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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 (467)
June 11, 2016
Thank You, rabbi. Your words are filled with light. The bring relief and healing.
Stephen Tomsu
Virginia, US
June 7, 2016
To Gerard
It has been awhile since I posted on this thread, but I've still been reading the comments because I am very interested in conversion. It is only now that I felt compelled to address your posting.

First of all; Gd knows who we all are~including you! :) I found your comment to be very mean spirited in nature. It is impossible for you to know someone else's conversion journey as each and every one is a very personal and complex lived experience.

It is wrong to doubt someone's sincerity in conversion just because they may be pointing out their feelings through the process. I have found this process to be so difficult and I know I am sincere in my desire to convert. Good for you that you live in an area where you have access to a rabbi and the ability to convert. Not everyone has the same privilege and the same easy path you are having in your conversion journey. Again; count your blessings instead of belittling the experiences of others.

Please think before you speak.....errr....type!
Anonymous
June 7, 2016
Convert to Judaism
In response to anonymous in USA, there are more and more children of intermarriage whose religion can be described in one word ' confused. From a practical standpoint, there are simply too many people in these situations for them to continue to be ignored or rejected. To me, the most important requirement for joining the Jewish people in sincerity of intent. Their mother or father is secondary - again, according to me.
JDV
June 3, 2016
To: Anonymous in Texas
First of all, congratulations on masking your identity from the world, but G-d knows who you are. I am fairly confident know who you are in the sense that I saw another comment made in similar disdain by "Anonymous in Texas" and you cause more damage than you realize.

I am 28 and have just began my first steps into my conversion to Orthodox Judaism. B'ezrat HaShem, it will be completed.

Nonetheless, it seems you are regretful for converting, which makes me wonder what your expectations and motivations were.

I am converting because as far as I personally see it and I speak only for myself, there would be no purpose to my life to not express what I believe to be my Jewish neshama. What scares me more than the prospect of social rejection or a lonely Shabbat is...what if I never discovered the Torah? What if the day, whenever it was, that I first began this journey to embracing first Torah - and now work towards learning to live a kosher life - what if I never knew...who...HaShem...is?
Gerard Morgan
Scranton, PA
May 28, 2016
Anonymous asks--what is one supposed to do if they are the product of two
heritages that are not compatible?

If the mother is a Jew, then you are a Jew and you need to seek out your Jewish roots.

If the father is a Jew,and the mother is not, then you must decide whether you want to be a Jew. If you do not, then seek out your mother's heritage.

But if you do want to be a Jew, then seek out information about being a Jew. If you hang out with Jews and attend synagogue and if you like Jews and if you like the Jewish way of life, then learn more about it and become a Ger Tzedek.

Wishing you the best!
Ann
Dallas
May 28, 2016
RE: 5/23/2016
I completely agree with you; whilst I think the rabbi is well-intentioned for saying such a thing, I think it is quite patronising to hear for anyone who is of mixed heritage, and also for anyone who has already made attempts to connect with their heritage. For instance, I found out that I am a descendent of people from almost every continent in the world- including Jews, so what heritage should I be going back to "examine"? The African; the Northern European; the Southern European; the indigenous peoples of the Americas; the Ashkenazi Jewish, the Middle East and North Africa? If anything with this ancestral knowledge, I am even more determined to pursue Judaism because it is just as much a part of my history as it is my present and a bigger part of what it will (G-d willing) be in my future.

I am grateful that I belong to a heritage who are even enlightened enough to even make a national motto that very much describes its heritage, by saying, "out of many, one people".
Leanne
UK
May 26, 2016
Anonymous 5/23
If you wish to be Jewish, contact a local Rabbi and talk to them about what you've said here. If this really matters to you, you have to do something. I whole-heartedly wish this will be a rich and rewarding experience for you.
Pat
Illinois
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