Interesting Gers: Martha Nussbaum

Almost five years ago now, I converted to Judaism. I did so because of a complex set of personal reasons including spiritual growth, intellectual development and love. When I was going through the conversion process, I gazed at my own navel a lot on a now defunct blog where I also wrote a couple of pieces about other who converted. The reasons I converted are complex and personal. I’m might rehash them here one day, but not today. Today, I’m going to share an edited version of one of a series of posts I wrote examining the lives of other converts, or as they are sometimes known “Gers/Gegiyoret”.  Here’s one.

Let’s start with Martha Nussbaum, one of the most important political philosophers working today. If you follow contemporary thought, you know who she is. Nussbaum teaches at the University of Chicago, has written a number of books, including the must read Sex and Social Justice*, and writes on current political issues for the New York Review of Books and other periodicals. She is one of American’s few, true “public intellectuals”. Some people I respect dislike her, usually because of her takedown of Judith Butler.**  Her grounding in classical thought and her ability to teach philosophy in a legal theory setting make her one of my intellectual heroes. And whether you love her or hate her, you have to admit she is ridiculously smart.

She is also a ger.

It is not easy to find information on Nussbaum’s conversion. It would seem that, like many converts, she originally converted at least in part for love when she married Alan Nussbaum. However, long after she and Alan Nussbaum divorced, she stayed involved in Judaism. In fact, she had her bat mitzvah relatively in 2008.

At her bat mitzvah, Nussbaum gave a d’var Torah. Here is an excerpt:

As life goes on, if all goes well, we gradually become able to see others as whole people who have needs of their own, and we develop genuine love and concern for them, and guilt about the excessive demands we have made of them, and probably still want to make. Both of our texts emphasize this capacity for concern by focusing on the need to confront the other “face-to-face,” panim b’fanim in Deuteronomy—an idea suggesting the acknowledgment of the other as an end and not merely an instrument of one’s desires. (The eleventh-century commentator Rashi remarks that a face-to-face interaction requires honesty and the suspension of manipulative and dishonest behavior.) In the Isaiah text, similarly, we see that we must all bring messages of joy and consolation not only to ourselves, but, above all, to others, to our fellow citizens in Zion. The imperative, “Comfort ye my people” is a plural, and though many commentators see this as a reference only to a group of prophets, others—prominently including the sixth-seventh century liturgical poet Eleazar Kallir—hold that the addressees are us all, the entire congregation. . .  So, we all should bring messages of concern and consolation to all, and there appears to be no reason, given the universalism of the text as a whole, not to take this to mean the entire world.

You can read the whole piece here.

Nussbaum hasn’t shared the exact reasons for her conversion, though she has been quoted as saying she had “an intense desire to join the underdogs and to fight for justice in solidarity with them”*** and that she had “kind of gotten to the end of my rope with Christian otherworldliness. I wanted a religion in which justice was done in this world.” Both interesting, and I think political reasons for conversion. I have no idea why she chose to have a bat mitzvah in her sixties. I’d love to ask her.

Regardless of her reasons, her intelligence and sense of justice is a great addition to the Jewish community and she is certainly an interesting Ger.
*Nussbaum is also a player in one of the great gossip scandals of the intellectual elite. She was involved for many years with Cass Sunstein before Sunstein ran off an married Samatha Powers. That whole thing is a discussion for another blog.

** Which was, perhaps, mean spirited and with which I certainly disagree on some points. However, even those I know who hate Nussbaum must admit she also raised some pretty good points.

*** I’ll acknowledge that this is a very fraught reason for conversion. Is underdog status something we can just claim, or must it be given by those favored to win?

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    […] believe, like Martha Nussbaum, Kincaid’s conversion arose because of her marriage to a born Jew, in this case, Allen Shawn […]

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