A couple weeks ago a dear friend posted on Facebook about a miserable experience she had at a Jewish wedding where she had been quizzed by another guest as to how Jewish was she? My friend is African American and did not fit this guest’s idea of what a Jew looks like. The woman then ignored common courtesy and interrogated my friend about her background. My friend later called me still steaming. I shared with her, and others, a excellent article by Aliza Hausman titled, Dos and Don'ts of Talking to a Convert.
Oppressing the Convert: A few thoughts on this halachically forbidden behavior.
Many born Jews feel free to talk about their view of the authenticity of converts they meet, that is, just how Jewish is this person? The most common result is pain. The Jew by choice feels the sting of judgment.
The born Jew either sees the Jew by choice as a ‘super’ Jew, someone not like other ‘regular, authentic’ Jews but instead someone driven to over do it, keep all the commandments and in so doing, to annoy the born Jews.
Or the born Jew doesn’t really accept that a person can ‘become’ Jewish. They see only having been born of a Jewish mother as an authentic route to being Jewish. So this person, this convert, is only a pretender.
Jewish tradition forbids acting or speaking on these feelings. A commonly quoted Talmud tract on this topic is Baba Mezi’a.
Baba Mezi'a 59b
Here is the text:
Our Rabbis taught: He who wounds the feelings of a proselyte transgresses three negative injunctions, and he who oppresses him infringes on two. Wherein does wronging differ? Because three negative injunctions are stated: Viz., Thou shalt not wrong a stranger [i.e., a proselyte],18 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not wrong him,19 and ye shall not therefore wrong each his fellowman, 20 a proselyte being included in 'fellowman.'
After reading this I emailed a friend of mine, an Orthodox rabbi, to learn more about this teaching. Here are some of his thoughts.
You should keep reading; the Talmud gets to the point that there are either 36 or 46 prohibitions violated when one oppresses a convert.
(As with so many things the rabbis counted, there are differing opinions on how many prohibitions are found.)
So you ask what I would have said. Much would likely depend on tone, as is often the case in human verbal interactions. Tone can be horribly hurtful.
Was the question coming from a place of curiosity? … Or sadly, was it more likely coming from a place of bigotry? (Such as "oh - you're Jewish, huh? I see... You can't really be Jewish. You certainly don't look Jewish. Are your parents Jewish? Because there is no way you're authentic and real - must be some fad you jumped onto but you don't have a real Jewish lineage like me...)
I'd likely point out that there are two ways to become Jewish: by birth/lineage and by choice/conversion. Both are 100% valid, though it is the *latter* that displays commitment to Jewish life as an independently chosen life value. And that is one of several reasons why I admire Jews by choice.
One reason I love walking around in Israel is to see Jews of all shapes and colors and ethnicities. In America we live in eastern-European based bubbles and think Jews are white. By origin, however, we are actually olive skinned middle easterners. But we spread out AND are much more than an ethnicity (we're a religion and a resulting nationality as well) and so we have no specific color, just a shared heritage and beliefs and role in the world. And messing with 30-some odd prohibitions in one snide statement is a heavy error to make.
I know that many of you have had experiences like this. And many of you have probably also experienced anti-Semitism. Ironic isn't it?
If these unpleasant experiences do not dissuade a person from converting, then I believe they have made the right choice for themselves. For most of you, the opinions of a few bigots or idiots are not enough to deter you from following your heart. Please use the others on the email list for support and feedback. If you are not on our email you can join us by filling out the Contact Us form.