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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.
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Discussion (380)
March 18, 2015
beautiful article!
Anonymous
March 15, 2015
Re: Meira Shana
"In my entire life I know not of any Jews who press people into converting to Judaism."
If people of separate religions find themselves in love/marriage, there is often much pressure for conversions. For Jews, Muslims, and Christians intermarriage is usually looked at as a terrible thing. Personally, there has been much pressure for me to become Christian, strangely not from my Christian wife's side, but from my Christian parents. When I was on what I thought was on my death bed many years ago, I decided that if I had to die that I believed in the Gd of the Jews and not Jesus. One does not have to convert to Judaism in order to find inspiration from the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs. To me being a son of Noah also means embracing Judaism, and the Jews.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
March 15, 2015
Converting
To Alonda Parson in NC - you have a lot of guts and bravo to you. keep it up!
JDV
March 15, 2015
To Meira~ Gentleman's Agreement! :)
Pt. 2

Hardships. I know racism; anti-semitism, exists and while I can’t say that it won’t hurt I am prepared to acknowledge that I may experience it for being Jewish. I really appreciate you suggesting this movie; Meira. I’d recommend that anyone else considering conversion also watch it. It gets you thinking about how this decision will impact not only your life, but also the lives of your loved ones. And; with anti-semitism occurring throughout history and even rising today I am prepared for this commitment.

I very much agreed with your last comment where you noted that if someone wants and needs to become Jewish they must be willing to go through the process; Meira. There are rituals and rules that must be followed. I think that is what makes Judaism of interest to those wanting to convert. I love the traditions of Judaism, but for me the social aspect needs to be welcoming because I do have a shy nature. It has been my experience that Jews do not actively seek converts; which varies very much from other denominations.

I love the traditions of Judaism, but for me the social aspect needs to be welcoming because I do have a shy nature. It has been my experience that Jews do not actively seek converts; which varies very much from other denominations. I’ve personally never liked to be “preached at”, but I don’t mind discussing religion. However; just offering a warm and welcoming environment would help me keep my nerve in the conversion process. It isn’t that I need nerve for my decision to convert, but need to be in a supportive and welcoming environment where my desire to convert is met receptively and respectfully.

Be well; Meira, and thanks again for your positivity and encouragement here in this thread. :)
JBK
March 15, 2015
To Meira~ Gentleman's Agreement! :)
Meira,

I am the anonymous who purchased the Gentleman's Agreement DVD. :) I apologize for the delay in posting back. Things have been hectic and I've just had the opportunity to share my thoughts. Although; I did watch the DVD shortly after receiving it so I've been stewing on it. :) There were several things that stood out to me in the movie. I completely understand that the decision to convert is a serious one. It would also impact every aspect of my life; even; perhaps, what hotels would have vacancies for me?! I liked Phil and I thought he had great awareness of how he was treated. That really allowed him to immerse in his experience as a Jewish person. I thought his mother and son were so supportive even though they both had struggles; with his son experiencing anti-semitism also. I do think that Phil chose the wrong girl. I found Kathy; in her silence, to be condoning racism. The takeaway for me of the movie was that I am prepared to totally commit to Judaism despite any
JBK
March 14, 2015
Anonymous in Colorado Aurora
In my entire life I know not of any Jews who press people into converting to Judaism.
We know from experiences of thousands of years that to be a Jew can be lethal, or difficult, due to continual and rising anti-Semitism in all countries, including the USA.

I love being a Jew - but I was born into it. As an adult who has attended many church denominations, I am still happy to be a Jew. Nothing about another religion rings true to me.
I can and will out-talk the door-to-door folks, not out of disrespect but out of I do not need or want conversion - and perhaps it's time for them to stop pushing people to their beliefs.

If someone wants and needs to become Jewish that entails certain requirements on top of just wishing it to be so. There are rituals and rules and special deeds - just so everyone is sure and ready, willing, and able to continue.

Marriage counselors sort of do that same thing. Alas, with 50%divorce rate, they obviously don't do enough when couples are not ok.
Meira Shana
San Diego
March 14, 2015
It sounds like the Jews are the teachers for the rest of us. Obeying so many laws/commandments sounds like they are being kept mindful of their status/duty of teachers.
Shelley
Sydney
March 9, 2015
G_d loves a convert
Anonymous
LINDEN N J
February 26, 2015
Such a Joy
I am a female African-American that resides in a small rural town of N.C. that smiled as large as the sun when I read this article. The majority of my family members have always been known in our community as being "odd" and have been studying Judaism for about 15 years now. I have always felt out of place but have heard his voice and felt his hand upon my families life more now then ever before. This article spoke to me and I pray that G-d continues to bless you tremendously for your courage to speak his words to the multitudes in spite of what consequences may come your way for doing so. Be blessed!
Alonda Parson
Stony Point
February 15, 2015
Thanks for your response Meira
Meira,
You asked where I got my idea that this was a nice way of discouraging converts. Well, starting with the part where Rabbi Freeman says there is Judaism and there is Jewishness. He talks about how Jewish people in various communities try to trace their connection to each other by asking who they are related to. This, to me, says that outsiders will always be marked by not being able to state a connection.He also writes that the Jewish are an ageless tribe and "none of that ritual stuff was ever meant as a universal teaching." I feel an underlying sentiment that Jewish people should stay pure within their tribe. However, you read the same article as I did, so if you didn't get that from it I don't plan on convincing you.Lastly, if someone has gotten to the point of considering conversion to a non-dominant religion, isn't it fair to give them the courtesy of assuming they are adults who have considered their own heritage and found it didn't fit?
Anonymous in Colorado
Aurora
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