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Should I Convert to Judaism?

Should I Convert to Judaism?

Is Judaism For Everybody?

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Question:

I came across your site and wow--I really want to become Jewish. My mother was a fairly devout Italian Catholic and my father an Anglican skeptic who never went to church. I was always so confused. But now your site has really turned me on to Judaism, a real coming home for me. What's my next step?

Response:

Your next step is to become a better person. Develop greater faith in your soul, in your destiny, and in your Maker. Do more good, reach out to more people. Learn more wisdom, apply whatever you learn, and make life worth living.

But you don't need to become Jewish to do any of that. Plenty of wonderful people doing beautiful things in the world are not Jewish, and G‑d is nonetheless pleased with them. And if you're worried about going to heaven, Jewish belief is that all good people have a share in the World to Come, as long as they connect their lives to the oneness of G‑d and keep the Seven Laws of Noah.

You see, there's Judaism and there's Jewishness, and the two are not one and the same. Judaism is wisdom for every person on the planet and beyond. We call it the Torah, meaning "the teaching," and it's a divine message to all human beings containing the principles that much of humanity has already accepted as absolute truths. The idea that human life is beyond value is a teaching originating from Torah, as is the related concept that all human beings are created equal. So too, the right of every individual to literacy and education was brought to the world through Torah. And world peace as a value and goal was preached exclusively by the Torah and its prophets thousands of years before it became popular in the rest of the world. And of course, the idea that there is a single, incorporeal Being who creates and sustains all of reality, and is concerned over all that occurs with each individual, thereby giving each person, creature, event and object meaning, purpose and destiny--this is a core teaching upon which everything else rests, and the central teaching of the Torah.

This teaching was not only preserved, but unfolded, explained, illuminated and applied in so many different ways by Jewish sages since it was given, over 3300 years ago. They've applied it to serious matters of medical ethics, business ethics, politics, personal enlightenment--every facet of human life. Today it is all readily available for all humanity to partake of and learn from, as a beacon of light and an inspiration to all.

That's Judaism. Then there is Jewishness. To be Jewish means to belong to an ancient tribe, either by birth or by adoption (a.k.a. conversion). It's a strange and unique tribe, because it is the only one to have survived into modernity while retaining most of the characteristics of a Bronze Age tribe. Anthropologist Jared Diamond describes in his book, "Guns, Germs and Steel," how a New Guinea tribesman, when visiting a nearby village of the same tribe, will immediately start the conversation with an investigation of, "So, who are you related to? Do you know so-and-so?" to establish tribal relations. Well, that's exactly what Jewish people do today when they meet one another all over the world. Because, whether living in Manhattan or Joburg, Tel Aviv or Vladivostok, we are still all one tribe.

And for good reason: To preserve the teachings of an ageless Torah for the world, the Jewish People themselves need to be ageless, remaining outside of time, as it were, even while traveling within it.

Tribes have rituals. So do Jews. Males of the tribe wear particular items of clothing, such as tzitzit and kippot. Women keep a certain mode of modest dress and married women cover their hair. Men also wrap leather boxes containing parchment scrolls on the heads and arms every morning, while robed in woolen sheets with more of those tzitzit tassels. In our services, we chant ancient Hebrew and read from an ancient scroll. We have holidays that commemorate our tribal memories and establish our identity as a whole. Certain foods are taboo and other food is supervised and declared fit-for-the-tribe. Nope, you can't get much more ancient-tribal than any of that.

The point is, none of that ritual stuff was ever meant as a universal teaching, except perhaps in a more generalized way. Modest dress--yes, a good idea for all. Why should the human being be reduced to a body icon? A chat with your Maker every morning? How can a human being do without it? And injecting some spirituality into your food consumption--what a great way to transcend the mundane. But as to the particular rituals in their Jewish form, as meaningful as they are to us, there's simply no meaning in someone outside the tribe taking them on. (If you don't believe me, take a look in the source-text, where G‑d tells Moses, "Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them to...")

Now, what I'm saying is not very PC nowadays. We live in a world of hypermobility. Not just because we own our own cars and reserve our own tickets online to go anywhere, anytime--but because we imagine our very identities to be just as mobile as our powerbook. Pick me up and take me anywhere. Today I'm a capitalist entrepreneur, tomorrow an Inuit activist, and the next day a Californian bohemian. And we can mix and match--today, you can be Italian, Nigerian, Chinese and Bostonian all in the same meal. So who is this Freeman character to tell me which tribe I belong to and which not?

To be frank, because this Freeman character considers the hyper-identity scheme to be a scam, a mass delusion and a social illness. You can switch your clothes, your eating habits, your friends, your social demeanor, your perspective on life and maybe you can even switch to a Mac. But G‑d decides who you are, and the best you can do is discover it.

Two friends of mine joined the Peace Corps back in the sixties and were posted in Southeast Asia. Together, they visited a little-known guru in the jungle to whom they announced, "We want to become Buddhists."

"Well, what are you now?" he asked them.

"Nothing," they replied.

"Where did you come from? What were your parents?"

"They were Jews."

"So why are you coming to me?" he asked. "Go and be Jews."

Now it's my turn to return the favor and tell the Southeast Asians, the Italians, the Nigerians, the Inuits and all the rest of humanity this little piece:

I believe that what G‑d wants from each person is that s/he examine the heritage of his ancestors, discover the truths hidden there and live in accordance with them, knowing that this is what his Creator wants from her/him. The truths are there because all of human society was originally founded upon the laws given to Adam and to Noah, along with those laws that all the children of Noah accepted upon themselves. These truths are found by examining one's heritage through the light of Torah. The Jewish Tribe are the bearers of that light. But you don't need to become Jewish to partake of it. Light shines for all who have eyes.

Enjoy our site. Help spread the light.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Discussion (497)
December 4, 2016
Check your family tree
I often find that people drawn to Judaism and want to convert often find that someone on their maternal side, Grandmother, etc. was a Jew. You might check it out. Meanwhile, the challenge with following the 7 Noahide Laws is that most people want more. They want more structure. They want a community. There is a growing Noahide community and they are working to gain more structure, prayer books, etc. Many of them often end up converting to Judaism. I wish you the best. Follow your heart.
Anonymous
ourshul.org
November 11, 2016
Conversion
To Hanalah in Boston - Add to your list social dating websites. There are occasions when they do work - as in the example of my older son. PS. Why is everyone mad at me?
JDV
November 6, 2016
To JDV
Don't blame it all on intermarriage.
I blame intermarriage on it all.
Unless a Jew lives in NYC, s/he's unlikely to meet Jews. Those at work or in social organizations aren't Jews. How will s/he meet other Jews, not being automatically thrown together with Jews? NonJews are everywhere; of course s/he goes out with nonJews and they are lovely people and s/he naturally falls in love with one of them and wants to get married.

The Jewishness of that line is gone. If the mother is not Jewish, how can the children learn to keep kosher or Shabbos? They can't. If the mother IS Jewish, she must work very hard to provide a family dinner on Shabbos, much less a total Shabbos experience--she who didn't go out of her way to meet a Jewish man.

It's up to the Jewish commmunity to provide occasions ways for Jews to be casually thrown together with Jews. Moviegoing groups. Artlovers groups. Rock groups. Classical music groups. Jewish groups based on something besides Jewishness.
Hanalah
Boston
November 6, 2016
Conversion
Anonymous, I am not talking about elitism when a Jew converts to Christianity or anything else, but when a non Jew wants to convert to Judaism. If you don't believe me, look at Chabad blog - Funny, you don't look Jewish" and you will see what i mean.
JDV
Paramus
November 4, 2016
Christian elitists are ok?
Why is it ok for non-Jews to be elitists?

But if a Jew does something it's immediately 'they think they're better than anyone else' or 'Jews have all the power and all the money and own Hollywood' - and worse.

JDV, I'm not understanding your comment "There is elitism in conversions" ... do you mean when Jews become Christians that's ok?

Some of the comments here are pretty anti-Semitic in their tone. I've dealt with that garbage all my life. Enough already!

Jews have been trying to survive for centuries and can't cop a break from Christians and Muslims and Hitler and whatever else is coming down the pike! Enough!

Maybe some Jews are just plain tired of being constantly attacked in one way or another. If they choose to convert that's their business.

If Christians choose to convert back to Judaism, that's fine.

If you can't take the heat of a Jewish life, stay Christian. Easy peasy!
Anonymous
Vista
September 8, 2016
Conversion
Deborah is right. There is elitism in conversions and it is wrong. Elitism is wrong, period. That is why the Jewish community is losing so many people. Don't blame everything on intermarriage.
JDV
Paramus
September 8, 2016
Very keen to convert
Ironic you mention Nigerians as my parents are Nigerian Christians who have very close ties with the Jewish faith. I grew up a Christian, but left religion for a while. I then did some study on various faiths and found Judaism to be the most persuasive in theology, ideas and influence. To be honest, I dislike the elitism in the community over conversions. One who is true and pure in their desire to convert should be accepted. My interest is in the faith itself rather than labels.
Deborah
September 7, 2016
A Dream: Jews and non-Jews Studying Together in Peace
There is so much Torah to study without ever converting. The way I see it is that I don’t have to be a Jew to study or contribute. Why not opt in to observe mitzvos, even mitzvos I am not required observe as a son of Noach? My personal feeling is that if deeds are healthy for Jews, then they are probably healthy for me. I have studied Chumash, Daily Halachah, Psalms, and Tanya, with plans for others at chabad.org for several years now. I have no need to convert to be blessed by Jews, and every Jew is a blessing. I hope that this generation will find ways to make peace with other nations of the world - count me in! Jews studying side by side with non-Jews in study halls has the potential to heal hate. The idea of unity is not new. Martin Luther King preached a message of unity. The Baal Shem Tov championed tikkun olam with hopes of Moshiach's arrival.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
September 5, 2016
To Norman and Stan
You are both right, at least to a degree.
Stan, your father is referring to European Jews.
"Sephardic" Jews (actually, Jews who stayed in the Middle East) easily found Jewish wives, but the first Jews who went to Europe married local women who may or may not have converted. Let us assume they did convert so we can assume also that we are matrilineally Jewish.

But every Jew is a priest/ess (bentshing licht is a sacred act) and every Jewish table with kosher food on it is a priestly altar. I totally agree. Consider: most priests give up sex (and at one time were disabled) but Jewish priests are required to be sexually whole, as are all Jewish men, not only in order to produce children. I won't say the other reason that occurs to me.
Jacob
New York City
September 2, 2016
Almost no family is 100% Jewish matrilineally from the time of the Temple. My father a great biblical scholar told me this.
So what does Chabad say?
stan miller
berkeley