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What to Say to the Rabbi

Today’s blog entry comes to us from Valerie Jones, a participant in our program for women Jews-by-Choice, Empowering Ruth.

Before my first meeting with a rabbi about converting to Judaism, I called my best friend. Overcome with anxiety about the meeting, I whined, “What if he asks me a bunch of questions I don’t know how to answer?”

My friend, who has a very quick wit, decided to coax me out of worry with humor. “Remember that episode of M*A*S*H when Radar had a date with a really sophisticated nurse but didn’t know how to talk to her?” she asked.

Of course, I did. In this classic episode (aren’t all M*A*S*H episodes classics?), Hawkeye and Trapper John coach Radar on answers to every scenario that might arise during his upcoming date. If asked about classical music, for example, Radar was to simply nod his head knowingly and answer “Ah, Bach.”

“What you need to do,” my friend continued, “is to find the Jewish equivalent to ‘Ah, Bach.’ Then whatever the rabbi asks, that’s what you say.” After some discussion we decided that the Jewish “Ah, Bach,” is “I think that’s addressed in the Talmud.”

“But what if he then asks me where it can be found in the Talmud?” I countered.
She sighed heavily. Sometimes it takes a great deal of patience to be my friend. “You’re not very good at this, are you?” she asked. “Play offense, not defense! If he asks, you simply reply, ‘You don’t know? What are they teaching in rabbinical schools these days?!’”

I never tried this approach during the meetings with my rabbi, although I have to admit at times I was tempted. That conversation with my friend did, however, take the edge off the first meeting and for that I will always be grateful.

The first fearful meeting with a rabbi can challenge the most resolute would-be convert. If, like me, this is the first conversation you’ve ever had a member of the clergy (any clergy), it can send your blood pressure to previously unknown heights.

Although conversion literature (biographies, interviews, etc.) abound in details about other aspects of the conversion process, information about what happens when you study with a rabbi is hard to come by. As a result you’re likely to feel that you are about to enter a black hole with no points of reference to guide you. Just in case you don’t have a friend you can call, I thought I would provide a few ways to think about these meetings that might help you manage your anxiety.

Ah, Bach. What makes “Ah, Bach” funny, of course, is the idea that one answer can suffice for many questions. Studying for conversion is not about finding the answer to any specific question. It’s about finding your Jewish voice. Not everyone who enters the conversion process decides to convert. The most important aspect of study is determining the best religious future for you.

During those meetings, don’t be surprised if, as soon as you finish giving an answer, you find that you don’t agree with what you just said. Or that the answer you gave five minutes ago is now obsolete and you have a completely different opinion. This is normal. A blanket answer (or “Ah Bach”) is actually the antithesis of the Jewish approach to learning. Changing, revising and working through your answers won’t imperil your chances of converting; it will strengthen your belief.

It’s called Rabbinic Judaism for a reason. In 70 C.E. Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, anticipating the destruction of the second temple, asked for and received permission from the Romans to establish a school at Yavneh. The generations of rabbis that followed developed the Judaism that we practice today. Ever since Yavneh, the relationship between the rabbi and his/her students has been one of two basic building block of the Jewish community (the other being the family). By studying with a rabbi you are engaging in an act that has sustained Jewish life for the last 2000 years.

As you enter the rabbi’s office you are following in the footsteps of every rabbi throughout history including Rabbi Akiva, who was the son of a convert and Onkelos, the great translator of the Torah and a convert. They were once students just like you.

Abraham did not have to take an IQ test and neither will you. Rabbi Martin Segal tells the story of a young woman who came to him requesting to be converted. The rabbi suggested she start studying for conversion by reading some Martin Buber. The young woman burst out crying and through choked sobs said “But I don’t understand Buber.” It is perfectly OK not to understand Martin Buber. Judaism is, in part, a very intellectual tradition, but, as Torah tells us, God made a covenant with Abraham because of how he lived and who he was. The same is true for conversion candidates.

It’s personal. The information discussed at these meetings is profoundly personal. And it has to be. The only profound connection with a belief is deeply personal.

How do you take your life, everything that you do and are, and make it into a Jewish life? Grappling with such a large question takes time and a lot of discussion about who you are as a person and who you wish to be as a Jew. So, if the rabbi’s questions feel a little intrusive, it’s because they are intrusive.

If you convert, you will commit to Judaism and the Jewish people as a whole, but the synagogue you join, the activities you participate in, the rituals you love and the prayers you say are how you will find meaning within that commitment. Study has to be very personal because your Jewish life and how you live it will be personal.

Conversion is a gateway, not a destination. Almost immediately after emerging from the mikvah I asked myself, “What is the significance of this moment?” After a lot of thought, I decided that this was a question that I couldn’t answer with words but only with years of my life.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the conversion process, we forget that conversion is only important as a gateway to a Jewish life. Meetings with the rabbi serve a function only if they build the foundation of a future Jewish life. The rabbi is your advocate, teacher, support, and guide to making that future life meaningful. Use these meetings to their fullest potential. You will be a better Jew for it.

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to study with a rabbi to those who have not yet done it, but I believe…… (wait for it)…..that it’s addressed in the Talmud. The Talmud says that an angel hovers over every blade of grass and prays “Grow! Grow!” How much more so does an angel hover over every person and wish the same? Conversion in the most basic sense is a process of growth from one identity to another. So for every convert, let’s add a little more to the prayer of that angel: may all of us, those of us that convert and those of us that do not, find the rabbis we need and honor those rabbis who help us grow into a new understanding of who we are.



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