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How Are We to View Jews by Choice?

How Are We to View 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 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.

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.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous U.s. June 16, 2016

Some Jews still today do not accept converts. Judaism is a society, culture, and has been also called for it has their religious beliefs, Delahunt Amen. Nevertheless do not loose faith. Reply

Ransom Place USA June 16, 2016

I appreciate Rabbi Goldman's article very much. Having Jewish grandparents whose relatives were killed in the Shoah, the Rabbi's article informed and comforted me. Reply

joseph brooklyn June 5, 2016

Those who act like that (critize converts) are transgressing numerous negative commandments, besides the commandment of 'v'ahavtem es hager' , you shall love the convert. A convert receives a new soul, (neshama). He is like a newborn. (Alshich hakodosh , Leviticus parshes kedoshim on the verse regarding converts(don't have chumish now so cant refer exactly) And that's how he explains the Talmud which states 'ger shenisgayer kekuten shenolad' Aka: one who becomes a convert is like a newborn child Reply

Anonymous California June 5, 2016

This is such an important reminder. To embrace Judaism is no frivolous task and requires intense study to understand the foundations upon which it stands. I taught myself how to read and write Hebrew after being turned away and laughed at by a Rabbi when I sought his council. I didn't convert in order to marry someone, I converted in gratitude after surviving cancer.I asked myself; who really is this G-D that I turned to in my anguish, and saw fit to restore me? I found the answer in the Torah, and my spiritual home in Judaism.If not for converts we would have had no Yitro or Ruth. PS. it is forbidden to mention to a convert that he or she was not always a Jew.
A grateful Ger Reply

Giordano June 3, 2016

I agree in principle with N Rosenthal that the burden is left to the convert to understand that he or she wasn't raised inside a given community, but it is, imho up to the community to do all they can to welcome the convert, otherwise you might as well not be jewish. Why was the second temple destroyed? Why did Rabbi Akivas' students die in their thousands? Because of the inner hatred. There is no point learning Torah or Zohar if you are not going to correct your lower nature or ego and truly pursue 'peace' and integration of the single collective Jewish soul. Even a Chossid moving from one area to another experiences the same difficulty. You want to be a light unto the Nations? let us be a light unto those who would offer their lives to become part of us. That would be a start. I don't anticipate Moshiach anytime soon, despite the plea. Reply

ajay nair raipur June 3, 2016

a nice thing for someone who is desiring to be a follower , i loved it this strengthens faith of convertees like me, thank you Reply

Anonymous Mesa, AZ June 3, 2016

As Yoram from Ireland expresses his concern about those who are returning. My family, both my parents were descenants of Jews. I have been studying Torah, and everuthing Jewish for thehge past six years and have tried to be a part of the congregation, but it seems that no one wanted to open a door for me to do just that. I wanted to go for the Shabbat srvc on Purim, called the Rabbi, and he coldly said to me that they were full to capacity...An extra chair was too much to add me in? I can help but been hurt. I have been taking lessons from Chabad.org all these time. I pay my dues. I have never taken anything for free. Reading this article makes me wonder. I unsubscribed from your blog but Chabad keeps on sending me these articles, why? if you are not interested just leave me in peace. I am a Jewess whether you believe me or not, HaShem, blessed is He, saaid so to me, and I will be as long as I live in this world. B"H Reply

Norton Rosenthal Dallas June 3, 2016

After under-going the long process of conversion imposed and required by all denominations of Judaism, converts nonetheless enter the Jewish “community” necessarily as “outsiders,” and I would prefer to call them “social outsiders.” Because, after conversion, their religious “acceptance” is full and complete. But, being Jewish is more than a matter of “religion” per se. This “socialization” for converts is made more difficult when people convert in the very locale that they grew up in—no one knew them from synagogue, from Sunday school, from bar-bat mitzvah, from summer camp, from AZA or other youth activities, from mutual relatives or connections or friendships, they suddenly just “appear.” Both sides must be generous—the convert and the resident Jews, and, I am trying to say, this may have nothing to do with “religion,” it is just, well, a matter of socializing, and being with what is familiar and comfortable. Converts did not grow up in a Jewish home, with all of its particularities and peculiarities, they have visited Jewish homes and have conjured Jewish home life but, necessarily, they are in the dark. Both—the convert and the born Jew—have to accommodate, understand, empathize, help—and this is not easy or natural, as a practical matter, for either, and is terribly burdensome for both. I do not want to be a “homer,” but I was born and raised Jewish, and I will do my best to respect and help and welcome the convert, but, sorry, I think the greater burden is on the convert to understand that, in an important sense, the convert bears the greater burden and pain in seeking “social” acceptance—which, again, is very different from “religious” or sacral acceptance, which has already been granted by the process of conversion which the convert wanted and needed for his or her own reasons, and which he or she endured and achieved. Reply

Giordano June 3, 2016

The simple fact remains that the Orthodox BethDin and those who work in gerut coordination don't want converts.
I know this from private conversations and I've heard the same story repeated everywhere. The fact is that thousands have and are being denied their calling as Jews, as part of the ingathering of exiles, year by year. There are also many questionable practices that go against the spirit of acknowledging potential converts.
The 'blight' if there is any, is on the erav rav who are firmly entrenched in the system and who deny others the chance to be accepted. Halachah doesn't
require a BethDin. It requires three men of upright standing to perform a conversion. The sooner common sense prevails, the sooner we will move to a genuine ingathering. Being born a Jew isn't enough. To be a True Torah Jew requires many things...kindness most of all. Reply

Anonymous Edmonton June 3, 2016

These words are real, G_d gave rabbi Yossi wisdom, thanks. Reply

Sue Kanata June 3, 2016

I feel like framing this so I'll always have it on hand! Here is the logical and fruitful procedure some peoples' fears had almost cast aside. Nice and warm, this Judaism! Reply

Carrie Schumacher Oakland, CA June 1, 2016

I agree with anonymous from Israel's May 31, 2016 comment. I found "my rabbi" at a reform temple but I did not know it was reform. He knew very soon that the reform setting would be quite a challenge for me, given my expressed views tending toward a middle ground between orthodox conservative. He was right, it was a challenge for me, but I was like a rock. I studied for two years, including Hebrew. However, both beit din and mikveh were at Congregation Beth Jacob (modern orthodox shul). It was a transformational moment. The following week, I was blessed and given my Hebrew name while holding a Torah scroll on the bimah at the reform temple. I have never felt inferior to any reform Jew-by-birth or ger.

I tried to make it work at the reform temple, but it did not and I have moved on. It was good for me to stay another year with my brand-new-Jew perspective on the reform movement because it only brought my convictions into sharper focus. Reply

Yoram ireland June 1, 2016

great article. I find it interesting that the people not practicing the faith are the most vocal. Simply put is it just making them uncomfortable. Now more than ever we need true Jews to "come home from the four corners of the earth" and this means returning to a faith lost through the generations. I don't say make it as easy as being "saved" as a christian where you scratch your nose and someone says you got saved but really help those that are coming home.. are we doing this? I have seen zero evidence of this so far i am sorry to say apart from some amazing chabad guys in Israel Reply

Sam California June 1, 2016

He has the Right to make the rules, if he is in fact your G-D!
it is your Job, & duty to do those things willingly.
You must Willingly will to do those things willingly, or Your
Mitvahs are nothing but traditions of futility! Reply

Anonymous June 1, 2016

Thank you so much for sharing your story. That just made my day :-) Reply

RONALD REVITZ WEIRSDALE, L June 1, 2016

I agree that once born a jew always a jew. GREAT. Reply

Gavriel GT June 1, 2016

to Anonymous re A new convert (may 30,2016)

I was merely scrolling through the comments when your write up hit me like a brick! Why? Well I first saw the "15th" in reference to being made "official", then "11 years old" and the final straw was the mention of the "30+ Years". Not grasping at straw here but good grief read on .........
Here's my journey;
I embraced Judaism at the age of 11, my mom had shown me an article from a newspaper about her brother, my uncle being a rabbi and at the time he was in Tel Aviv. I didn't question anything just went with the natural understanding that we were Jews, so for my whole life I have grown up with the understanding that I was jewish, we didn't attend synagogue or anything, even though we lived in an area with a descent size jewish community. However, my mom once I turned 16 allowed me to go to synagogue. Once I was on my own I proudly proclaimed my Jewishness however the opposition came softly on a community level after I'd moved to a bigger city. Basically the continuos question was "where are your papers" - a ketubot from your parents, your grandmother etc for the better part of 15-20 years I bugged relatives, off and on, for this information it never came. So finally I figured about 7-8 years ago I'd simply convert to squelch the concerns from the community. After all with 30+ years in, I wasn't going anywhere, I'd been apart of the community for twenty years. So on 15 Sivan 5772 through Bet Din, circumsion and Mikvah I became "official". I share all of this because I am fascinated that for various reasons someone in this world had a similar journey, Hashem is truly wonderful.

Gavriel GT Reply

Catherine Baillie Queensland Australia May 31, 2016

I am about to attend the Beit Din, and hopefully, complete the process of my conversion, Is the commandment not, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"? What do Jews by birth have to fear from Jews by choice?. For a people who are suppose to do good deeds, is the rejection of Jews by choice not wrong?. Reply

yehuda May 31, 2016

In time of Ezra they were sent away from their families like ISIS does, ! lucky Judaism is getting better. Reply

Anonymous May 31, 2016

I think for the convert it is important to remember that first step they've taken, and be big enough to love even those who do not accept them. I remember a rabbi's quote , you'll be happier if you stop thinking about receiving and getting, be the giver instead - or something to that effect. Even if one doesn't make it to the Mikveh , it's a great lesson to remember. Reply