says that one of the reasons Boaz was called “daring” was that he upheld and defended the Jewish status of Rus, formerly a Moabite. Although most poskim ultimately agreed with him that it was only forbidden to convert a Moabite man and not a Moabite woman, no one had ever done it before – he had no precedent to rely on. I’d bet a whole bunch of money that Rus didn’t have to relocate to an “acceptable singles community” before her bais din would approve her gerus. I bet her great-grandson, David haMelech, didn’t have to produce her gerus certificate when he was made king. We, the Jewish nation, have become pathetically cautious about accepting converts and continuing to recognize their Jewishness long after the mikvah. We desperately need someone to remind us of the lesson that Boaz tried to teach us once upon a time.

My rav frequently points out that when we decide to be machmir in one area, it usually involves being mekil in another, and more often than not, we prefer to sacrifice a mitzvah bein adam l’chavero for a mitzvah bein adam l’Makom. This is a perfect example of that principle. When we are so cautious (to the point of being invasive) about ensuring the halachic status of every member of the shul, we risk transgressing the mitzvah (#503 according to the Rambam) against wronging a convert with our words. Is it worth it?



5 comments on “Is Daring Within Us?

  1. Chaya H. says:

    I heard that shiur with Rbzn Heller, and I love that explanation of Boaz’s name. My son is Boaz, and I hope he always has daring within him.

  2. Chaya H. says:

    Too true. Great blog!

  3. Batya says:

    Considering that NBN and JAFI use shul letters to confirm Jewish religion for those who wish to make aliyah, the shul should have a way of checking halachik status of members. They shouldn’t search for mamzerim; (the g’dolim say such status is better left under the rug until it can’t be proven.)
    Either “the rabbi” or someone else of stature and discretion should interview potential members also to check out Kohen, Levi etc.
    In Shiloh a few years ago, it was discovered that some married BT olim with kids had never had a Jewish wedding. They joyfully celebrated it here with new neighbors.

    • Agreed – the shul needs to confirm the halachic status of all potential members. That’s precisely why it’s so strange/upsetting/counter-productive if the only status-confirming question on a membership application is, “Did you convert?”

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