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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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Joseph Newark May 20, 2017

I have a friend who has American Indian ancestors. He once asked me if I wanted to be an American Indian. I said, "I would be proud to claim American Indian ancestors, but I do not have any. At any rate, I have all I can handle being a Jew."

Before my eyes, his face changed as if a mask were coming off.
Now he looked like an American Indian.
As if my willingness to be what I am enabled him to be what he was.

The difference is that others CAN become Jews IF they really really want to.

Clearly, this man wanted to be what he was--of American Indian descent. But some others resented the fact that they were NOT of such descent.

Meanwhile, most Jews want to be what we are: Jewish. But some others resent this. They accuse us of thinking we are better than they are, even though the Talmud says that "the righteous" (not "the perfect"--basically, decent people) "of all nations have a portion in the world to come" (the next life).

We all care about our cultures surviving. Reply

JDV Paramus May 19, 2017

There are many interesting stories on you tube about converts and potential converts. Some of them are charlatans, I'm sure but many are interesting. Reply

Leanne London, UK May 22, 2017
in response to JDV:

Ah ok...Fair point. Thank you for clarifying. Reply

JDV Paramus May 22, 2017
in response to Leanne Thomas:

Sometimes people who are not sincere go on you tube or the internet but are not really genuine in their beliefs. However, i don't think this is true of the majority of stories I've seen. Most people seem sincere and should be guided in the right direction and encouraged. I think it is always good to be a little suspicious of the internet. With the exception of Chabad.org, of course! Reply

Leanne Thomas London May 21, 2017
in response to JDV:

Charlatans I'm not sure what you mean by "charlatans"...Can you explain why you think so? I myself have seen many of these stories on YouTube (probably all of them actually), and I have not come to that conclusion. Reply

Rowland Brisbane May 19, 2017

I don't wish to convert. I am an Anglican. And sort of British.
We have rumours on both sides of the family of Jewish ancestors who, I guess, kept their heads down when things got scary. As working class people and immigrants we have very little in the way of a family tree.

My question is: what can I do (as a Christian and a philoSemite) for the Jewish people and for Judaism? And for the State of Israel? I accept that the actions of various Israeli governments have been less than laudable. But it is the only liberal democracy for thousands of miles in any direction. And After the Shoah, how can anyone deny Jews a home, a place to feel safe?
Sorry for blathering on. Am waiting for a plane flight and came across this discussion.
Shalom and God Bless.
Rowland Reply

Chanah Houston May 19, 2017
in response to Rowland :

You clearly have a good heart.

One thing you might want to do is to object when the conversation gets nasty about Jews (or about blacks or whatever, but you asked about Jews). If Israel were destroyed, Jewish culture & worship worldwide would suffer. Israel does many good things for other countries, such as sending medics when there is a tsunami or earthquake or other disaster. Israelis achieve medical breakthroughs which benefit everyone everywhere. Jewish law requires Jews to behave compassionately to everyone & also requires Jews to defend ourselves when someone is trying to kill us--and there are people trying to kill us, so we must defend ourselves from such people.

Everyone sees the large synagogue where I attend so it gets daily bomb threats. We have a fence around it & we've hired guards to screen people who drive into the parking lot.

My child attended the synagogue school & those bomb threats were terrifying to every parent.

Does that help? Reply

arthur yanoff May 17, 2017

the rabbis tell potential converts that it is not easy to be a yid, that to convert one has to feel that his or her neshumah is that of a yid. by birth those of us who are yids ,who come from a long line of yids, have a deep connection to klal yisroel. a convert,especially one with no traceable jews in his or her ancestry has to accept a different reality,however once he or she does convert according to halacah he or she is now an integral part of the jewish people. Reply

Jacob Trenton May 19, 2017
in response to arthur yanoff:

Not only is the convert now a Jew--the convert has always had a Jewish soul. S/he just needed to activate it.

So if you "feel Jewish"--go for it. Activate your Jewish soul.

And if you don't feel Jewish, it's OK. You still have a portion in the world to come. You don't have to be perfect. You only need to be decent.

You may or may not want to check out the Seven Laws of Noah.

Suit yourself. Just know that you are OK without being Jewish.

Wishing you everything good. May all the wishes of your heart be realized in a way that benefits you and the world. Reply

Anonymous May 17, 2017

You forgot to mention the idea of having a Jewish Neshama (soul). If a person has a Jewish soul born into a "goyishe" body, they will inevitably feel compelled to convert, and won't take no for an answer. Reply

Oona Iowa City, Iowa May 16, 2017

Poetically reading, "To be frank, because this Freeman character considers the hyper-identity scheme to be a scam, a mass delusion and a social illness" by the writer, Mr. Freeman. Nonetheless, I love this article. Thank you. Shalom. Reply

C1warrior N Fort Myers May 16, 2017

The answer given in this article is perfect. I would read Isaiah 56:6-8 in order to further understand. We must be friends with God's people (Israelis) and considered "Righteous Among the Nations." In addition, study the Torah and respectful to God's Shabbat.

It says:
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to Adonai
to serve him, to love the name of Adonai,
and to be his workers,
all who keep Shabbat and do not profane it,
and hold fast to my covenant,
7 I will bring them to my holy mountain
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.”
8 Adonai Elohim says,
he who gathers Isra’el’s exiles:
“There are yet others I will gather,
besides those gathered already.”

Shalom Reply

Florence Sebag May 16, 2017

To Bess, it does not matter who accepts you as a Jew or not. If you feel a connection with Judaism and your heart is true, Hashem will open his arms to you. Reply

Bess Montreal May 18, 2017
in response to Florence Sebag:

Thank you Florence, sometimes the simplest perspective is the best one. One can go mad with these questions, but you are right, I also realize that only Hashem and myself know what is truly in my heart (and soul). For now, that is good enough. Baruch Hashem Reply

Hadasah May 16, 2017

Beautifully written! Reply

Bess Montreal March 24, 2017

Adrian from T.O. Has a great point about having a Jewish heart. I was born and raised Greek Orthodox, followed tradition. Yet ever since I was little, I internally questioned. In the last several years the search for Truth has made me come to an astonishing discovery, something I knew in my heart all along: Torah is truth, divine law witnessed by the masses. There is a shift in people turning to Torah, to G-d's true teaching. My struggle is not knowing who to turn to in this explosive realization. Maybe G-d needs the Jewish people to reach out to us (those at a crossroads) and lead us on a path of being Jews, even though we will never be accepted as such. Show us what is to be done. Jews are the chosen, then lead those who crave to follow Hashem. Reply

Anonymous via ourshul.org April 28, 2017
in response to Bess:

That's not true. If you truly convert because Judaism is in your heart, and Torah is in your path, under strict Orthodox conversion, then you will be accepted as a Jew. Many converts live Torah and conduct many more mitzvahs that unfortunately most American Jews. I'm Jewish and I'm trying yiddle by yiddle to do more miztvot. The converts in the Shuls I've attended are treated just as every other Jew. Reply

Grant Taylor Vancouver May 22, 2017
in response to Bess:

You don't know whom to turn to? Sure you do

G*D of course, because absolutely no one else in this or any other of the unlimited/multi parallel universes matter, one iota. Reply

Leanne London, UK February 2, 2017

RE: Anonymous Los Angeles Finally someone that gets it!

...Thank you for saying it. I have been thinking this all along- and I say this a someone who was reluctantly Noahide, but couldn't take the path devoid of meaning and community. Thank goodness I have made the decision to convert now. Reply

Anonymous Los Angeles via ourshul.org February 2, 2017

Rabbi Freeman, I always love your commentaries however, I believe that we live in a world in which just telling people to live by the Noahide laws is not enough. People are looking for a road map, meaning, and a group to belong. We had a group of Noahides who came to our Shul every Shabbat. Great people. There was about 30. Today, there are 5 and they are in the conversion process. The rest lost hope. People basically have 2 choices right now and speaking to my Christian Friends, choice #2 is winning out. 1) Young Christians are leaving the faith. 2) Islam If Bene Noach is going to be a viable option, they need help from Rabbis to organize, develop prayer books, and develop a real sense of belonging. In addition, because it is so closely tied to Judaism, Jews and our Rabbis must reach out and accept them with open arms; that we are connected. People are looking for meaning and connection and the Rebbe, as always, was prophetic in recognizing this. Just saying........ Reply