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 anti-Semitism. Do they need it in their lives? Are they suicidal, or just plain stupid? Why would anyone in their right mind go looking for tzoris?! 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 of the curses that will befall us if we should, the Rebuke is always read shortly before Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. That moment at the mountain, when we stood at Sinai, experienced the great Revelation and received 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.