Pain makes it hard to listen to the views of others

It can be hard to hear another person when the words in your head are drowning out their voice.

Everyone deserves to be heard out. If someone else’s experience is being blotted out by your own pain you may need to be heard out before you can listen to that person. Try to sort out what is YOUR reaction from what the other person is talking about.

A thoughtful man wrote to me about a letter I’d published regarding a young person who chose to have an Orthodox conversion. That decision was up to the young woman, but this man’s pain made it hard to differentiate between her choice and his distress.  He wrote:

Though you tried to respond to the woman’s angst about her not-kosher-enough conversion in your March 11 column (Conversion didn’t grant ‘born-Jewish privilege), I am saddened by your seemingly bland acceptance that these basically bigoted ultra-Orthodox are the sole and final arbiters of who is a Jew.

If one is truly interested in “building Jewish bridges,” these folks are certainly terrible obstructionists, and in my opinion should be called out on every occasion possible.

This issue really came home to me — a 100 percent Jew, son of a Reform rabbi — when our elder daughter went to Israel with her confirmation class 28 years ago. My wife is half-Jewish — the wrong half — though American Reform congregations now recognize patrilineal descent. We have raised our children to embrace their Jewish identity. My daughter, then age 16, was invited to a home Shabbos dinner where she was told in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t really Jewish, and if she should ever want to make aliyah (which she doesn’t) that she would have to beg the indulgence of a rigid old man (my characterization) and have a “real” conversion.

Although I have mostly enjoyed your columns and generally admire your work, you can sign me,
Very Disappointed


I’m so glad he wrote because he clearly has valid pain also. Here is my reply:

Dear Very Disappointed,

Thank you so much for bringing out these issues; I’m sure you are not alone in your feelings.

If you read the column again, you’ll see that the woman’s concern is not that the Orthodox will not accept her conversion, but that she was not fully informed by the Conservative rabbi with whom she worked. It is not my role, nor anyone else’s, to tell this young person what she should want or how she should choose to practice Judaism. She has made a choice, and it is vital that we support her freedom to do so.

My young writer also calls attention to something important the community needs to learn about our children, especially our patrilineal children. All will become adults capable of making their own decisions. Many will make a choice we’re comfortable with; others will not. But it is not our place to judge them.

My writer’s decision to become Orthodox is based on knowledge of Orthodox law. One of the workshops at my organization’s “Growing Up Interfaith” conference on May 22 will be led by an Orthodox rabbi discussing what a “Torah life” is and what it means to choose one. This rabbi converted with a background not far different from the letter writer’s. We need to pause long enough to get outside of our own views and open up to the views of others.

You refer to the Orthodox as “basically bigoted.” The word “bigoted” means “utterly intolerant of any creed, belief or opinion that differs from one’s own.” I am concerned that you cannot tolerate the beliefs of Orthodox Jews. We must strive to be the change we seek in the world. So we must ourselves model openness to the views of other Jews. I adamantly refuse to perpetuate (sinat chinam) needless hatred.

You also highlight another very serious and common situation. You have personally experienced the pain of your daughter being told she is not Jewish. The individual who spoke so cruelly to your daughter was wrong — both in spirit and in fact. But when the question of “who is a Jew” touches our loved ones, we usually react with outrage. I have certainly had that reaction myself. But given a chance to take a deep breath, I remind myself that the bad behavior of one member of a group should not be seen as characteristic of the entire group.

On the hopeful side, this happened to your daughter 28 years ago, and many traditional Jews have since come to realize that attitude is wrong. But your pain is still raw. I hope that everyone reading this can acknowledge how long the sting of words can last and consider choosing them more carefully. At the same time, I recommend that you befriend someone in the Orthodox community to help you gain a broader view of this part of our people, and possibly even find your wife’s and daughter’s identities affirmed.