Are converts looked down upon in Judaism? Is conversion to our faith frowned
upon? To be sure, I have been privy to plenty of disparaging remarks over the
years--ironically, often made by people who themselves are far from religiously
observant. "A leopard doesn't change its spots," is one of the milder ones I've
heard. But, never mind what certain individual Jews may say. What does Judaism
The simple answer is that the classic, age-old definition of a Jew has always
been "one born of a Jewish mother or one who has converted to Judaism according
to Halachah (Torah law)." So, provided the conversion process was supervised and
performed by a valid, authentic rabbinic body, a convert is just as Jewish as
any born Jew. Those who would look down upon converts should remember that some
of our greatest Torah sages were descended from converts, including the
legendary Rabbi Akiva.
Furthermore, the Midrash contends that a genuine convert is more precious in
G-d's eyes than one who was born Jewish. Why? Because one born of a Jewish
mother had no choice in the matter. If your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish.
Period. You cannot surrender your birthright. Like it or not, it is a biological
and spiritual fact of life. You can attempt to convert out of the Jewish faith
but Judaism does not recognize such artificial alterations. A Jew is a Jew is a
Jew. If you were born a Jew, you will die a Jew.
But a convert did not have to become Jewish. No one forced him or her into
it. If anything, those electing to join the Jewish faith are aware of something
called Antisemitism. Do they need it in their lives? Are they suicidal, or just
plain stupid? Why would anyone in their right mind go looking for tzorris?!
Says the Midrash, one who does make that conscious, deliberate choice to embrace
the G-d of Abraham despite the unique unpopularity of the Children of Abraham,
is someone worthy of G-d's special love. A Jew by choice is a Jew indeed.
There remains a difficult passage in the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) that begs some
elucidation. "Converts are as difficult for Israel as a blight!" Not a very
flattering depiction. A simple explanation might be that when converts are
insincere and they are not really committed to living a full Jewish
life--perhaps they converted for ulterior motives, like to marry a Jew--then
their failure to observe the commandments brings disrepute to Judaism and may
have a negative ripple effect on other Jews.
But there is also an alternative interpretation. Some understand the
suggestion that converts are a blight upon Israel to mean that they give born
Jews a bad name. Why? Because all too often converts are more zealous than any
other Jews in their commitment to the faith. Have we not seen converts who are
more observant and more passionate about Judaism than most born Jews? "A blight
upon Israel" would then mean that their deeper commitment and zealousness puts
us to shame.
This week, we read the Tochachah--the Rebuke. A series of dire warnings
to the Jewish people not to stray from G-d's ways and the curses that will
befall us if we should, -the Rebuke is always read shortly before Shavuot, the
Season of the Giving of the Torah. That moment at the mountain, when we stood at
Sinai and experienced the great Revelation and the Ten Commandments was the
moment when we became constitutionally enfranchised as a people. Shavuot marks
the day when we were transformed from a family--children of Abraham, Isaac,
Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah--to a nation. That is the day we all
converted to Judaism. We all became Jews at Sinai.
So, every year at this time we read the sobering Rebuke to prepare us for the
reliving of the historic event when we, too, became "converts," so that we
should enter into our covenant with G-d sincerely and genuinely, in reverence
and in awe.
May all of us, those born or those who have become, be true Jews who will be
true to our faith, our Torah and our tradition. May we accept the Torah anew
with the passion and zeal of one who has just made that momentous choice, the
choice to become a Jew.