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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 (362)
January 28, 2015
I thank you meira Shana for your advice , I can now identify the Alef beit and start reading the punctuated Hebrew scriptures and also familiarize the Hebrew prayer.
I acknowledge it's not easy to learn Hebrew without attending actual Hebrew classes but I train my tongue by way of learning Hebrew songs .
I know someday I can make it through, Baruch HaShem!
arnold
Philippines
January 28, 2015
'Gentleman's Agreement' and Anonymous Colorado
To Anonymous who bought the DVD - I look forward to hearing your feelings on the content of the film. The actors are all amazing.

Anonymous colorado - my other comment was in response to your post. I'm sure you understood.

I'm becoming a Bat Mitzvah with someone who was not born into a Jewish family -- and we're both excited and scared about making mistakes!

Life is most definitely a learning process or a bunch of them. I'm trying my best to live fully to the best of my abilities, before it's too late.
Meira Shana
San Diego
January 28, 2015
"Anonymous"
So sorry ... I responded to the Anonymous closest to my response -- but could have remembered that 'person' is many. ;-)

Initials might work - or Anonymous with city (if city is attached when commenting on his/her post)

JDV, you're on the right track -- and if someone shows up with the same initials maybe they'll add their locale or bland difference.

There is only one thing in Life that is 100% for sure -- and that's the End of Life.
Meira Shana
San Diego
January 28, 2015
No major decision in life can be 100% but, on a lighter note, maybe we should all give ourselves separate names and avoid confusion. I use my initials. Thoughts anyone?
JDV
January 27, 2015
Meira
Hi Meira,

Just wanted to point out that there is (obviously) more than one Anonymous posting here. I am the person who posted to Avi and Darlene. I did speak about my experience which has been challenging before that also. However; I haven't given up. I wanted you to know that I appreciated your postings and the other anonymous postings weren't made by me. I ordered the Gentleman's Agreement DVD from Amazon after reading your post. It arrived and I am going to be watching it asap. I'll report back what I think, but reading the synopsis I can say that I don't take my decision lightly and I wouldn't get into something without ensuring that I was 100% committed. :)
Anonymous
January 25, 2015
nice way of saying
Anonymous, from where do you come to your conclusion?

My child was born to Jewish parents and converted to Catholic. Nothing would deter her, not even the priest telling her "why do you want to convert, you come from the greatest heritage?"

I've never heard a rabbi or other Jew say 'we don't want any converts' -- so, my response is the same as previously said in my other posts:

If you want to convert, do whatever you need to do to do so.

Jews survive because enough refused to convert and, if not murdered because of that, then they learned to live outside of their home countries and without businesses in order to survive.

If you're questioning yourself, I would say you're not ready to convert from/to anything.

Remember: historically, Jews were the outsiders no matter where they lived or used to live. Now those living in Israel are still being told they don't belong!

I hope this gets posted.
Meira Shana
San Diego
January 25, 2015
I just want to say thank you for those people who loves and welcomed the converts, and for those people who don't wants any converts , HaShem bless you!
arnold
Philippines
January 24, 2015
Wow, this is a really nice way of saying "we don't want any converts."
How discouraging for those of us born to Christian parents. I understand the need for people who are really genuine and historically of Jewish ancestry to carry on the culture. It's amazing that a tribe so resistant to outsiders could still survive all these years.
Anonymous
colorado
January 17, 2015
I have to obey all commandments given to the Children of Israel at Sinai ,
That is not a burden for me , that is my responsibility
arnold
Philippines
January 12, 2015
Here's how to answer this question to yourself
First, hang out with Jews. Do you like them? If not, do not convert.

Second, start keeping the commandments. Is it impossible? If it is impossible, or distressing, then don't convert. You can go to "Heaven" (i.e., to Olam HaBa) without being a Jew. So why add a huge list of obligations when you don't have to?

But if you find you love hanging out with Jews, and you love keeping the commandments, then ask yourself, Can I be happy as a Noahide? If the answer is, yes, I can be happy as a Noahide, then again stick with something doable. Don't burden yourself.

But if your answer is, "I cannot be true to myself unless I take on all the commandments given to the Children of Israel at Sinai," then, yes, you need to convert. And welcome home!
Yosef
Los Angeles
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