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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 (449)
April 29, 2016
I have been learning more and more about the Jewish faith and about the Tora.I been looking for a faith to be apart of and really fell i have found it in Jewish and the Torah.how do i get started please help me.
Gary Lamar Maxwell
Hawthorne
April 7, 2016
My family has no tribal identity.
I only know my mothers side, which is Irish Catholic. I'm not Catholic and cant become one just to be, when I don't believe it's faith. I've been adopted by my stepdad who is Anglican which I don't believe in either, but I have experience of adoption and a love of Judaism and it's tribes. So do I turn away when even when I pull myself away my gut, heart and mind keep pulling me back as the only way to go. The Catholic festivals are not mine, the closest to mine would be Celtic.
Anonymous
Lincolnshire, UK
February 29, 2016
Pat is right.
Like apes, we form groups. But a human tribe is larger than a group of apes, because we can talk to each other. And when we began to write, the possibility for ever larger groups arose. Perhaps soon we can extend a group to everyone on a continent, regardless of color or style of worship. But we still need small kinship groups of those with similar cultures, harmoniously living among others who share a different culture, and we need to accept the fact that members of all groups and of all nations have portions in the world to come. Meanwhile we can cherish the fact that Gd appreciates variety. Look how many thousands of species of mushrooms grow in the Big Thicket in East Texas, or how many thousands of species of wildflowers grow in the Hill Country around Austin, or how many species of grass (grass being the ancestor of wheat, barley, and the other grain crops)--and that is only in Texas, and only plants.
Let us rejoice and be glad and cherish our differences and similarities.
Moshe
Dallas
February 28, 2016
Hate
Forming groups is part of human nature. We did it when we were hunter-gatherers on the savannas of Africa. Other primates do it, too. The problems come when the hating starts. We need to stop the hate and move into acceptance. One heart at a time.
Pat
Illinois
February 26, 2016
It is good to be a Jew and it is hard to be a Jew and if you are not a Jew you can still enjoy the Afterlife
The Talmud says that "the righteous of all nations have a portion in the World to Come".

That means that if you keep the seven laws of Noah, and if you avoid abusing Jews, dissing Jews, or trying to convert Jews, you are home free. You need not keep kosher. You need not even keep the Sabbath. Just avoid murder, stealing, adultery, cruelty to animals, idolatry, and eating blood, and live in a community which punishes those who commit murder and theft.

You call it Heaven. We call it Olam HaBa (the World to Come). Either way, you have a place there if you keep these few requirements.
Benjamin
Minneapolis
February 26, 2016
You have brought tears to my eyes this morning. Tears of joy. I was raised Christian, and that's okay. (Yeshu was a good teacher and it's tragic how his teachings have been corrupted over the centuries.) I found this site a little over a year ago and was thrilled by the beautiful teachings I found here. I have known much of these writings most of my life. Chabad.org breathed new life into them. There is so much wisdom to be learned here. But then I became conflicted. Was I becoming Jewish? Should I become Jewish? Then in Rabbi Gordon's (sadly of blessed memory) teaching today he mentioned the Seven Noahide Laws and that anyone who followed them was accepted by G-d. I immediately began searching the site and found this article.

I now know that Christianity taught me the most important things that G-d wants me to know and gaining wisdom here is a blessing. And I don't have to convert to Judaism to continue this learning.

And by the way, I'm a fan of your blog. :)
Pat
Illinois
January 12, 2016
Rabbi Freeman, you lightened me about the true meaning of Judaism.I thought the Jews who are always posting and giving bad comments against our beliefs as Christians, are representing the Judaism. You are instrument of our God Almighty in teaching the Truth to all people who are looking for it.
Anonymous
NewYork
January 11, 2016
Thanks for the link to Netiv
I would like to thank the person who gave me the reference of netiv.net again. If you feel like Judaism is calling you, but you are not Jewish or not sure about your origins, visit the site and learn. I am studying the Torah ever since and even have started this year a course in biblical Hebrew. I really would say that this article has changed my life and HaShem lead me here. And yes, I am trying to be a better person, definitely.
Julia
Düsseldorf
January 10, 2016
What to say when asked
Until 'you' can say without hesitation "I am Jewish" -- or "I am a Jew" - my suggestion is to simply ask the intrusive person "Why do you ask?"

It's usually Christians who would ask someone that question. After all, they are trained to be anti-Jews.

Even if they don't know it - they are and have been and continue to be in that mode. It's their clergy's job to keep them no matter what.

I'm not ashamed of being Jewish - and anyone who asks me has ulterior motives. I like them to know that they pray to a Jew. End of story.

What is in your heart of hearts is who you are, no matter what.
Meira Shana
San Diego
January 10, 2016
That counts as Rabbi's first attempt of turning oneself away from Judaism ;)
Great article though!!!
Anonymous
Philadelphia