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Jews By Choice

Jews By Choice

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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 say?

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.

Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn, New York. In 1976 he was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul since 1986, president of the South African Rabbinical Association, and a frequent contributor to Chabad.org. His book From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading was recently published by Ktav, and is available at Jewish bookshops or online.
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Discussion (14)
January 10, 2014
Jew by Choice
Thank you for your article/support.

Conversion is a deeply personal journey; along winding road.

A little support can go a very long way for the convert.
MJ
Pembroke Pines
May 2, 2013
Luis: A holy Ben-No'ach is very important, too.
Dear Luis,

If your studies and introspection have led you to the laws of the children of No'ach, and to your commitment to those laws, then you have taken a very holy path. The conclusion that "conversion is not for everyone" demonstrates careful thought and wisdom. Kol ha-kavod! (Right on!)

Having holy people truly committed to all spiritual paths is good for the health of the world, and I hope your learning will also make you what we call a "yedid" - a friend of the Jewish people.

A Psalm says, "Yir'ei HaShem barchu et HaShem"/All who are in awe of ("fear") HaShem -- Bless HaShem!" You are part of that expansive congregation.

Peace/Paz/Shalom,

Reb Zisha
Reb Zisha
Boston, MA
December 11, 2012
Jew by choice
Since my last post I have another opinion of converting. I've realized that conversion is not for everyone. I'm now a Bnei Noach and feel I can do more for the Jewish people. I've been to Israel as a Noahide and have been welcome with open arms. Right now I'm involved in a project to bring more Noahide to Israel for Sukkot to help for fill according to Zechariah 14:16 with a group of Rabbis and Jews that consider this very important especially in our times. We all have a purpose and if its to convert good, if not consider being an active Noahide. Trust me I feel I have a better purpose.
Luis Carmona
Tampa, Fl USA
chabadbrandon.org
December 10, 2012
Thank you for this lovely article. Indeed, converts can and do put to shame many born Jews. But I think this is a good thing. When you have people to constantly set a standard within a people, you can only improve. I think more Jews should be open to the idea of welcoming converts to their people. Converts improve the Jewish community, they enhance it, they don't destroy it. I've been looked upon with disdain by a few already within the Jewish community as a convert, and it's truly sad that they don't see the positive aspect of having me there. The things we could all learn from each other if people would open up to love!
Anonymous
Miami
February 15, 2009
Converts
The following is a famous saying handed down in the name of the Holy Ger Tzadek of Wilno -

When you analyze the term of the Talmud “Ger Sh’Nisgaar KeKatan Sh’Naled “ (a convert is as born anew”) ….he was posed with a question : it should have read: “GOY shenisgaar” being that we are speaking in terms of Before accepting ger…his response was : That we all know that G-D went around before “mattan torah” per purposing the his Torah/Judaism to all the worlds Nations… which they obviously rejected -- as a whole…BUT he claimed - there must have been individuals willing to accept the word of god, but unfortunately they lost out being that their nation as a whole--- rejected it ..Nevertheless, god did accept them as individuals, therefore their sole within CRIES and seeks out of their depths within to accept Judaism…with out knowing its meaning and reason…
Morris
October 27, 2008
Thank you Rav Goldman, your article is very encouraging. Unfortunately it is hard not to be influenced by the negative opinions of others, especially those who are close to us. The path to conversion is hard enough without having to deal with comments like "you can't steal an identity you weren't born with" or "to be a Jew you have to be born one, any attempt to become an Orthdox Jew is stupid and ridiculous". Thanks for your indirect support.
Anonymous
Italy
October 2, 2008
its all a label
you are what you decide to be not what others say you are. conversion is your own choice and no one can say you are worthy or not. i am jewish cause i decide to be everyday not cause a paper says so..it is writen that 10 men from every tribe will take a jew by the tsittsits and say we have inherited futility take us to your Mighty one..We have all been given freedom and will and no one has the right to take it..the binding fractor of jewdaism is Torah finished. the keepers of Torah are jews. go in peace..the mixed multitute received Torah and they became Yisrael..Shalem
Dag Muller
Cape town, South Africa
May 25, 2008
Jew by choice
This article is very inspirational, I've been in this path toward conversion for a couple of years and it has not been easy. Sometimes I loose faith with all the hurdles I have to face but articles like these and the community of Jewish friends that help me, I get back on track and continue on the road.
Luis
Brandon, FL/USA
chabadbrandon.org
May 23, 2008
Jews by Choice
Thank you so much for this Rebbe. In these dark times for converts, it brings a lot of comfort.
Yael
Vancouver, Canada
July 2, 2007
That were gr8 inspiring words ! Thank you...
amalia
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