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BINTEL BRIEFI converted to marry. Now I’m divorced and my ex says I can’t be Jewish

Bintel thinks your ex is a jerk, but let’s see what the Talmud says

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Dear Bintel: 

I am hoping for your advice on finding my way back to Judaism. 

I converted to Judaism as part of my relationship with my ex-husband. We were together for seven years, married for two of them. Judaism was the way his family connected and I wanted to be a part of that. I felt in order to truly be a part, to understand, to be able to carry on these traditions, conversion was the right path for me. 

When I first told him I felt I was called to convert, he was ecstatic. “I didn’t even have to ask you!” he said. As our relationship fell apart, his tone shifted. I recall him telling me “no one asked you to do that” in reference to my conversion. He told me I could not describe myself as a Jew because I had not grown up that way. 

Our divorce proceedings were ugly; in the end they lasted longer than our marriage and included him accusing me of multiple affairs, having me followed by a private investigator and telling me he would come to my place of work to “end this.”

One of the blows that hurt the most was that, at trial, he testified that he could not recall me being involved in our Jewish life or his extended family’s observances. But the year before we separated, I inherited the responsibility of hosting a Rosh Hashanah dinner for 30 that his aunt had always held. I still treasure the memory of his uncle telling me his aunt would have been proud of the work that I had done. 

I loved my conversion. I worked with a rabbi who was truly amazing. I felt connected to a community, a pace to the year, a life cycle. Now whenever I try to visit this foundation for a house that will never be built, I can only weep. I feel like an intruder. 

I’ve found a welcoming shul near my new home, but I feel intimidated by attending services and I don’t know how to integrate into the community without retelling a painful story about why I’m here. This experience can’t be unique, but I feel totally at sea. 

At Sea

Dear At Sea, 

First of all, I hope that during your conversion process, you learned that Judaism not only welcomes converts, but that as Jews, we are commanded to love converts. Even reminding a convert that they were ever not Jewish is forbidden

Some rabbis argue that converts were, in fact, always Jewish, before they went through the ritual process. The Talmud never refers to converts as gentiles, but instead always uses the term “converts,” as though they had already converted even before they had performed the ritual — as though their soul was always Jewish.

I’m incredibly sorry for everything your ex-husband put you through. Threatening to show up at your work? That’s terrifying. I’m sure you know his behavior was unacceptable and cruel. And I know you didn’t ask for a pep talk on why he sucks and you’re a girl boss. But I think it’s important to understand that his behavior was not just ugly, but un-Jewish. You should not have any doubts about your place in the community.

It’s not just that his challenges to your Judaism were against Jewish values, tradition and law; so too was his general behavior through the divorce, thanks to his shady accusations and attempts at public shaming.

Humiliating another person is such a high offense that the rabbis of the Talmud have a lengthy discussion of how committing adultery — as your ex-husband accused you of! — is less bad than humiliating someone.

“One who engages in intercourse with a married woman before witnesses and with forewarning, his death is by strangulation, but he still has a share in the World-to-Come. But one who humiliates another in public has no share in the World-to-Come,” the passage says. “It is more comfortable for a person to cast himself into a fiery furnace than to humiliate another in public.”

There’s even a whole passage about how making someone blush is the same as literally stabbing them. Yes, the Talmudic rabbis could be drama queens, but you get my point.

Your ex-husband’s groundless remarks about your Jewishness have weaseled their way into your head, which is why you’re feeling so nervous about synagogue. But don’t let him poison memories like your beautiful Rosh Hashanah dinner. And don’t let him destroy your ability to integrate into a new shul.

You’ve already said that the shul is welcoming, so just let yourself be welcomed. Attend services, stay and mingle at kiddush, invite people over for Shabbat meals — I hear you’re a good host. The more you let yourself participate, the less out of place you’ll feel. There’s no reason that you have to tell anyone about your painful divorce, or even that you’re a convert. Just be who you are: a fellow Jew, new to the area, looking for community.

Eventually, I imagine, you may want to share more about your story. When you’re ready, I have no doubt your community will be supportive; you’re certainly not the first to go through a painful divorce, nor the first to convert in a marriage that did not make it. After all, here you are at synagogue despite all that; it’s pretty obvious that you’re committed.

It will take time to feel at home Jewishly, and probably just generally — sounds like your ex made you feel unwanted and untrusted, which is a lot to carry. See a therapist, give yourself time to heal, and turn to friends and spaces that build you up and welcome you. 

And just remember that there are absolutely no grounds for your Jewish worries; halachically, you are legitimately Jewish — and just as halachically, your ex’s behavior is not. Isn’t Jewish law full of wisdom?


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