Sitting in shul on Shabbos, he found that his mind always wandered during the preliminary prayers. He wondered whether using the words “shul” and “Shabbos” was an affectation for a convert. Maybe he should say “synagogue” and “Sabbath” or at least “Shabbat.” Nonsense. How could one be affected in an internal dialogue? He supposed, in fact, that one could be rehearsing an affectation. Anyway, “preliminary prayers” was very goyish way of saying shaharit. . But he wasn’t a goy, of course. He was an ex-goy. On the other hand, he wasn’t an ethnic Jew either. If it worked that way, his chess game would have improved. He hated the rabbinic conceit that coverts are Jewish souls that were somehow lost among the Gentiles. Maybe it was meant to make converts feel full-fledged, but it smacked of—what? Not racism exactly. Maybe ethno-centrism. That wasn’t it either. Maybe the idea just seemed silly. But why should any one idea in a vast non-rational system seem silly? How about the dietary laws? What a goyish turn of phrase! Kashrut!
Still, considering the converts—no, the proselytes– in the congregation—the tall guy of Norwegian extraction, the black couple from Toronto, the diminutive Dutchman, and himself, a Polish-Italian American who had converted in middle age—what were we all doing here? Could it be that we had come home? Nonsense! Narishkayt!
Converting, he had long thought, was like learning a foreign language. No matter how well you master it, you always have a bit of an accent. Maybe his never missing shul on Shabbos was a sort of residual Catholicism. As a child he had internalized the notion that missing Mass on Sunday was a mortal sin. Now he applied that pre-Vatican II theology to missing shul on Shabbos. Shortly after converting he had joked that it was all he could do not to genuflect when the Torah scroll was taken out. He had to admit that he wasn’t entirely joking.
Did he believe in God? He had solved this problem, at least to his own satisfaction. An academic he knew had told him about apophatic theology. It was also called the Via Negativa. According to the Via Negativa, you can’t say anything about God except what God isn’t. So if someone asks do you believe in God, you ask, “What do you mean by God?” As soon as God is defined, you have to say, “No, I don’t believe in that.” You can’t even say that God exists because saying so is a positive statement about God, and moreover it limits God’s existence to our own limited notion of existence. Having adopted this theology, he felt closer to atheists that to most believers, at least to fundamentalist believers.
Apophatic theology also fit in nicely with the Jewish concept of prayer, at least the one he preferred. The Hebrew word for “to pray” is a reflexive form of the verb “to judge.” When one prays, one judges oneself. Not only can God not be positively defined, he also can’t be changed. Our prayers can’t move God to change his intention on our behalf. Maimonides would say that it’s better for the ignorant masses to believe such nonsense and fulfill the commandment to pray, but we know that in praying we can change only ourselves. That satisfied him because petitionary prayer had never made any sense to him. How could one think that God had answered one’s own prayers to avoid an accident, but not the prayers of the child who was killed in it?
So why had he converted? Did he believe that Judaism possessed a higher truth than Christianity? Certainly not. His conversion, he imagined, had more to do with cultural affinity than with religious conviction. Why was the synagogue more congenial to him than the church?
The Conservative movement had frowned on his conversion because his wife was not also converting. By converting him the rabbi was creating a mixed marriage. The rabbi had gone ahead with it anyway, convinced that he was dealing with a Jewish soul lost among the Gentiles. So the Jewish soul had picked up a shiksa wife on its wanderings. Now that was an affectation. He had never come across “shiksa,” a derogatory word for a Gentile woman, except in fiction. On the other hand, maybe born Jews don’t say such things when coverts are around. In any case, his wife was entirely non-religious. Only once—for a bar mitzvah—had she set foot in the synagogue for services. She came to social events and participated in Passover Seders. In fact, she loved the taste of horseradish on matzo.
He imagined the two of them years later in a nursing home. He would be babbling Latin prayers he had learned as an altar boy, and they would fetch him a priest. She would talk on about the horseradish and matzo and be visited regularly by a rabbi. He also imagined a hundred years from now his descendants looking at old photographs and getting everything wrong. One would point to him and say, “This was our maternal great, great grandfather who emigrated from Ireland.” The actual Irish grandfather would be identified as Polish or Lithuanian Jew. So much for Olam ha-ba (the world to come).
2 thoughts on “The Convert”
Another very well-written and moving essay from Reb Alan ….
(Or should it be “very-well written”? ….. seriously ….)
Toda rabbah, Reb Reuben. “Very well-written” is correct.