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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 (313)
August 26, 2014
Conversion
I enjoyed this article and I think Rabbi Freeman brought up some great points. First and foremost people need to understand that the decision to convert is to be taken seriously. The last thing that someone should do is undergo the process then don't remain committed to living a Jewish life. That being said; I have considered converting, but I have had some issues arise with non-Jews and Jews alike. I understand Jews don't actively seek- converts, but when someone inquires sincerely they should be taken at face value and treated with kindness and respect. Be welcoming and friendly not snotty or forever suspicious. As it is; one would be leaving everything familiar for an unknown (despite chosen) new way of life. That in itself is a huge deal!

What discourages me the most is seeing the conflict between Jews and Christians that seems neverending. I think there should be more attempts made to understand and promote cohesiveness between the two. It would greatly improve relations.
Anonymous
August 25, 2014
To those who have gone in the mikveh and are now Jews: Welcome Home!
That's it!
Hanalah
Houston
August 25, 2014
Should i convert?
Again, the conversation is heating up! Meira suggestion is interesting but I think one's religion is personal and shouldn't be advertised. Also, because of my very Nordic appearance, total strangers in the past have thought they had a right to ask me the most personal questions in the world which i found offensive. Would they do that to Christians? I hardly think so!
JDV
August 24, 2014
"to blatantly flaunt"
Cliff, do Christians blatantly show off because they are wearing crosses? Or crossing themselves in restaurants before eating? Or blasting Christmas and Easter everywhere? Or getting special privileges for days off from school for their holidays when Jewish children cannot?

Are Christians blatantly showing off by exhibiting a dead Jew on a cross?

Cliff, there is something VERY wrong with your thought process if you truly believe Jews should hide. It's historic facts that Christians and Hitler found Jews and murdered them.

It's for sure I'm never going to hide! Jewish is not a crime! Jewish is not a religion that makes it a practice to murder those who refuse to convert.

Non-Jews have every right to ask me questi

I've got more than one drop of Jewish blood - and don't blatantly show it off. I'm a Jew. Period.

My post was for anyone considering conversion to Judaism -- they should wear a Star of David. See how they are treated. Then make the decision. Simple and Easy.
Meira Shana
San Diego
August 24, 2014
Before you convert (August 21 2014) and the Star of David
If you have the time, reading about the Ger's (convert) experience and what is expected of them may be an eye opener to you. Personally I feel I have not earned the right to wear a Star of David, since the first time I saw the symbol as a child was during a class about the Holocaust. The symbol I find is too powerful for me to wear as a mere accessory. It is not just a mental and emotional reaction but a physical one too.
I also think the way you show you're a Jew is to perform the mitzvot daily and bringing goodness into people's lives and the world no matter how small your part may be. Or maybe if you are a secular Jew it is about bringing social justice and helping the vulnerable through your profession.
As others have suggested, we are seeing antisemitism rise again. Perhaps it is also the time to embrace those who are on your side and are not against you.
Anonymous
August 22, 2014
Aloha Cliff,
I don't believe it's right to let the world dictate who we are as Jews. Blatantly flaunting sounds shameful and wrong, as well as fearful. Being a Jew, and looking like a Jew are not crimes, even in the face of oppression. Assimilation in the middle ages by pain of death diminished the Jewish people and identity. I fear we will slip away completely - and after all, isn't that what they want?

Mahalo,
Simcha
Darah York
Honolulu, Hawaii
August 22, 2014
Converts and flaunting Jewishness
To hide or not flaunt the Jewishness seems like it would make me another person. I'm not flaunting. Its not like I am picking a new way of life and want everyone to notice it. Being a Jew is just being me. And as far as worrying what Anti Semitism occurs as a result of anything that I do is something that I could care less about. We will never again hide who we are as a people. That ended when Israel was established. And the last Camp was closed. The notion that we must conduct ourselves in any certain manner to appease someone else is just insane. Only Jews are held to a higher standard that their foes. If you wish to convert and the Rabbi sees fit to pursue it then by all means do it. But don't do it half heartedly. And don't expect anyone to be completely on excited Jews or non Jews. Its a personal thing that only the Convert need be satisfied with. Not all Catholics like all other Catholics.
Jim
August 21, 2014
To Miera
Hi. Miera,
Do you think it is wise given the present anti-semetic sentiment all around us to blatantly flaunt your Jewishness or affiliation in such a manner? Have you not witnessed or had any comments made to you? I think its great to follow your heart and be proud to align yourself with other Jews but not to the point where are asking for a reaction given to present situation.
Cliff
August 21, 2014
Before YOU convert
My personal suggestion if you are searching for your religious identity:

Wear a Star of David for at least one year -- no matter where you go, wear visible Star of David - including church, if you are still attending.

See what happens. See if you are treated differently. Watch the eyes of others - if they are looking at your religious article - and listen to your response is you are asked if you're a Jew.

If your response is ever 'No, I'm not a Jew ...' -- please do not convert.

Give yourself one year.
Meira Shana
San Diego
August 4, 2014
Conversion
Very interesting article, answered most of my questions, keep up the good work
Ronny
PMB, SA
chabadnc.com
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