Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Guest Poster: what's different about gerim?

Why are Geirim (converts to Judaism) subject to discrimination within the Jewish community? Why would a community that outwardly proclaims openness, is in fact most insular? The reasons are many and nuanced but in the end, it is the fear of the ‘outside’, those not in the community that defines every group.

From childhood on, the individual is taught that he or she is a part of something much bigger than themselves. The affiliation to a particular group makes them special and every expression of narcissism is discouraged. Love means fidelity to the group, not the self.

Those on the outside, the ‘others’, are by necessity rejected and more often than not, hated. The concept is simple. Within the group is love and safety. Outside the group are outsiders, ignored or barely tolerated. When those from outside the group join the group they are suspect. They may cling to aspects of their prior lives, loves and priorities. If the outsider says ‘Yes, I have ideas of my own that I have learned along the way’, the group is often fearful of being undermined. This is not unique to converts. The relationship in-laws have with their child’s spouse is often undermined for the same reasons.

When the group demands ferocious loyalty, love and self abdication and abrogation, you can be sure that group also offers up ferocious hate to those outsiders and those within (Geirim) who do not see eye to eye with them. The greater the hate of the ‘others’, the greater the fear (and nuanced hate) of those who join the group. The Geirim are the unknown and by virtue of their past lives are different. Thus to some, the greater the hatred of the ‘other’ becomes an expression of piety and fidelity to the group.

Geirim can articulate their emunah with great clarity and passion. They come to that clarity and passion despite familiarity with the 'outside' world. FFB's fear the outside and just about anything and everything from the outside. The unknown ‘outside’ is the threat. Some geirim can tell you how Shakespeare can influence the soul with great beauty, passion and insight into the human condition. Many FFB’s can barely spell the Bard's name, because for most FFB's the great writer is treif. Other geirim can tell you how art can transform time and space. Virtually all FFB’s has never learned how art has transformed empires and great ideas.

Put a crayon into the hands of a young child and watch art be created. Play music and watch toddlers dance. Art of all kinds is an integral part of who we are. We need not fear the ger who understands this and other ideas. Geirim do not come to us to pollute us. They come to infuse us with what brought them to life- kibbul ohl malchut shomayim. They bring us a better understanding of our world. They are oxygen.

The unspoken truth is that in many FFB communities, the outside must be feared. Many gedolim with who have more than a passing familiarity with the ‘outside’ are marginalized because of that fear. It always amuses me to see how many people simply poo-poo brilliant Rabbonim like JB Soloveitchik, Yitzchok Twesky, Aharon Lichetenstein and a host of others because they are 'educated'. Neither the Rambam nor the Abarbanel would be able to make a minyan in Boro Park nowadays!. How many FFB's today know the Vilna Gaon was a mathematician? How many know Jonathan Sacks has probably forgotten more than most people will ever know?

Michal and other geirim threaten the FFB establishment because her world is broader. She sees a whole lot more of the magnificence and magnitude of Creation and the potential of humankind than most FFB's. She threatens the FFB world because her crap meter is highly sensitive and tuned. She can see right through the phoniness- and that scares a lot of people because that threatens the status quo.

The FFB community has to hide behind the idea that they reject the outside because of some phony sense of frumkeit and genuine ehrlichkeit. In truth, it is their own shortcomings and not the outside that scares those most of all.

An enormous part of the FFB community is imperiled because the shtetl model doesn't work here in the 21st century. A look at the State of the Community confirms that. In many ways, we are in a free fall and just playing for time. If a substantial part of the community cannot now support itself, what on earth would anyone believe it will get better over time, with even more distance from the realities of what it will take to make it in the 21sy century?

Truth be told, it is geirim and a large segment of the BT community that will have an enormous impact on the frum community- and that scares a lot of people for a lot of reasons, especially the current 'power brokers' and their followers.

Geirim may not be authorities on bishul akum or dofen akumah- and that scares a lot of people. They do know what must be done with abusers. They do know how criminals must be treated. Geirim have a moral compass that many fear because of it's clarity. There is no ambiguity in their sense of right and wrong any more than there is ambiguity in their emunah.

The community tolerates that ambiguity because they hope that if necessary, they will benefit from it. A lot of FFB's could learn a lot from geirim and that scares the daylights out of them. Not a lot will admit to that, but it's the truth.


  1. As a BT, all I can say is "heck, yeah!" I went to college. I studied Shakespeare. I've been to Europe. Now I'm afraid to put my kids in school because I don't want them being brainwashed into thinking that everything that doesn't stem from the romanticized view of pre-war Eastern European shtetlach is evil and should be avoided.

  2. Let me start off by saying that there may be some aspects to your post that have truth to them. Overall, though, I feel that there is a lot of anger speaking in your post - that doesn't necessarily make you correct. I can't reply to everything fully, because that would require a book. What follows is a super-condensed reply.

    1) Judaism DOES encourage a significant amount of separation from the actual outside world. This is not a matter of chumra, nor is it a recent development.

    2)That said, not all geirim are outsiders; The few geirim I've met have integrated seamless into their communities.

    3) Outside ideas MAY have values, but very often, they've been infected with the poison that the outside world is full of (unless you feel that the non-jewish world at large has values that are synonymous with the Torah's). Let's take your example of Shakespeare - I'm not discussing whether or not one should read his stuff - but is it so "far out" to say that the values in his plays occasionally contradict Torah?

    4) Having a broad perspective can be very good. It can also be very dangerous. And only those who appreciate the danger can utilize the good successfully.

    5) You may be right - the shtetl model DOESN'T work very well in the 21st century. The question is - is that a good thing? The fact is that we are influenced by everything we see and hear. Everyone is, not just weak-minded people - there's a multi-billion dollar industry based on the concept that seeing and hearing things can change your perspective.

  3. There is nothing that angers me more than a ger or BT who decides to become frum and "change everything". You became Jewish/religious for a reason. Respect the beauty in tradition and don't infiltrate our communities to change us from within. You're not our messiah, our savior, or our guiding light. We have Daas Torah for that.