Monday, May 05, 2008

The Conversion Dilemma

No, I'm not talking about the absurd retroactive nullification of all of a court's geirim by another court. You can read all about that and how it means that, in actuality, No One Is Jewish, over in that well-written article by Josh Frankel on Jewschool. Also see the reaction from R' Yuval Cherlow (שרלו) over at Arutz Sheva‘.

The dilemma I'm referring to is the question of geir qatan in a "not-observant-enough" family. A Jewish family adopts a child, and they want to convert the child to Judaism. It's sort of silly for a Jewish family to have a Non-Jewish child — although it has been done (someone I know has a Non-Jewish foster child), but that means that a beit din has to agree to convert the child.

Generally, the way it works is that you are allowed to do something for someone without their consent if it's for their benefit. So this baby, who has no da‘at or sense of anything at all, can get converted if it's for their benefit.

But what if the family that will be raising the child is not observant? Instead of giving the child the opportunity to fulfill many mitzvot and rack up "mitzva points" — you'd be making them Jewish and putting them into a situation in which they'll be violating so many prohibitions that used to be completely permitted to them! It'd be for the exact opposite of benefit!

One way to solve this is to assume that there's some intrinsic benefit in being Jewish. If you hold by an ideology that claims that Jews are metaphysically better, purer, or superior in some other way to Non-Jews, it's easy to justify making this Non-Jewish child into a Jew. Even if they're going to violate many Torah prohibitions, at least they're Jewish!

But you can't do that if you hold that all humanity is created in the image of God, and that the only thing that separates us from the rest of the world is our Contract with God and the mitzvot that flow from it. In that case, simply "being Jewish" isn't a benefit without mitzvot, just as Jewish identity in general doesn't exist without a mitzva framework.

Which puts us in the dangerous position of people who are more so-called "liberal" having less justification to do what they naturally feel is the right thing and unite these families in Halakhic Jewish status. I wonder how we get around that. I think I'll ask them.


Blogger The back of the hill said...

How would you feel about raising the child to be Jewish in outlook and hashkofo, but comfortable with being not Jewish?

Or to put it differently, an adopted child who ends up philosophically/spiritually Jewish who can at the appropriate time wrestle themselves with the question of converting or remaining a fellow traveller. Seeing as being a good person is not dependant upon membership in a tribe (unless you hold by the Christian definitions), and as nowadays a religious community is not as rigid nor as required a concept.....

5/05/2008 6:27 PM  
Anonymous Mar Gavriel said...

From RHS:

What was Rav Horowitz’s סברא? The כלי חמדה came to America, and saw that the Jews there were not frum, but gave lots of צדקה. He argued that because Jews give more צדקה than non-Jews, it is still a זכות to be Jewish, even though one doesn’t observe most other מצוות. Some other people have argued that there’s some kind of inherent value to being Jewish, even without observing mitzvōs, over being non-Jewish.

5/05/2008 10:52 PM  
Anonymous TikunOlam said...

So as a non-Observant Jew about to become a foster mom to likely non-Jewish children I assumed that if I ultimately adopted I would convert the child even if I can't convert through an Orthodox conversion (which I would prefer as my family is Orthodox). If the person ultimately rejects their Judaism, (however that is defined) and thereby undoes his/her identity as a Jew, I am wondering what the point in converting a child is to begin with? Why not wait until adulthood and avoid the whole potential debacle?

5/06/2008 9:33 AM  
Blogger Knitter of shiny things said...

I think there are other ways of looking at it besides "being Jewish is only beneficial if you're doing mitzvot" or "being Jewish without doing mitzvot is only beneficial if you think Jews are better than non-Jews."

Say you have a hypothetical liberal Conservative family. They keep ingredient kosher at home, eat out at trief restaurants, don't keep shabbat but make it to shul every week, keep kosher for passover, etc. Clearly, although they are not the most observant people in the world, their Jewish identity is deeply ingrained. Now if they adopted a kid and didn't convert him and he grew up doing all these Jewish things and feeling like it was a big part of his identity but wasn't Jewish himself, assuming he had positive experiences with Judaism growing up, he might wonder with resentment why his parents didn't convert him. He could have an identity crisis. He could feel alienated from the community in which he was raised, etc.

So I would say in a family that is not observant but has a strong Jewish identity, the adopted child should be converted, since identity and community are both significant parts of one's life.

5/06/2008 10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's really a situation with no right answer, because a different child will react in a different way. One person might be resentful that he was converted and obligated in mitzvot he does not want to perform; another might be upset that she was not converted and included in the family. Either decision is a gamble, but I suppose you can say that about a lot of things involved in raising a child.

5/06/2008 10:50 AM  
Anonymous tikunolam said...

Actually you pretty much just described me so my Judaism is more as an identity and community rather than as a feeling of obligation toward mitzvot in the Orthodox sense. And I completely agree, in my case conversion is of course the right thing to do for any child joining my very Jewish family and for my family. Just reacting to what seems like an absurd idea of converting a child if it can be undone. Of course the conversion of my adopted child will not be one accepted by Ortho standards, but there really is no way around that. My child could make his/her own choices later.

5/06/2008 11:55 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

the back of the hill:

i like the idea, but i'm not sure if it would be more or less dangerous than the situation we have generally of people with various halakhic statuses of jewishness. this adopted child who grows up Judaist but not Jewish according to any definition — who are they going to date/marry? what kind of community are they going to live in?

mar gavriel:

i guess the question is, then, is it enough of a zekhut that they'll be fulfilling certain mitzvot such that it outways the disadvantage of violating many others?


from what i understand, unless you can prove that the conversion was done with negative intent, it can't be undone (except for a minor who decides not to keep it up at the age of bar/bat mitzva), which is part of the Israeli scandal. you can't just de-convert someone for messing up later in life.

knitter of shiny things:

interesting... so you're saying that the child's completeness of identity is a benefit that would justify the conversion, since a Jewish family raising a Non-Jewish child would be detrimental to the child's welfare! that makes a lot of sense.


i wonder how often that happens — adopted children being resentful of having been converted. i guess the "opt out" feature would lessen that, but when they're adults they may look back at their 12/13 year old self and think they weren't ready to make the decision

5/06/2008 8:15 PM  
Blogger debka_notion said...

Just because one is "more liberal" doesn't mean that one sees one's opinions as Wrong. If I think that a family is going to be practicing Judaism in a way that I think is halakhically justifiable, then just because you (for example- I don't know that our opinions would be different enough to make this a great example, but be imaginative) wouldn't agree doesn't mean that I should refuse to covert their child because you don't agree with me about their practice.

Another factor might well be whether converting the child might bring the whole family to a more observant place than they would be otherwise, and give the rabbi the chance to continue to interact with the family and hopefully they might all incorporate more mitzvot in their lives, even if they never make it all the way. If that child then might have the zechut of being the cause of the family say maybe keeping a kosher home, or something of that sort- then wouldn't it be a real zechut for that child? I find this line of thinking both persuasive and frightening- because it's based on a what-if, not on any sort of certainty. And on the flip side- if they don't convert the child, then there's a significant source of influence to be more observant and involved that they will not just lack (and children's education often has a Significant impact on family practice) but might even be counteracted, since there may be resentment against a religion that wouldn't accept and convert their child.

So I guess my position would be that as long as the family has some good Jewish involvement, I can see why converting the baby would be a good way to go.

5/06/2008 9:34 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


what i meant by "more liberal" is "having a more positive attitude towards leniency, or in this case, more likely to want to do conversions in these kinds of situations"

you make very good points about more factors that could be seen as zekhuyot for the child's Jewishness. thanks for bringing them to my attention!

5/06/2008 9:42 PM  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

Ah, but Steg, there's already an answer out there -

Families who follow a liberal strain of Judaism see it as being about peoplehood and identity, and a particular way of interacting with the Divine, not as about following mitzvot according to Orthodox halacha. (Which doesn't mean they don't care about halacha, just that they have a different interpretation.)

To them, it seems beneficial to have the whole family as part of the same people and identity, so they will convert the child in their own tradition.

This shouldn't bother the Orthodox at all, because they don't recognize liberal conversions regardless of the later behavior of the convert.

So I guess I'm confused by the hypothetical situation - is a non-frum family trying to convert a new baby via an Orthodox bet din? Wouldn't they expect to be turned away anyway, if they aren't planning to raise the baby Orthodox?

5/07/2008 2:57 PM  
Anonymous brother eisav said...

"Reb Yudel" had a relevant and interesting comment to a Jewschool post here:

Notice where he contrasts the approach of Rav Berkovits against the current norm in Orthodox conversions.

5/08/2008 8:35 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


in many places you still find the phenomenon of Non-Observant Orthodox-Affiliated Jews, who, like most Israelis, aren't particularly observant themselves but have strong opinions as to what constitutes "real Judaism"

5/08/2008 4:21 PM  
Blogger -suitepotato- said...

My wife was adopted. Born of a non-Jewish woman and brought home two days old, adopted through a Jewish family service, and brought to mikvah, and brought up as Jewish. Had a bat mitzvah, Hebrew school, the whole Conservative movement middle class life thing.

She was never made to feel anything there. She was always made to feel something was missing from her. That she wasn't something enough.

Now she says she's a Christian and born-again and happier. I tell her of my forays into the world she came from, my own conversion track towards being a Jew and what's going on here. She's not surprised. Neither is her born Jewish mother who feels no connection, no impulse to attend services, no welcome mat out.

Sometimes, we're all thinking the same thing. It'll get down to backstabbing and religious civil war and calling multigenerational born Jews not Jewish enough and hence not Jews at all. It worries us. Me especially because being a student of history I know how much hurt there is to be dredged up.

Far and away the biggest group of Jews today are Barely Observant Reform. Do those who style themselves truly Jewish in the charedi camp believe that G-d does not adapt himself to the people? That He stops talking to those who seem to not follow halacha?

G-d abandons no one I think. I think the forms change because the deeper meaning underneath never does. The translation between the way G-d sees things and the way we understand anything changes. But I think G-d is always with us, regardless of observance of things in a book held in the flesh of a mortal man.

Whatever. Just know that the saddest thing in the world is to make anyone think G-d doesn't like them. He gave us an instinctive need for Him just like we have for parents. It hurts real bad to think G-d doesn't like us, we grow to resent Him for not liking us, we grow to hate Him. Can you imagine how much G-d must be hurt by that?

5/14/2008 6:43 PM  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

"Non-Observant Orthodox-Affiliated Jews" - how is this even possible? How is their Orthodox community tolerating their "affiliation" if they view these people's conduct as chillul hashem?? I don't get it.

5/20/2008 3:56 PM  

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