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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 (242)
March 13, 2014
Conversion
Hi Rabbi Freeman,
This is very good advice, and a way to test a person's motives and desire to convert to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I used to be Roman Catholic with my "heritage" stemming from Italy. I tried to be the best Catholic I could be. But something kept pulling me towards the Torah and the Jewish people. I also had a burning desire to learn Hebrew so that I could bypass the Translations of non-Jews and find the truth. I always felt a strong bond with the Jewish "tribe." Then I read a book by a Catholic priest called "The Anguish of the Jews." My Catholic beliefs changed after reading that book. I started studying the Torah and going to Shul each week. I felt like I was among family. An orthodox rabbi said he wouldn't convert me. But I wouldn't take no for an answer. A conservative rabbi allowed me to convert. I immersed in the living waters, accepting the Oral and Written Torah, and what I learned from Torah Observant Jews. I found the truth I searched for.
Janice Weaver (Chana Rut)
Pittsburgh, PA
March 9, 2014
This site is very helpful for me as I am in a sense being awoken to a new light of faith. I have always been interested in many faiths. My mother was a Christian Baptist and my father was raised Catholic. I myself was baptized in a Methodist church. However one night I had a dream I was lost and sea, and as I awoke i felt an overwhelming sense that i was incomplete in a way. Later that day i went to a Borders book store and was looking in the faith/psychology section and i saw the Torah. I bought it and read it. Now i have read the Old Testament before but this time it was different I wanted to keep learning about this faith and their practices so I did.
Now, I find myself in a situation where my faith longs to grow but their is no outlet. I live in a small town between Dayton and Cincinnati where there is no outlet to go to.
Also i am afraid with a sense of utter loneliness on my journey to figure out what to do. Because i know what i want, because this light i feel wont go away.
Brent
Dayton
February 20, 2014
Rambam (Maimonides) was asked by a
to say, "our Gd and Gd of our fathers," since he felt that he, as a "convert," was not a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Rambam said, "You MUST say those words in the Amidah prayer. You ARE a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the same as the rest of us."

It is forbidden for Jews who come of Jewish mothers to ask whether someone is a "convert," and forbidden to mention it to him or to one another.

Every so-called "convert" was born with a Jewish soul. He just got lost on his way to the physical world and got born from a non-Jewish mother. But he is "really" Jewish from the start, and the fact that he went through all the difficulty of convincing others to let him get a bris and go into the mikveh proves it.

Any community that behaves otherwise is a community to avoid. They are too tied up to ethnicity. Find another community. If the Chabad near you has a negative attitude (and unfortunately I have seen this on occasion) try another Orthodox synagogue you like.
Chaim
Cinncinnati
February 19, 2014
Observance!,,,,
I've learned Judaism for over 6 years, and many Orthodox Jews don't like don't care for converts like me. Why? Most of converts are more in deep Observants than many Jews . This maybe a reason, now Judaism isn't for everyone either!,
Conventions are part of Halacha but still converts continue to be treated like 2nd class Jews which is sad, fact probably not even approved by our sages.
Now cases like myself, born from jewish mother but NO papers to prove it , why? Well something called "Inquisition" after that, who wants to keep any document that affiliate your family to Jews ? So even with knowledge of Judaism Beis Dins will make the process almost an impossible. Just for wanting to be an observant of Torah Moshe? Again we ALL like a Nation should stick together as ONE beneath the Only G-d instead of disagree with our fellow Jews or converts regarding who should or not be accepted in this Tribe. May we all see the coming of Mashiach soon!!!!
Dovid
Boca Raton, Fl
January 21, 2014
To Leanne
If you really want to be a Jew, then do it.

And then be careful where you affiliate.

Some places offer a dry sort of spirituality.

Others, such as Chabad and the Sephardim, are lively, exciting, and deeply spiritual.

Check out what community you would like to be part of.
And then see whether that community will welcome you. People differ. Check them out. Don't set yourself up for disappointment.

Find what you want.

Go for it!
Sarah
Cleveland
January 20, 2014
RE: Jewish is not a religion (Anonymous)
You have your facts wrong about Xtianity; Catholicism is the only branch of Xtianity that offers the "sacrament" of Confession [to a priest]. You also aren't just allowed to "sin and do as you please"; that would be insinuating that Xtians or people that were brought up Xtian have no moral boundaries. This is precisely why many people- even myself- want to be a Jew, as leading a Gentile life doesn't seem altogether that meaningful. Sometimes I miss being a Xtian, as being Bat Noah has been a very lonely experience, and Xtianity at least offered me some spirituality and comfort in times of need. But I could never go back to Xtianity, as it wouldn't be right worshiping a mere man [idolatry], and why would I want to sin against G-d?! I also think it was incredibly insensitive of you to tell people to just "be happy how they are [as a Xtian]"; that's like telling a person with depression to be happy just like that.. People's reasons for wanting to be Jewish aren't so different to born Jews.
Leanne
The UK
January 20, 2014
Jewish is not a religion
Dear Rebbi Tzvi Freeman, You are 100% right, you don't have to convert to enjoy the sweet knowledge of the Torah. You are 100% right, these people should go back to their origin and see what religion they belong to: If you are Christian be happy you are a Christian, you can kindle a fire in your fireplace on Saturday morning. Where being a Jew, you are not allow to. If you are Christain, you are allow to sin as much as you want and then go confess your sins to a priest. But when you are Jewish, you are taught the Torah young, you taught to live by God's law and to fear God. Being a Jew is not a religion but a way of life. And who wants to be a Jew when you see what happpened to them during the Holocaust, Spanish Inquisition, during Egypt, etc. During the Spanish inquisition, they were stripped of their properties, titles, and kick out of Spain. And those that stayed and didn't converted to Christianity were killed. In the Holocaust 6 Million Jews were killed because they were Jewish.
Anonymous
January 14, 2014
Against conversion?
No, Sarah Rivkah, Chabad is not "against conversion." Chabad is halachic Judaism, and conversion is part of halacha.

Perhaps you misunderstood what was written here: "To be Jewish means to belong to an ancient tribe, either by birth or by adoption." So, to clarify that, I just now added in parentheses: (a.k.a. conversion).

The point here is that you don't need to become Jewish to be a good person, loved by G‑d.
Tzvi Freeman
January 10, 2014
Interesting....
...I didn't know that Chabad was so against conversion. FYI, the Chabad opinion is not the only Orthodox opinion out there. There are Orthodox rabbis who do accept conversion. You have to be serious, but it's possible. You will not, however, see active proselytizing.
Sarah Rivka :)
Cincinnati, OH
January 8, 2014
After having read this article once again, I like it even more...
... it beautifully painted in such a lovable way what it means to be a tribe member. And I also think that "the hyper-identity scheme to be a scam". A Jew is a Jew, it's just simply true. And I don't believe in atheist Jews anymore. Next time someone tells me something like that I won't believe it anymore. A Russion woman told me numerous times at kiddush that she grew up an atheist, and one day she complains about something, ending with the words "May Gd punish them!" Another "atheist" who worked on Rosh Hashanah told me after I had asked him if he worked on Yom Kippur also: "Yom Kippur? No way. On Yom Kippur I rest and fast". A Jew is a Jew....

@Hymie: I don't think it's a good idea for a non-jew to don a tallis at a shul.

@JDV: Those people you feel stuck with have a purpose, maybe they're there to be a challenge for you.

I love this tribe so much, every bit of it, and all craziness (you know what I mean) of it, too. I can't help it and I must convert.
K.
Europe
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