Regrets Of A Convert

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Abraham Isaac Carmel was a Catholic priest who converted to Judaism. Prior to his death in 1982, he came to the US for medical treatment and taught English literature in Yeshiva of Flatbush high school. Excerpts from an unfinished book about his frustrations as a convert were published as “My Chosen People” in Tradition (23:2, Winter 1988 – link) and reprinted in The Conversion Crisis: An Ongoing Discussion. I highlight here an issue that I think is applicable well beyond a convert’s experience and speaks to the dilemma facing anyone trying to contribute professionally to the Jewish community.

Teaching is a rewarding task, but in America a teacher is a long way down the community ladder. He has no prestige or vital influence. American Jews in particular find it difficult to respect a person who is without financial backing. You are not quite kosher. If I were planning my life again, I would give more attention to material things and, above all, security. Idealism should be linked to a sense of financial adequacy.

I believe religious officials — rebbes, rabbis and influential religious teachers — attain the respect Mr. Carmel lamented he lacked. However, his comment about financial adequacy still seems applicable.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

48 comments

  1. If this has nothing to do with his conversion, why do you highlight it in the title?

  2. It does – he didn’t know that he was getting into the Modern Orthodox Community, with its materialism and such.

  3. What kind of idealism is “idealism linked to a sense of financial adequacy”? The idea of remuneration for teaching Torah, as for learning is bedieved.The ideal of Torah is פת במלח תאכל…טוב לי תורת פיך מאלפי זהב ןכסף- This is not an easy ideal to attain and those “professional Jews” who are looking for financial security are bound to be frustrated.

  4. Shachar Ha'amim

    I have a big problem with what he is saying and suggesting.
    It’s one thing to suggest that idealism should be linked to a sense of financial security in the sense that a person is providing for his/her own needs as well as their family’s needs. That’s a basic. The idea that a person can just sit and hover a vilna shas or or chant na nach nachman etc. in the woods and that support for the family will just “magically” appear is of cource farcical and has no place in Judaism (even if practiced by hundreds of thousands of “ultra-orthodox” Jews).
    But the idea that that the respect an indiviudal attains is tied to financial worth and backing is morally reprehensible. It would seem that the writer was influenced by his American suroundings in a very detrimental way.
    The fact that in today’s American ‘yeshivish’ society people would rather make a shidduch with the daughter of a felon or fugitive from justice – but who has money – rather than nice, heimische ehrlicje girls whose families lack financial “backing” speaks volumes about the moral degradation of such society. That doesn’t mean that this outlook is correct or normative however.

  5. “MDJ on June 22, 2011 at 11:10 pm
    If this has nothing to do with his conversion, why do you highlight it in the title?”
    agreed

    “American Jews in particular find it difficult to respect a person who is without financial backing. You are not quite kosher”
    Which is sadly true-it even applies to Rabbis-which Rabbis get the most respect those who have access to money. An interesting vignette from decades ago but suspect it is still true-A Rabbi who was a Rabbi of a schul that had some extremely wealthy baalbatim moved to another city with more Jews with not quite as wealthy baalbatim-he noted that when he was the Rabbi of the extremely wealthy baal batim everyone would be supposedly concerned with his views on x,y,z but whne had less wealthy baalbatim all of a sudden he apparently lost his knowledge that peopel were supposedly interested in.
    “But the idea that that the respect an indiviudal attains is tied to financial worth and backing is morally reprehensible. It would seem that the writer was influenced by his American suroundings in a very detrimental way.”
    Israeli RY and mosdos leaders act the same way.

    “The fact that in today’s American ‘yeshivish’ society people would rather make a shidduch with the daughter of a felon or fugitive from justice – but who has money – rather than nice, heimische ehrlicje girls whose families lack financial “backing” speaks volumes about the moral degradation of such society. That doesn’t mean that this outlook is correct or normative however.”

    Agreed

  6. David Tzohar on June 23, 2011 at 1:33 am
    “What kind of idealism is “idealism linked to a sense of financial adequacy”? The idea of remuneration for teaching Torah, as for learning is bedieved.The ideal of Torah is פת במלח תאכל…טוב לי תורת פיך מאלפי זהב ןכסף- This is not an easy ideal to attain and those “professional Jews” who are looking for financial security are bound to be frustrated.”

    Except that sadly many are reaching extremely high salaries-some RY probably earn double of what US astronauts earn!!

  7. “mycroft on June 23, 2011 at 6:12 am
    David Tzohar on June 23, 2011 at 1:33 am
    “What kind of idealism is “idealism linked to a sense of financial adequacy”? The idea of remuneration for teaching Torah, as for learning is bedieved.The ideal of Torah is פת במלח תאכל…טוב לי תורת פיך מאלפי זהב ןכסף- This is not an easy ideal to attain and those “professional Jews” who are looking for financial security are bound to be frustrated.””

    Not just RY but pulpit Rabbis, mechnachim ,yeshiva administrators etc.and they may be frustrated that their Boards earn more than them

    Except that sadly many are reaching extremely high salaries-some RY probably earn double of what US astronauts earn!!

  8. Abraham Carmel was moser nefesh for Torah and Yiddishkeit in a way that few is any readers of this blog can approach. I think some humility is order before criticizing this man’s late life regrets. especially those who are not themselves in education or related fields

  9. But the idea that that the respect an indiviudal attains is tied to financial worth and backing is morally reprehensible. It would seem that the writer was influenced by his American suroundings in a very detrimental way.”

    That’s not how I read him; I don’t think he was arguing that this is how it SHOULD be or that it is “correct.” Rather, AIUI, he was telling us what he experienced as a teacher in those days. I’m not sure that it was as black and white then as he makes it seem, but there is certainly some truth to his perception.

  10. I think he was making to points about money – 1) it gains respect, 2) it affords security that is otherwise unattainable in the education field. That is why I pointed out that #1 doesn’t really apply to Jewish studies teachers and communal/shul leaders.

  11. mycroft,

    I respect you right to anonymity, but given your regular bashing of other peoples’ professions, I think we all deserve to find out what you do for a living.

    Inquiring minds want to know….

    Moshe

  12. Shachar Ha'amim

    Moshe – I don’t even know who he is. I was criticizing this idea as it was presented. Frankly, I would criticize it even if the holiset most pious saint on the planet espused it.

    Hirhurim – I have to disagree with ou as well. We all know that rabbis who have influential financial (or political – which is also tied to financial) backing acheive greater respect. I don’t know who you think that security is unattainable in the education field. Frankly, the ability to acheive tenure is much GREATER in the education field than anywhere else. If I think of most professions I would say that compared to most, Rabbis and educators have a much greater chance of acheiving lifetime tenure than any other profession. Some of them even acheive fantastic salaries and benefits (how many shul rabbis do you know had a job for life, in a home owned by the shul and then received a pension and an apartment in the holy land? or “retired” and then setup a year abroad “edutainment” business, er, yeshiva one-year program, which employes their children and and in-laws? more than you think.

  13. i read carmel’s autobiography a long time ago but was disappointed. i kept waiting for the grand and convincing epiphany that made him embrace judaim, but i missed it.

    GIL:

    “I believe religious officials — rebbes, rabbis and influential religious teachers — attain the respect Mr. Carmel lamented he lacked.”

    not in the MO environment in which he worked.

  14. i’m not sure about when carmel worked in YoF, but certainly later on $ was very important there. he couldn not have been blind to this.

  15. I was discussing with a Catholic co-worker of mine how Rabbis are typically selected/employed by the congregation and not appointed by a centralized organization. My co-worker told me that one think he thought was nice about the Catholic Church was that a Priest could live a life apart from the world; they didn’t concern themselves with children or finances and knew they would be cared for in sickness or old-age. I realize that in practice the Priesthood has lots of issues, but the concept of religious leader who without financial pressure or responsibility is intriguing. I don’t know how you could possibly have this in contemporary Orthodox Jewry. One issue is the limited barrier to entry — anyone can call themselves a Rabbi but clearly we can’t just give everyone a financial free pass.

  16. “i’m not sure about when carmel worked in YoF”

    I know that many of my friends had him as a teacher in the 60s, so my guess would be sometime in the 50s through sometime in the 70s.

  17. HE seems to have taught at Flatbush from 1963 until sometime between 1979 and his death in 1982.
    http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20073218,00.html

  18. Lawrence Kaplan

    Moshe: Mycroft is selective in his bashing. He specializes in doctors and kelei kodesh: rabbis, Yesiva administrators, teachers, Roshei Yeshiva, etc.

  19. Lawrence Kaplan on June 23, 2011 at 2:32 pm
    Moshe: Mycroft is selective in his bashing. He specializes in doctors and kelei kodesh: rabbis, Yesiva administrators, teachers, Roshei Yeshiva, etc.

    With the noted exception of the more turf grounded Rabbis, Mycroft is an equal opportunity basher who calls it as he sees it ; and imho usually right.

  20. OK, we can now add Cazzie to the list of anonymous bashers.

  21. Lawrence Kaplan

    cazzie: I think the record will indicate that I am right.

  22. The MO environment has nothing to do with materialism. I grew up, and I’m not young, in a “regular” orthodox environment and money was always the surest way to respect. Rabbonim etc. were respected in words and name only.

    Rabbi or Dr. Carmel (perhaps both) was respected by the Flatbush kids I met. They had more respect for him than any of the other teachers. But, remember, YOF was not a just modern orthodox school but one that catered to rich kids and kids of a particularly commercial group of Jews. Those Jews, by the way, seem to have a very high degree of respect for their Rabbis just not their teachers.

    As to the idea that priests get to live a life apart, I think one of the major drawbacks of modern orthodox Jewry of all stripes is that their Rabbis etc. do not live the life and have the challenges that the “normal” Jew faces.

  23. “Lawrence Kaplan on June 23, 2011 at 2:32 pm
    Moshe: Mycroft is selective in his bashing. He specializes in doctors and kelei kodesh: rabbis, Yesiva administrators, teachers, Roshei Yeshiva,”

    Prof Kaplan they all have in common the halacha that one can only charge for sechar battala not sechar limud.

  24. Yes Mycroft, the question is why you care so obsessively about it.

  25. “. My co-worker told me that one think he thought was nice about the Catholic Church was that a Priest could live a life apart from the world; they didn’t concern themselves with children or finances and knew they would be cared for in sickness or old-age. I realize that in practice the Priesthood has lots of issues, but the concept of religious leader who without financial pressure or responsibility is intriguing.”
    Agreed -to the extent that sadly money “pressure” can influence behavior.

  26. “MDJ on June 23, 2011 at 9:52 pm
    Yes Mycroft, the question is why you care so obsessively about it”

    Other professions, eg actuaries, attorneys, accountants, banker, cab driver, delivery man, economist, finance, gardener, etc neither deal with life and death or mans soul. Only those in Torah and health care providers have fields where af ani bechinam af atah bechinam. I am not aware of other fields where the halacha is that one can’t be paid for sechar limud.

  27. “MDJ on June 23, 2011 at 3:05 pm
    OK, we can now add Cazzie to the list of anonymous bashers”

    In general I try to avoid bashing any commentator-I may disagree with them on the issues-but I believe the record will show that there are many who attack individuals much more than I do.

    ” Mycroft is an equal opportunity basher who calls it as he sees it ;”
    I try to do that and instead of attacks on me presonally write where I am wrong

    “and imho usually right.”

    Thanks Cazzie-of course since I am not professionally involved with the Jewish community I can call what I see-I have no turf to defend.

  28. cazzie,
    are you the same cazzie (russel iirc)? where have you been?
    KT

    mycroft
    thanks for putting the alphabetic order by first letter only!
    KT

  29. Of course-if one was interested in Conversion read Carmel’s-So strange mY Path-I have not read the second edition-I read the first one about 50 years ago and still remember the basic book.

  30. Lawrence Kaplan

    Cazzie: Note that mycroft admits that he focusses more on criticizing –justifiably in his view, cynically in the view of others– doctors and kelei kodesh than other professions.

  31. FTR, I agree that Mycroft doesn’t bash commentors, nor did I say he did.

  32. But you still haven’t explained why you are obsessed with this halacha.

  33. “MDJ on June 23, 2011 at 9:52 pm
    Yes Mycroft, the question is why you care so obsessively about it.”

    They are two fields that one should not be entering to profit maximize but rather to serve. They are two very important fields to all of us. Most of us never deal directly with actuaries etc but we are involved in our most important issues with physicians and clergy.

  34. So, mycroft, is this a halachic point or a social one? And, again, not why do you hold this opinion, but why are you obsessed with it?

  35. “Lawrence Kaplan on June 24, 2011 at 6:23 am
    Cazzie: Note that mycroft admits that he focusses more on criticizing –justifiably in his view, cynically in the view of others– doctors and kelei kodesh than other professions”

    Prof Kaplan-I have much more personal knowledge of health care professionals and klei Kodesh and the lack of integrity of some. Note I did not say all or most but the lack of integrity is certainly not pursued.

  36. “MDJ on June 24, 2011 at 6:25 pm
    So, mycroft, is this a halachic point or a social one?
    BOTH

    “And, again, not why do you hold this opinion, but why are you obsessed with it?”

    Everyone has a background and are influenced by that-what is important is are my facts correct. Attacks against me rather than my points remind me of divversionary tactics of someone who is arguing the case when neither the law or facts are on their side.

  37. From
    Advice To Potential Converts To Orthodox Judaism on June 26, 2011 at 12:28 am

    “* If you don’t have the money to pay for classes and for the synagogue membership dues and for the Beit Din dues and for the rent of a place near your shul, then you should give up on becoming Jewish until you can earn the money that will allow you to do this (unless you have superior social skills and can talk your way into discounts). ”

    I hope this is not true-but sadly in reality even born Jews are often effectively told no money Judaism is not interested in you.
    Conversions should be free-to those who we believe should be part of our community. There is no reason why everything becomes a money maker.

  38. copying my response fron News section
    mycroft on June 26, 2011 at 5:13 am
    From
    Advice To Potential Converts To Orthodox Judaism on June 26, 2011 at 12:28 am

    “* If you don’t have the money to pay for classes and for the synagogue membership dues and for the Beit Din dues and for the rent of a place near your shul, then you should give up on becoming Jewish until you can earn the money that will allow you to do this (unless you have superior social skills and can talk your way into discounts). ”

    I hope this is not true-but sadly in reality even born Jews are often effectively told no money Judaism is not interested in you.
    Conversions should be free-to those who we believe should be part of our community. There is no reason why everything becomes a money maker.

  39. I was a pupil of Abraham Carmel’s when he taught at Carmel College ( a residential boys Prep School in the Oxfordshire countryside) from 1950 until 1959. He was indeed a devoted and effective teacher and an obviously sincere convert ( though when he said the Shema out loud he still sounded like a priest). His naivity got him into trouble because when a well known Orthodox businessman absconded to Israel with lots of frum people’s money he called a Press Conference in London and declared that he was going to Israel to bring him back to face justice. He did not and the negative publicity led to his leaving Carmel. That was when he moved to the USA and taught in Flatbush. But he kept in touch with many of his former pupils and often expressed nostalgia for his English days ( not that English Jewry treated its teachers any better than the USA ).
    I believe he felt that was not fully appreciated for his devotion to Yiddishkeit and this might explain some of the bitterness in his observation.

    JR

  40. Lawrence Kaplan

    Thank you Jeremy Rosen for clarifying what had long been a mystery to me. IIRC, there was review of Abraham Carmel’s book in Tradition. It was followed by a letter from an administrator of Carmel College, writing in cryptic terms of Carmel (the convert) no longer being welcome at Carmel (the College). I always wondered what the story was. I am glad it was just a matter of naivete.

  41. JR.I have been around but not many topics around here have gravitas like Mycroft.

  42. Lawrence Kaplan

    Cazzie: “Topics” or “bloggers”?

  43. cazzie on June 26, 2011 at 8:28 pm
    “JR.I have been around but not many topics around here have gravitas like Mycroft.

    Lawrence Kaplan on June 26, 2011 at 9:10 pm
    Cazzie: “Topics” or “bloggers”?”

    Am I a topic?

  44. Mycroft.
    According to Cazzie you seem to be.

  45. The blogger became the topic. And as far as I’m concerned it was more interesting and serious than the origional topic. But then again Im a Mycroft fan.

  46. He may have a point in that I think those of us who have planned our finances look at those as who haven’t as being irresponsible and perhaps having a goyische kopp (sp?). In that sense it could be related to conversion because he did not grow up in the culture where we are careful with our money (and there are divre khaza”l on this point that hashem has trusted us as stewards of his money, it’s foolish to give more than certain percentage of income to charity, etc.). on the other hand, I know plenty of irresponsible Jews,. and Israel has more than its fair share. And if course with all the planning in the world, it can all collapse, through economic failure or war. This probably isn’t a point worth publishing, but he was probably firghtened at the end of his life without proper savings.

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