I met a girl that I would like to marry. Her mom converted through an Orthodox process. I come from a community that doesn't accept converts - or maybe we do - but my parents wouldn't let me marry a convert. How can I convince them, and my whole big family, that this girl and her family are Jews just as much as we are, and this should be okay?
The concerns expressed about the status of a ger (convert/proselyte) or giyoret (feminine) in Jewish tradition cover the gamete of possible approaches historically as to total acceptance on the one hand or suspicion on the other. The founders of our people Abraham and Sarah are seen in Rabbinic tradition as those who brought others under the “wings of the Divine Presence—the Shechinah.”
As we look through Rabbinic sources there are many negative statements about proselytes, but these are balanced with the positive. For example, “Whosoever becomes a Jew (mit-gayer) but not for the sake of Heaven, is no true convert.” (Tractate Gerim) “A convert is regarded as an infant (katan) new-born.” (Talmud Yevamot)
Whenever I am asked, “How does one become Jewish?” I answer, “By being born Jewish or becoming Jewish.” There are really only two ways of being Jewish; being born of a Jewish mother or converting through the procedure known as giyyur (conversion).
As is well-known there are other thoughts and approaches to this important subject, but these are seen as counter to Jewish Law—the Halakhah.
You mentioned that the woman that you wish to marry is born of a mother who is a giyoret (a Jewish convert in accordance with Orthodox standards, which means in accordance with the Halakhah or Jewish Law as delineated in the Shulhan Arukh (the Code of Jewish Law).
If this indeed is the case and a rabbi would wish to verify that this is the case before proceeding with the Huppah and Kiddushin (the Jewish marriage), then there should be no impediment to acceptance of this woman as a bona fide Jewess.
As to your dilemma regarding your “parents and whole big family,” this is problematic. In my experience large swaths of the Jewish landscape deal with the question of who is a Jew on a gut level. Often these are Jews who may be culturally “very Jewish” however “religiously” they may lack knowledge and commitment. Living as I do in a religiously committed and practicing neighborhood, I find that properly converted Jews are most readily accepted fully into the fabric of the community.
It is important to try and access the true motivations of your “parents and whole big family.” What is their hang-up and is it about all converts or really only this one? Sometimes excuses are brought forth, but they are only a cover for their actual attitude towards your choice of marriage partner and her family.
Remember that religiously practicing Jews pray everyday three times a day for the welfare of the ger (convert) along with all Jews. This is found in the Siddur—the traditional Jewish prayer book. “Al ha-tzaddikim—to the righteous, the pious, the elders of Your people the house of Israel, the remnant of their scholars, the righteous converts, and to us, may Your compassion be aroused, God our Lord. Grant a good reward to all who sincerely trust in Your name. Set our lot with them, so that we may never be ashamed, for in You we trust. Blessed are You, God, who is the support and trust of the righteous.”
It is my hope and prayer that all Jews will be infused with love and acceptance of all righteous converts into the Jewish fold, making no distinction whatsoever between those born Jewish and those who have become Jewish of their own volition.
Major Jewish figures like Yehuda Halevi and founding rabbi of Chabad Shneur Zalman of Liadi argued that no amount of study, no level of commitment and no ritual could change a non-Jew’s lesser, non-Jewish, soul. This thinking has prevailed to this day, with many Jews considering it impossible for a non-Jew to become fully Jewish.
But that stream of the tradition, frankly, is destructive and wrong. According to Jewish law, a convert is just as Jewish as any Jew by Birth. For over two millennia, this has been the normative position of the Jewish tradition toward those brave and blessed souls who have chosen to become part of the Jewish people.
It is a position that has its pedigree in Talmudic law (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47), and, according to many scholars, likely predates the Mishnah itself.
Although the sincerity of any potential convert must be ascertained prior to bringing them into the Jewish fold, once she emerges from the mikveh (the ritual bath), she is a Jew in every way.
Moreover, when a convert becomes Jewish, it is irrevocable. The Talmud, Maimonides, Jacob ben Asher, and Joseph Caro (to name but a few) all agree that conversion means a complete shedding of non-Jew status; a Jew by Choice is as fully Jewish as any Jew by Birth.
Additionally, according to the medieval French commentator Rashi, one who challenges the validity of someone else’s lawful conversion violates the Torah itself. Using the same Hebrew word, "ger", that is traditionally used to refer to converts, the book of Exodus instructs, “You shall not wrong a 'ger' or oppress him.” And again in Leviticus we read, “When a 'ger' resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The 'ger' who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.” A God of love and justice demands converts be afforded the dignity we Jews would expect for ourselves.
One who questions the validity of a conversion is not speaking in the name of the Jewish tradition, and is certainly not speaking in the name of God. As the Midrash teaches, “When a person wants to become part of the Jewish people, we must receive him or her with open hands so as to bring that person under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Leviticus Rabbah 2:9).
This is the dominant voice of our tradition, and it is more applicable now than ever as an unprecedented number of people are attempting to become a part of the Jewish people. Jews by Choice bring so much energy and vibrancy to Jewish communities, and they must be welcomed with open arms.
That is the Jewish tradition’s view, and that is God’s demand.
As Rabbi Shudnow has illustrated in his reply, Jewish tradition encompasses a broad range of thoughts and feelings regarding converts to Judaism. Within any given Orthodox community, however, as you probably know, the final judgment or interpretation of the tradition lies with the rabbi of that community. You say you “come from a community that doesn’t accept converts - or maybe we do.” Now would be a good time to find out what your community does or does not accept by going to see your rabbi. If your rabbi accepts the girl’s Jewish bona fides, then perhaps he* can convince your parents and your “whole big family” of the same. If not, then you have a difficult choice ahead of you.
The Reform perspective on the status of the woman you would like to marry is simply that if she has at least one Jewish parent (born or converted, mother or father) and she has been raised as a Jew (given a Jewish name and a Jewish education as a member of a Jewish community, with knowledge and observance of Jewish holidays and rites of passage, including consecration, Bat Mitzvah and/or Confirmation), then she is a Jew.
*I’m assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that you belong to an Orthodox community, though it’s a little unclear from your question, and that therefore your rabbi would be a “he.”
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