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How Are We to View Jews By Choice?

How Are We to View Jews By Choice?


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 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.
Artwork by Sefira Ross, a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Discussion (21)
May 31, 2016
I know I am fully accepted because instead of asking why I wanted to convert, I am now given the repeated pressure to convert into a non-Chabad Jew and be a part of the "regular" orthodox community. I'm not even any kind of Jew yet!! I face more demands from being accepted than not.
May 30, 2016
This makes sense....
This makes sense for the email I received about whether my mother or my father was a Jew never was the question both being outside of Judiasm and was my mother taught the Jewish ways which she was.
May 30, 2016
a new convert
My conversion was official on 15 of Elul 5775. That is when I went to the mikvah, went before the Beit Din, and received my official documents of conversion. However, I had transitioned 30 + years prior as an 11 year old girl, when I attended my first Shabbos dinner and realized that I was being raised in the wrong religion (Catholicism.) My experience within my home synagogue has been largely positive, however, there is a sense of cliquish cattiness amongst a few of the congregants. They act as if that is their own personal house of worship and I am merely an oddity from the outside. To be fair, they are the minority.

I have chosen to minimize conflict by not trying to get too involved, too fast. I don't want people to get the impression that I am pushing myself upon the congregation. I choose to be of service in the Chavrah Kaddisha and largely keep to myself. I didn't become a Jew to make friends.
May 30, 2016
to Anonymous re Syrian Jews.
This is a policy and not a Halacha. Their spiritual leadership determined that this would be the best way for them to stop intermarriage in there community. indeed, it may well work for them. And I believe there are other such communities who have adopted the same policy. But it is important to remember that Jewish Law accepts converts provided it is done according to Halacha and the officiating Beth Din has determined that they are sincere and genuine.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
May 30, 2016
Rebbe Menachem Mendel Scheerson sets us all straight!!!
I personally was present and heard the Rebbe say the following, back then- a ger, convert, is higher than a born Jew, because a born Jew comes from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Sorah, Rivka, Rochel and Leah. But, a ger, convert, comes from not only Abraham and Sorah, but also he(she) comes from the highest name of God Almighty Himself,
Havaya, Yud, Keih, Vuv, Keih. Also, in the core and essence of my very soul and being, I love gerim totally with all my heart and soul! In my mind, there is absolutely not one speck of a difference between a ger and a born Jew.
Dovid K.
Chicago, Illinois
May 30, 2016
As a convert today I have knowledge, understanding and wisdom!
Thank G-d!
May 30, 2016
Not the 613
I think the hardest part of being a ger is not the 613 mitzvahs. These are an a true joy to perform, and increasingly meaningful. But the remarks made by others...unbelievably pain at times. Everything from, "Do you like being Jewish?" "As a convert do you think if was OK what the Germans did to the Jews in the war?" And on to explaining, over and over again, very simple Yiddish or Hebrew terms, because, after all, I didn't grow up knowing them.

I have been Jewish a long time,, but I don't know if some will ever fully accept me. This is certainly not true of all. Recently I mentioned to my Rebettzin about being a convert, and her response was, "At first I didn't know who you were talking about. I never think of you as a ger." That was perhaps the most comforting remark that has been made to me on this relevant to this issue.
May 30, 2016
a convert
Thank you Rabbi for your article. I appreciate it.
steve lowry
sofia, bulgaria
May 30, 2016
What about official order of Syrian-Jews rabbis' who reject Converts completely saying that Converts are not any "Jews" at all, and forbiding to mix with Converts?
May 30, 2016
I'm having trouble finding yevamot 47b in English. But I always thought it was translated as. A convert is like scab. So what is a scab? If a person has a wound Gd forbid. A scab allows the wound to heal. True converts are a healing to the Jewish people. And let's face it Ashkenazi Jews can't even get married without a blood test.
Also having studied cannabis plant genetics. Pure breed strains after say ten generation need to be cross breed. Also pure bred dog have health problems . It's the same for us!