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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 (443)
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
January 4, 2016
Conversion?
What about a situation where the Mother converted when the children were 5 years old because she needed to study more in order to be ready. They have a Jewish mother but she was not Jewish when they were born??
JDV
Paramus
January 2, 2016
This article really spoke to me and I thank you for it.
Anonymous
Baton Rouge
December 16, 2015
To Kara and others who appreciate Jewish thought and practice
If your mother's mother's mother was a Jew (by birth or "conversion"), then you were born a Jew. If you have converted via an "orthodox" rabbi, then you have a Jewish soul and, again, you are a Jew. Either way, you stood at Sinai and said YES to Gd's gift of Torah.

Otherwise, you are not a Jew. You are a person who appreciates Jewish thought and practice. Being a Jew is more than a set of beliefs, however. It is a community identity, ratified by that community.

It is up to you whether you want to call yourself a Christian, since, after all, you were baptized. On the basis of your baptism, the Christian community retains the right to claim you, but you have the right not to claim them.

If you don't want to call yourself a Christian, you can say, "I do not belong to a religious community right now." You can even say, "I have been thinking about becoming a Jew," but you do not owe this information to anyone. The question can be treated as intrusive.

You are not required to answer.
Ann
San Jose
December 14, 2015
What religion am I?
So in believing in Torah, what does that make me? I was raised Christian and left the church 6 years ago because I started questioning the idolatry of Jesus, life after death(reincarnation) and the legitimacy of the "virgin" Mary. Went through a divorce after having 4 children and have recently been exposed to the Jewish culture and Judaism, which resonated with me a lot.

I'm quite new to all of the specific teachings but the more I study the more I feel "at home"

I guess, what I wonder is when people ask, "what is your religion or your belief?" I have no idea how to answer.
I'm not anything except a person wanting connect with her maker and create a holy environment.

Any guidance is appreciated
Kara
Laguna Niguel
chabadlagunaniguel.com
December 13, 2015
Re: his name (to Chubbena)
Although the word "G-d" is itself not his name, it represents him (HaShem) in our minds, as well as being the main representative word in English. Therefore, we must avoid defacing, or in any way disrespecting it. Hope this satisfies.
Anonymous
November 26, 2015
Polytheim usually involves nature worship. There's the rub.
The point of monotheism is that there is One controlling entity above nature, Who cares about human morality and decency towards one another and does not want us to worship natural entities such as the sun or the moon or trees or rivers. I am a bit of a pagan myself, since the sun and trees and rivers are beautiful, but I keep reminding myself that GD is it. The others...even angels...are merely His Servants.
Patricia
Chicago