This past Sunday morning, I was counting people as they entered the sanctuary. 4. 5. 6. 7. OK, since it was now 9 a.m. and we had seven people in the room, that was enough to begin our regular Sunday morning service. People often roll in a bit late on Sunday. No worries. Even if I had to skip a couple of parts to the service as we anticipate ten people arriving, that’s ok. As long as we get ten by the Amidah, we don’t skip much, and we will be able to include Mourner’s Kaddish, which is for some people the reason why they come. But, this is the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Many people are saying final farewells to out-of-town family this morning, and I have an inkling that we will be hard pressed to make ten.
We begin. Morning blessings. 8. 9. Verses of song. And then the tenth person comes in the room. Oy. Ellen has been working on her conversion to Judaism for almost two years now, and is taking a long time because of her commitments to school and career. I am the second rabbi she has been working with. My advice to her was to do what she can for now, get as involved as she can, and when she is able to and wants to make more time for the study and engagement I am asking of her, we can move the process forward. I don’t see her too often. She came to tashlich during the High Holidays, I met her Jewish boyfriend, and she has come to an event here and there. During one of our conversations, I asked her about her anxieties about the conversion process. One of them was the fear of doing something wrong and not having any idea that she was. This is a completely reasonable fear, one that many native-born Jews have as well.
What enters my mind at this moment as Ellen walks in the room is that despite the face that we have ten people, we don’t have a minyan. For those of you who do not know, a minyan is a group of ten or more people over the age of 12 (for women) or 13 (for men). In Orthodox or non-egalitarian communities, this is limited to men. And when I say “people,” I mean Jews, either by birth or by choice. So even though we have ten people in the room, we do not constitute a minyan.
However, since Ellen is only marginally known at best to most members of the community, no one in the room knows that she is not (yet) Jewish, except for me. There really is no decision to make here. I know what to do. It is only the presence of ten members of the community (yes, that means Jews) that enables us to do a full service, to publicly as a community praise the Creator of the Universe, the Holy Bountiful One with particular prayers. I omit a hatzi kaddish, a bridge between sections. We skip Barkhu, which is the formal calling of the community to begin praying together. We do a private Amidah, rather than an expanded public one where we see ourselves as beings integrations of both human and divine. We skip Full Kaddish, which asks for our (public and private) prayers to be received. In the end, we skip the Mourner’s Kaddish. And all of this is increasingly a curiosity to the people in the room. They have no idea why we are doing this abridged service. I did have options. I could have paused and said to the room, “Hey, I know that it looks like we are a minyan, but really we are not because of Ellen, who has not yet completed her conversion.” I can’t do that; it would mortify her. I decide to carry on with the service, and to pray for one more person to enter the room. Just one more Jew. I could make a call or text someone. Since I am the one leading the service, I don’t feel at liberty to make a phone call or even to text someone to get to the shul ASAP. The pause would have singled her out all the same. So I decided to trust that the people who have gathered there this morning know that I can count to ten, and that I know the people in the room.
Still, I ask myself, “Why not do a full service? Even though she has not completed her conversion, Ellen has clearly expressed the desire to cast her lot with the Jewish people. I have personally witnessed her sincerity and dedication. Here she is on a Sunday morning, coming when she can, doing what she can do, to become more involved and more engaged. Why should I not count her in the minyan?”
“Good question,” I reply. Then I answer myself, “Because there is halachah, Jewish tradition, which I understand to be a concretization of our core values and theology. Whereas I value every human being as being made in the Image of God, no matter who they are, I also understand that the Jewish people have a unique commitment to each other and to bringing the world a little closer to the ideal, bit by bit, day by day. Becoming part of that covenant is a powerful statement about one’s role in the world, and we have a process for bringing people into the covenant. In fact, some people in the room have undergone the conversion process themselves. In the room, is Jeanine, who underwent that process years before, and is now one of our most beloved members and teachers in the congregation, and in the room is Jack, who underwent that process with me a few years back, and now comes to Sunday morning minyan every Sunday, and in the room is Tim, whose wife Lisa is going through that process with me right now. To include Ellen in the minyan would not only violate the process of conversion, but would also trample on the years of study and action that these other people have undertaken. This is an easy question to answer, but the fallout is hard to grapple with.”
As we move through the mysteriously shortened service, I wonder: Why does the presence of a non-Jew, also a being created in God’s Image, not make it possible to fully praise the Master of All Worlds? Are they less than us? Are they so Other that people are being denied a full Sunday morning service? So Other that people are denied the opportunity to say Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of a deceased loved one? I know in my hear that they are not less than, but that they are different, and that different is not a bad thing. Drawing distinctions is one of the core practices in Jewish life.
I am praying for that eleventh Jewish person to walk in to the room. But it’s Thanksgiving morning. There is no religious school in session to grab a teaching assistant from. There is no one in the office to call down to help make a minyan. There are just the ten of us praying together in the sanctuary.
We end the service, and I am sure that there are questions. I pray that people just trust that I know how to count to ten and that I know how to count a minyan, which are not always the same thing. Then someone asks, “Why did we do a shorter service? Why did we not say Mourner’s Kaddish?” I wish that the person had asked me the question quietly on the side, but now there is no avoiding the issue. I gently answer that this morning, we had nine Jews in the room, and Ellen who is not yet Jewish. I almost don’t use her name, but it would have been obvious who I am talking about, even without the name. I see Ellen’s eyes look up at me. How is she feeling in that moment, that moment when it becomes clear that they thought that you were Jewish, and now realize that you are the person in the room who was different, not enough, who was less than, who was not one of us, and kept us from fully praising God’s name. Ellen made a beeline for the exit in what I read was embarrassment (and I am likely wrong on this, but not sure), and I would not blame her one bit if that were the case.
I have been sitting with this tension since that moment Ellen left the room. How do we balance the particular and the universal? We are all made in God’s Image, every human being, no matter what race, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation, no matter what. Yet, Jewish particularity is important to me, in that actively living as a member of a covenant is one of the most important facets of my life. Ellen is in between. Not them and yet at the same time not yet one of us. For a variety of reasons, I know how hard it can be to live in shades of gray, and not have the comfort of absolutes.
I emailed Ellen to reach out to her, to discuss her experience of Sunday morning, whatever it may have been. I hope that we can use the experience to depend her appreciation for the covenant that she is in the process of embracing.
May it be God’s will.