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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 .
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Discussion (492)
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
August 15, 2016
Christians seek to get to Heaven. Buddhists seek to achieve Nirvana. Jews seek to serve the Creator as we promised at Sinai.
That is why Exodus 19 says that the children of Israel are "a kingdom of priests". Jewish life is a life of service, a priestly life. In many places, priests abstain from sex, but that would mean no children. Jews abstain from non-kosher foods. This takes some effort, both because many non-kosher foods are delicious and you will miss eating them (but not as much as you would miss getting married and having sex). It is also a physical effort because you cannot always find kosher foods, especially if you live in a small town,and also because kosher foods often are more expensive. Keeping Shabbat is more tjam just a "sabbath". It's a way of life. All week you look for something yummy to serve on Friday night. Friday you cook & clean so you don't have to cook or clean on Shabbat. It's also vital to cultivate Jewish fellowship & to give to Jewish AND non-Jewish charities & to be kind to all people. All this effort is worthwhile & deeply nourishing spiritually. If you want it, go for it.
Norman
New Jersey
August 12, 2016
To Jacob תודה גבר
After 20 years of study, I have come to the same conclusion. I very clearly, luckily have found what's in my heart and mind, as I absolutely, to the cellular level, know who follows the only true words from G*D. It is so clear, so obvious I want to yell at everyone to wake up, open your eyes.

Curious, in retrospect, a lifetime of signs. Like the old Jewish couple trying to line up a blind date with their granddaughter 40 years ago. Having more jewish clients than my jewish competitor and he screaming why. I worked at a Israeli bank in NYC and felt at home at Seders, Shabbat dinners and Bar Mitzvahs. Why?

My mother told me, a year before she died, that she thinks we may be Jewish and has been wondering for over 60 years how her father could speak Hebrew with the local jeweler for hours. He was an uneducated Hutterite farmer, whose father fled to the USA in the 1890s from Russia.

Life is so funny, but it doesn't matter one iota, I will follow my heart and let יהוה‎‎ guide my path.
Grant Taylor
August 12, 2016
To Rabbi Tzvi--Your heading says
the questioner asks. Your questioner asks for the "next step" on the path toward conversion, and you do not answer that.

The next step is to contact a "modern orthodox" rabbi and take classes from him and attend services regularly and lots of reading of assigned texts. Then the person can begin koshering the kitchen. If at any point along the way the person decides this is too much work, they will stop trying to convert and maybe go for the Noahide path. But if both husband and wife deeply want to convert, and love hanging out with Jews, keeping commandments, and saying Hebrew prayers, they will persist and they will do whatever it takes, even if the process takes years. They may decide, after converting "modern orthodox," to join a more observant group. Perhaps that group will feel the first conversion did not count. [They may wind up converting again according to the strictures of that group--I do not know about that.] I know people who do become Jews, all the way.
Michael
Queens
August 11, 2016
To Grant Taylor
It is commanded that when a non-Jew says, "I am not worthy" (which you surely said by saying "I do not qualify") he is to be immediately accepted to learn how to live according to Torah, because this person definitely has a Jewish soul and needs to need a Torah life, not merely a Noahide life.
Jacob
New York City
August 10, 2016
continuation of prev post
Evil does not bother with people of no faith, they pose no threat to the spread of evil, but people of great faith are punished, given great trials to strengthen their faith and also try to stop them from spreading G*d's word to others. Great faith has trials that would decimate others, like steel, the fire, sweat and pounding produces metals/people of astonishing strengths and a brightness that blinds others that look at it.

That has been the Jewish peoples history as too many times you have forsaken him. He brought you out of Egypt with astonishing power yet at first chance made a golden calf. Over and over you have forsaken him.

Like an elementary school with increasing discipline to teach and push HIS angry and rebellious children towards spiritual maturity, you have suffered more than any other people. He would not do what you could not handle and learn from. I think you are nearing, as the signs also show, your people are like the laborious steps in making a Samurai sword, you are nearing the purification required as the chosen people of G*d.

Get ready, the time is near to stand up with a thunderous voice that shatters your enemies like glass and seize your rightful place among all these Sodom and Gomorrah nations of evil.

I humbly would join you, but do not think I qualify.
Grant Taylor