The Mechanics of Conversion: Cindy in Orange is the New Black

Cindy, a black inmate, wants to convert to Judaism in order to obtain better prison food – that is, kosher food. This is one of the key plotlines in this past season of Orange is the New Black, a popular television show about a women’s prison, which has been by far its most religious season yet.  

While Cindy begins her “journey” of faith by faking a Jewish identity in order to upgrade her meals, by at the end of the season, she is in tears, sitting in front of a rabbi, explaining why she genuinely wants to convert. That scene is the most sincere, purely motivated and thoughtful depiction of religious devotion – or at least aspiration towards it – in the entire show. Why? And what is the significance of this?

  According to religious ritual, the Rabbi first has to reject your request to convert twice before saying, "yes," an interesting contrast to how the eagerness of Christian pastors to get a "yes" in whatever shape or form. 

 

According to religious ritual, the Rabbi first has to reject your request to convert twice before saying, "yes," an interesting contrast to how the eagerness of Christian pastors to get a "yes" in whatever shape or form. 

The show’s depictions of religion are typically designed to convey a single and simple message: Religion, especially institutional and organized religion, is bad—it propagates hierarchical (especially patriarchal) authority and is morally controlling. Contrast Cindy’s conversion scene with the flashback to her childhood, which seems lifted straight out of a book about fundamentalist horror stories. Her father catches her trying to sneak some food while he is saying grace, and then proceeds to bible-lecture her, ending with a histrionic declaration, “So thou must not sin! Amen!”

Given this backdrop, it is surprising to see the writers of the show take Cindy’s initial faux-conversion and turn it into a full-fledged one. Why? Let’s examine the speech she gives that ultimately convinces the rabbi to give her his blessing.

“I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell. And if I was good, I’d go to heaven. And if I’d ask Jesus, he’d forgive me and that was that,” she says, crying. “And here y’all are saying there ain’t no hell. Ain’t sure about heaven. And if you do something wrong, you got to figure it out yourself. And as far as God’s concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions and to keep learning and to keep arguing. It’s like a verb. It’s like … you do God. And that’s a lot of work, but I think I’m in, as least as far as I can see it. ”

Essentially, she is saying that Christianity tends to promote a lot of fear about eternal moral judgment in which you are a passive actor – God decides your end, even if it is based on your actions. Judaism, on the other hand, mostly does away with the eternal scales of justice, focuses on this earthly life, and places the onus on you, not God, to “figure it out yourself.” And while Christianity is about cut-and-dry rules of who gets in and out, Judaism encourages questioning, learning and argument. (All according to Cindy's experience.)

It is easy to see how this take on Judaism is far more plausible and attractive to Cindy, and perhaps any other inmate, than her experience of Christianity. (For the record, more and more Christian theologians and pastors are moving towards a vision of the “kingdom of God,” or heaven, not as a far-off place in the sky but a reality that begins now on earth to which we can labor towards until its full consummation.)

Our criminal justice system, in a way, is the earthly version of the “scales of justice,” and the show reiterates over and over again that there is little justice involved in who does or does not ends up in “hell” (prison). Who is to say, then, that the afterlife will be much better? Moreover, in prison, it is mainly on you to survive, to hustle, to learn. There is no higher authority handholding you, although there is peer support. And most of the rules, and the enforcement of them, are seen as arbitrary. In light of these conditions, it is no wonder that Judaism simply makes more “sense” – on an experiential, not rational plane – than Christianity for Cindy. Prison provides, as Peter Berger would call it, a “plausibility structure” (a sociocultural context in which certain meanings are made plausible) for Cindy’s faith.

The Church’s doctrine, in many respects, is on public trial and is evolving. But it is not enough for the Church to simply have more accurate or more persuasive doctrine. It has to create “plausibility structures” – of ritual, relationship, etc. – that render the tenets that we profess a little less distant and foreign, and a little more real and believable.


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Sarah Ngu is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she blogs on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses. You can follow her at @sarahngu.