Study Session: Beit Din 101

4 Oct

Midterm

It’s test time.

Before I enter the mikveh and say the blessings and officially become a member of the Jewish people, the final step in my (and anyone’s) conversion process is to appear before the Beit Din (Rabbinic Court).

In a matter of days, Rabbi C, along with two or three additional rabbis, will assemble.

For 30 to 45 minutes, I will be asked a series of questions about my motivations for converting, my experience studying and practicing Judaism, Jewish holidays, rituals, theology, etc. I’ve been assured that the Beit Din is more of a conversation than a test, but let’s be honest; when Rabbi C recently described the Beit Din to me as my “chance to show off what I know about Judaism,” my muscles tensed up, understanding that I should be prepared as if this were a final exam.

Hearing all this reminded me a little of watching Steve give his PhD dissertation defense. There he stood: having just delivered a brilliant 45 minutes PowerPoint presentation on his research, facing the audience of tenured faculty and colleagues. He fielded a series of questions (I was tempted to raised my hand and throw him a softball question like, “How did you get so smart?” but I refrained).

Then, we (family, colleagues, and friends) were asked vacate the room. For the next hour Steve’s committee ramped up their questioning, attempting to pull apart his research findings and conclusions. Steve had to defend his work and theories alone. Then, he was asked to leave the room and wait in the hall while the committee deliberated for about 15 minutes. Spoiler alert: he passed.

Now, let’s be clear, I am not about to receive a PhD from a prestigious university after six intense years of study and original scientific research, I know that. But I do have to prepare myself to speak intelligently about why I want to be Jewish and my experiences with Judaism over the past year (and past 16 years) of my life.

In class, when we covered the topic of conversion several months back, Rabbi C told us that those of us in the class who were planning to convert need not study or worry. She never recommends anyone for conversion who she thinks isn’t ready (or ready to face the Beit Din), she said. Still, she then recounted a “Beit Din gone wrong” situation wherein the prospective convert was asked: “What’s the difference between the Torah and the Talmud?”

The woman fumbled through and response and got it wrong. They still allowed her to convert, but if something like that were to happen to me, I would be mortified. Mortified beyond belief.

Put simply: I’m nervous.

When I met with Rabbi C last week, I expressed my feelings of excitement and also anxiety. She told me to go through the class syllabus and think about a few things I could say about each of the topics we covered in our “Exploring Judaism” course. Then, she promised to send me a Beit Din FAQ document that I could use to prepare myself. Didn’t I tell you she’s the best?

What follows is the list of frequently asked questions. Some of the questions are easy to answer. Others will take a bit more time to think about. I’ve got 12 days.

Beit Din FAQs:

1. Tell us about your Hebrew name (why you chose it, etc.).

2. Tell us about your Conversion Project.

3. What most appeals to you about being Jewish?

4. What has been your favorite thing to study during your conversion process?

5. Do you have a particular Biblical character or Biblical passage/text you relate to or are interested in?

  • OK, Rabbi C said that this question always comes up. So, truth be told, I need to do my homework. I guess I identify with Ruth, the convert. I could also fall back on my d’var Torah, I suppose…

6. Can you tell us about a Jewish book or topic that you have encountered in your studies which particularly affected you?

7. What aspect of Judaism do you want to learn more about?

  • Easy. The foundational sources. Having no religious background of any kind has left me objectively deficient in this area (and feeling really weak in my knowledge of biblical stories and their contemporary references). I hope to learn more.

8. What Jewish observances have you incorporated into your life already?

  • So many! Almost every Friday night I go to Shabbat services after work and then meet Steve at home where we light the Shabbat candles and say the blessings over the candles, wine, and challah. As a general rule, and with few exceptions, we no longer make plans on Friday evenings. We stay in. We joke that Steve is the stereotypical Jewish woman in our scenario since I go to synagogue (what the man typically does) and he buys the challah, cooks dinner and neatens up. To Steve, this work represents a break from his everyday life and is a peaceful activity. It’s in keeping with the spirit of Shabbat, so gender role stereotypes be damned!  You might remember than we also observed a traditional Shabbat several months ago.
  • We celebrated the High Holy days this year and I’ve been celebrating Passover for more than a decade. We went to Israel last March. I’ve also bee trying my hand at cooking Jewish foods (see here too). Steve and I also just moved (yay! more on this soon…) and our first act of making a Jewish home? We hung up a mezuzah and said the blessing.

9. What holidays have you celebrated and what did you find meaningful or interesting about them?

  • Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. Passover. Purim. Sukkot. Chanukah. The list goes on. I think I can safely elaborate on the ways in which I found these holidays meaningful and interesting.

10. Where have you attended services, what has been your experience there?

  • I have pretty much stuck to the Friday night and High Holy Day services at the synagogue at which I am converting. I did try out another place with a friend of mine once. That place can be described as “interesting” (I’m glad I went) but let’s just say it violated a few of my 10 Requirements. My experience overall has been positive but I’ve found prayer and the act of praying to be completely new and a bit out of my comfort zone.

11. How has your theology changed, if it has, as part of the conversion process?

  • I have not delved much into this topic, beyond my Just Like a Prayer post, but I should say that according to Rabbi C, Jews are allowed to be agnostic or even atheistic, but converts must believe in or be open to God.

12. What’s the difference between the Torah and the Talmud? The Midrash and the Mishnah?

  • The Torah is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The Talmud is a publication of rabbinic interpretations, conversations, and debates surrounding Jewish law, ethics and customs.
  • The Midrash is a collection of stories that rabbinic scholars used to explain passages in the Hebrew Bible. Clever stories or myths, if you will. The Mishnah is a part of the Talmud, comprising of six books. It is the first redaction of Jewish oral tradition.

***

It’s hard to believe my conversion date is so soon. In the reply section below, please supply me with some other mock Beit Din questions! Or, give me your suggestions for how to answer the above questions (particularly number five…) How would you elaborate on them? If you’ve converted, what did the Beit Din ask you? What else do you all think I can do to prepare?

Wish me luck!

{image credit: Midterm cartoon by Ariel Molvig, The New Yorker, Published Published November 19, 2012, from http://www.condenaststore.com/-sp/Is-this-going-to-be-on-the-midterm-New-Yorker-Cartoon-Prints_i9300121_.htm}

7 Responses to “Study Session: Beit Din 101”

  1. Rachel October 4, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

    What an exciting time for you guys!

    I think my favorite story in the Tanach is about Enoch, Noah’s great-grandfather. (Plus this shabbat is parshat Noach, so it’s a little timely?) All that is said of him is that he “walked with G-d: and he was no more; for G-d took him” – I just think that’s so interesting/weird/cool. Like, what does it even mean that he “was no more”?

  2. kwaz October 4, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

    Why have the Jewish people persevered through such a long history of persecution?
    What values characterize Jewish families and culture?

  3. Chris October 6, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    One of my favorite questions I was asked (and hard to answer) was which holy or historic site in Israel do you feel represents the essence of Judaism/the Jewish people? I could only pick one and no, I did not pick the Kotel. I chose the place where the dead we scrolls are kept in Jerusalem. Why? Well even though those texts are not all of or from the Torah, I found it quite fitting for our people, the people of the book as we have been called. I still feel that way, for it is a place that speaks to what unites all Jews in my mind, and doesn’t have to deal with sectarian differences like the Kotel and other more famous sites. Plus it showcases a fantastic archaeological find and a great example of Jewish change and development from a very interesting time.

    • Convert Confidential October 6, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

      Thanks for your comment–that is a tough question! I’ll have to give this some thought, since we were in Israel last March. I really like your response. I’ll let you know if this question comes up for me too!

  4. Samurai Shonan in Japan January 29, 2014 at 7:26 am #

    Well, did you complete the conversion? :-) We in the public would love to hear your questions, and how you responded.

    I am a Jew converting to a Jew to legalize my way of life.

    Shalom from Japan

  5. Dorris March 22, 2014 at 6:14 pm #

    It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly
    donate to this fantastic blog! I suppose for now i’ll
    settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google
    account. I look forward to new updates and will talk about this website
    with my Facebook group. Talk soon!

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