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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 (460)
May 25, 2016
Re: Anonymous 5/23 2016
“How do they get in touch with their heritage, especially if the "other half" is of a religion that is fundamentally incompatible with Judaism?”
The example in Torah for how to raise children is that you guide them through letting them know how you feel. A child will cry out to his father, “Why does dad do things this way, or that way,” and it is up to fathers’ to say, “Here I am son,” glad you asked, and that question you asked me makes me feel proud.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
May 23, 2016
How do people of mixed heritage interpret this advice?
"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. "

This is a truly lovely sentiment, but what is one supposed to do if they are the product of two heritages that are not compatible? Thinking specifically of children of intermarriages who are not considered Jewish by the Orthodox. How do they get in touch with their heritage, especially if the "other half" is of a religion that is fundamentally incompatible with Judaism?
Anonymous
USA
May 18, 2016
Why are people not all naturally good?
The religious answer is that Gd wants us to choose to be good.
He doesn't want us to do it automatically, like robots.
So he provides us with the yetser haRa (the evil inclination) so that we will have a choice.

It is also true that living things need to survive & propagate. This means, among other things, that we must compete with others of our species (humans) for the necessities of life, such as food. We need to feel safe, & if someone else has more food (more possessions, more money), we may feel endangered.

Not only that, but if we belong to one group, & there are other groups, we feel the need to defend the territory of our own group.

All this got much worse after we started farming & settled down in one place. When we lived in the Garden (in the forest) we had almost no possessions because it was too inconvenient to carry them around. Without possessions we had no theft either. Once we left the Garden & started farming, we acquired goods & theft began to..
Shulamit
Seattle
May 16, 2016
To Leanne
You are of course correct. The seven are available for those who cannot do the 613.

It is difficult, and for some impossible, to keep mitzvot if one is not used to them from early childhood. I, for example, was brought up to keep kosher. It is not impossible, but it takes effort. I accept this effort as an expression of my love for Hashem and my eagerness to participate in tikkun olam, but I do not know if I could have done it if I had not grown up with it. To me it is natural, like using a spoon for some foods and a fork for others.

But my childhood exposure to Shabbat observance was incomplete, and it has taken me a long time to become accustomed to those practices which were missing from my parental household. So I can sympathize with those who find that they simply cannot keep ALL of the mitzvot. As long as they are Bnai Noach, they are safe. Until they become able to do them all, they are advised not to become a Ger, at least not yet, for fear of sinning.

But good for you!
Hanalah
Newark
May 16, 2016
Where would Man be without Laws
I choose to believe in G-d - in spite of not understanding the pain and suffering that continues within mankind.

I grew up with rules and laws and the ability to think and to decide. Or was taught to think and to suffer the consequences of my actions.

So, I wonder why Man can't just be good and honest and truthful and do good onto others.

Was Man an uncivil animal before the Commandments?

Religion came into being - and Man continues to be uncivil to each other.

What's the reason for continual hatred of people who are not like us.

Is Death the only way Man can be successful.
Meira Shana
San Diego
May 13, 2016
Reply to Anonymous Texas
It's actually 7 laws, not 8- perhaps you made a typo?

I for one don't see 7 commandments as a blessing. If anything, it is a blessing to be a Jew and live by 613- and it even says that in one of blessings in Birkat HaShachar. If mitzvot are meant to help repair the world, then shouldn't people be encouraged to do more rather than less?

With all due respect (and I mean that in the literal sense, and not in the reverse psychology "I mean the opposite of what I say" kind of way) I don't think born Jews understand why people want to or choose to become Jewish, and I don't think they ever will. It should never be unfathomable why a person would choose to accept truth and aspire to follow it every day of their lives.

I also don't see truth as a burden, as "a big ugly tattoo" implies. I for one am happy to have discovered the Torah and thus those who have been entrusted with it should be grateful for it.

Shalom leKulam ve Shabbat Shalom
Leanne
UK
May 12, 2016
Don't ever follow your gut, follow your head. Why take on the 613 when you are blessed to have just 8. Once it's done it's not ever undone. A big ugly spiritual tattoo
Anonymous
Texas
May 10, 2016
To Gary Lamar Maxwell
If you are looking for a Chabab group there is a group locator button at the top of the page.
Pat
Illinois
May 8, 2016
Anonymous Lincolnshire, UK
You have to follow your gut.

Hang out with Jews. Go to services. Ask to be invited to someone's home for Shabbos dinner. Involve yourself with Jewish activities. Begin practicing the commandments. Try abstaining from pork and/or shellfish if you feel like it. Don't do anything that bugs you. Just see how it feels. Learn how it goes. Make Jewish friends.
If you love hanging out with Jews and participating in Jewish activities, then speak to a sympathetic rabbi. Start with a Modern Orthodox rabbi. Also ask a Chabad rabbi. See what they say. They will discourage you at first, but if you persist they will help you to learn what you need to know.

Go for it.

If it turns out you don't like it, you don't have to do it.

Good luck and Gd bless you.
Aaron
St. Louis
May 5, 2016
Re: Gary Lamar Maxwell
The gateway to Judaism is at Hashem’s beginning, especially the first Shabbat for all humans, animals, pets etc., and not just for Jews. However, the keeping of Shabbat by Jew and/or gentile is going to be quite different according to Torah. This is my advice. Pick a day of the week and set it aside for recreation and rest. There is good data that shows that for people that take a weekly day of rest that there are health benefits. For instance, the Christian 7th Day Adventists have a 10yr greater than norm life expectancy.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA