To our Teacher and Master, the Exalted Chief Rabbi of Guadalajara,

Oh enlightened one and guide in all matters to those who pummel into brick walls while groping in the darkness of mindlessness! Let the radiance of your wisdom pour down upon your numbed disciples and blast them out of their benighted state! Explain to us the secret of conversion to Judaism! Reveal to us the way of the enlightened in dealing with those who come to us burning with a desire to adopt Judaism as their religion of choice:

Is it true we must demand unwavering commitment to every detail of Jewish law? A thorough knowledge of all aspects of Torah? Is it your esteemed opinion that we should only graduate those obsessive-compulsive personalities who blacken the margins of their Abridged Code of Jewish Law with pencil notes and yellow its lines with their hi-lighters?

Or is it the heart that we must search? A love of G‑d? Adoration for His Torah? A sense of compassion for the financial operations of the synagogue building fund?

Open our eyes and we will behold the inner wisdom of true Jewishness, so fraught with incongruous peculiarities to the point of being utterly weird: How is it that Ronald McPherson is 100% Jewish only due to his maternal grandmother's mother, while Irving Cohen who eats gefilte fish after kiddush every Friday night must attend classes for a year and go to the mikvah?


Response:

Again you've got the whole trip way out of synch. First of all, there is no such thing as conversion to Judaism. In fact, there is no word for conversion in the language of the Torah. As for Judaism, I don't believe such a thing exists. What is this, some kind of religion? Surely, you know my disdain for religiousness and all its trappings! Get this straight: There is Torah and there are Jews. No isms. No religion. Just us Jews caught up in this struggle to hold onto the Torah.

Into this dynamic of Torah and Jews enters a Ger — literally, a sojourner. A ger is someone who joins the Jewish people. Presto, he ends up in the same struggle as the rest of us. That's the phrase the Talmud and Halachah uses again and again 1: A sojourner who comes to live with us (ger sheba lehitgayer). Rabbi Yosef Karo is even more explicit in his Shulchan Aruch2: A ger who enters the community of Israel. But I see no mention of this concept in your letter.

Alright, I'm probably starting to sound like a grouchy old rabbi. The search for kosher (i.e. wormless) tequila down here can do that to you. So let's run the scenario from the top:

Juan José reads some Jewish books. He concludes that this stuff is neat. He attends some classes with the local rabbi. He then approaches the rabbi and confesses how much he loves Judaism and is fascinated by the works of its sages. He has realized that this is the true path and wishes to adopt it as his own.

Now this is where we hit the quandary: Juan José wants to do Torah and Mitzvahs. Torah means instructions (as in the word hora'ah. So says the Zohar.3 Mitzvah means commandment (from the root tzivah). But Juan José was neither instructed nor commanded most of this. The Jewish people were— at Mount Sinai. Juan José, along with the rest of humanity, is instructed and commanded to keep the Noahide Guidelines— those that the Creator told to Adam and Noah.

Juan has many unique and wonderful things to contribute to humanity. If he didn't, well, he would never have been created. The Grand Designer doesn't design anything for nothing. In fact, there are many things Juan's Designer would be just delighted to see Juan do. But 613 mitzvahs, with all the details of the laws surrounding them— who says those are tailor-made for every soul that lands on the planet? In case you rabbis haven't clued into the answer to that question, it is: Nobody.

So Juan has a problem: He may be real good at learning Torah, better than the rabbi who's teaching the class. But it's not Torah. Because (unless it has to do with the Noahide Guidelines mentioned above) it's not instructing him. It's instructing somebody else.4

If Juan does a mitzvah, it may be a very nice thing. He may feel real good building a sukkah for his family or blowing a shofar. But unless it's one of the universal Noahide deeds5 — such as charity — it's not a mitzvah. Because he hasn't been commanded to do it.

Okay, some of my muchachos are not into the command modality. So think a little deeper then: The word mitzvah also means "connection" (from tzavta).6 Because when a created being is asked to do something by its Creator, a connection is established between the two, bridging the chasm of being and Beyond Being.

Imagine the scenario: Once upon a time, a little creature sat within the sealed bubble of the cosmos, doing all the wonderful things that little cosmos-creatures do, but always stuck inside the finite realm of created beings. Now the Creator and Master Operator of all Systems calls out from beyond the impervious glass and establishes a relationship with little critter. Excuse me, He says, could you please take care of these little tasks of mine in my world? Bang! There's a connection. Creator becomes involved with critter. Critter becomes a something. A veritable representative of the Creator within His creation.7

But when Juan decides all on his own to take on a mitzvah, where's the connection? Is He doing this because G‑d asked him to? Definitely not. He's doing it because Juan decided to. Juan commanded Juan. It's Juan's mitzvah. But nothing to do with the Infinite Master of All Being (unless Juan decides to take on that title).

So is Juan eternally stuck? Well, he still has the Noahide mitzvahs, heroic acts of kindness, beauty, and more. No small deal: Sustaining the viability of humankind,8 and therefore the stability of the material and spiritual realm. Hey, that's Torah, too. Juan can study everything that fascinates him about Torah with whichever rabbi he likes, as long as it's going to help him fulfill the mandate of a good Noahide.9 And be a great Juan, with his above-mentioned unique contribution.

But perhaps Juan is not satisfied with that. Perhaps Juan truly feels an affinity for the Jewish people. Perhaps Juan is a descendant of Marranos, but can't prove anything. Perhaps he's not Juan, but Irving Cohen, whose father is Jewish, who grew up with Jewish people, married a Jewish woman, has Jewish kids and always understood himself as one of us. Or maybe he's just one of those lost souls Rabbi Chaim Attar discusses, that is really Jewish inside, but got misfiled by some clumsy angel on the way down. A spark of Abraham's soul that Sarah pulls in, as discussed by the mystics.10

So we don't say to Juan, "Do you want to adopt Judaism?" Because he can't, as explained above. Instead, we say to him — to paraphrase the words of our sages in the Talmud,11 "Juan, why on earth would you want to join the Jewish people? don't you know we are persecuted and oppressed throughout history? don't you know that no matter what we do, the nations of the world can't stand the very fact that we exist? Juan, don't you read the papers?"

That's the first step: Not, "Are you really committed to doing what Torah says?" or "Do you really think you can handle getting up at 6:30 AM to make the minyan every morning?" The first question is, "Do you identify with us? With our travails as a people? Are you going to be one of us no matter what they give you for it?"

If we get the message across right, Juan could do one of two things: He could say, "Well, uh, this sounds like a little more than I bargained for. How about I just take a course in Jewish meditation and spirituality?" And that's just fine. There's something in Torah for everyone. Jewish meditation and spirituality may be just the prescription to help Juan be a good Noahide, and a great Juan José.

On the other hand, Juan might say — again paraphrasing the words of the Talmud, "You know what? I always wanted to be a part of this great people. But perhaps you're right. Maybe I'm just not good enough."

Bang! With those words, the Talmud continues, Juan is accepted as a righteous ger — one of us. Next, we have to tell him about some of the struggles we have: G‑d wants us to do this and not do that. It's all well worth it, but some of it ain't so easy. Now, Juan, that you're entering the community of Israel, you're also entering into the deal. You are becoming commanded and instructed to keep all that we were told at Sinai. You have Torah and Mitzvahs.

At this point, Juan could still opt out. It's still a two way street. All the way until he has his circumcision and hop in the mikvah. Once he does that, however, there's no way out.

Get the point? First comes the identity with us as a people. Then comes the acceptance of the yoke of Torah.

Practically speaking, imagine if it were the other way around. Juan commits 100% to Torah. Then we welcome him into the party. Juan is in for a shock. He takes this measuring rod we've handed him of Torah law and starts measuring us by it. Juan ain't too pleased with the data he collects.

The Rambam wrote that gerim do not have a very high success rate: Most trip over some event along the way that alienates them from the Jewish people.12 Sure, those that succeed have been among the most precious of our people: Onkelos, Shmaya, Avtalyon, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir — all these were either gerim or descendants of gerim. But most drop out — and some of them have even become vicious enemies.

If so, it's surprising that still today you rabbis seem foremost concerned with how committed is Juan to Torah and to G‑d? The major question should be: Does Juan get along with Jewish people? Does he have lots of Jewish friends? Does he get annoyed when people make disparaging remarks about a Jewish person? Does he love us? Does he cringe when he reads about a Jew in pain on the other side of the world? Will he feel as one of us no matter what?

If I seem to be taking this too far, consider the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in what he called his inauguration speech:

If you find a Jew who has love of G‑d, but lacks love of his people and love of Torah, tell him that this love cannot last.

If you find a Jew who has love of his people, but lacks love of G‑d and love of Torah, work with him to nurture this love until it overflows into the other two, until all three join in one tight knot that will never be untied.13

If so, if becoming a Jew is all about joining the Jewish people, then why must Juan accept the yoke of mitzvahs at all? This is related to the second question in your letter. So let's deal with that question first:

Response to Question #2:

A ger must accept all the mitzvahs of the Torah in order to become a Jew. The child of a Jewish mother who does none of them remains 100% Jewish. Why?

If it's a behavioral thing, that explains why Irving has to take on the mitzvahs to become Jewish. But then what makes Ronald — who has no clue he's supposed to be doing them to begin with — 100% Jewish?

And if it's lineage — which would explain Ronald's Jewishness — then what will it help for Irving, or Juan, or any other wannabe to accept all the mitzvahs?

What makes a Jew a Jew?

This is the story: Before Sinai, there were no Jews.14 Yes, there was Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Yes, there were the Children of Israel who G‑d redeemed from bondage. But they were not the Jewish people as we know them after Sinai. At Sinai, something irreversible happened.

Before Sinai, the Jewish people were similar to other people: They were a collection of individuals, mostly related to one another, bonded by an assortment of factors such as family, culture, dress, beliefs, traditions, etc. At Sinai, a bond happened. All those people become a single whole.15

You see, when those people were given their mission to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,"16 it wasn't as a group of individuals. They were chosen as a whole, a complete entity. That is why our sages say that if a single Jew had been missing from the foot of Mount Sinai, the Torah could not have been given.17 Because each Jewish soul is an essential cog in the whole. Like the beams of a geodesic dome, if one falls out, the entire structure collapses. Like the letters of the Torah itself: If one letter is missing or incomplete, the entire scroll is unfit. Because a Torah is not a compilation of parts. It is a single whole. And so are the Jewish people.18

"The essence of a whole cannot be divided"19 (Ha-etsem bilti mis-chalek — in Hebrew for you erudite types). So that in every part of the whole, you have the whole essence.

Take an apple, for instance. You can divide an apple into many parts — the peel, the stem, the meat, the core — but in each part the appleness remains the same. The meat of the apple is no more apple than the stem. Same thing with the Jewish nation: You can divide us into 14 million people, each a whole world on his or her own, but in each one the Jewishness remains exactly the same. And that Jewishness is all that really matters. Ever since Sinai, wherever one Jew goes, there goes the essence of the Jewish people.

With this in mind, we can make sense of a ruling of the Mishneh,20 ratified as halacha by Maimonides:

If pagans demand from a Jewish community, Give us one of you to kill or we will kill all of you! — all of the community must give their lives rather than handing over a single Jewish soul.21

Why? Because in each Jew — no matter who, where, what — is the entire Jewish people.

How does that essential Jewishness get passed down: Through the mother.

You see, really there are two aspects of any Jew: That essential Jewishness. And how s/he expresses that Jewishness in his/her unique way. In general, the first aspect is transmitted by the mother, the second by the father.22

That's how we got the Torah in the first place:

G‑d told Moses, "So you shall speak with the House of Jacob and tell to the Children of Israel."23

The ancient Mechilta explains:

The House of Jacob refers to the women. To them you shall go first and hand over the generality of the Torah. The Children of Israel refers to the men. To them you shall transmit the details.

(Why the women first and then the men? Rabbi Eliezer explains: Because men form their opinions according to what the women will say.2425 My wife made me add that.26)

The primal mothers of the Jewish people received the essence of the Torah. Ronald's mother passed on that general essence of the Torah to him, as her mother did for her. Therefore, Ronald is a Jew, while Irving is not.

So wherever Ronald McPherson goes, there go all of us. If he's wandering aimlessly in deep space assimilation, we're all there with him. Whenever he discovers he's a Jew and gets back into it, all of us will come along. Turns out that neither Ron nor his mother, nor his grandmother ever really left the Jewish people, after all. They just took us for a little trip.

(Actually, there's some qualification to that: The Halachah states that a family that is lost, is lost.27 The Rambam wrote in a letter that if a Jew completely disappears from his people, know that this is not a soul that stood at Sinai. 28 But since we know that Ron's mother is Jewish, he still hasn't disappeared from our radar.)

Now, how does Irving return from his father's diversion and get back on the track? And how can Juan get into the deal as well? How did we and Ronald get into this deal to begin with? Sinai did it to us. And so Sinai has to do it for every other soul that comes to join. Which is just what Juan José must go through if he is accepted as a ger: He needs to accept the entire Torah, just as we did back then. And that must be prefaced by circumcision and mikvah (and a sacrifice when the Temple is standing) just as it was then. Sinai never ends — there's a rerun for every ger.

But don't be mistaken that it is the practice of Mitzvahs that makes a Jew a Jew. Accepting Torah and doing Mitzvahs bring out the essential Jew inside. It allows our souls to bind together in a perfect unity. But the essence of Torah is the Jew that performs it, not the other way around. Therefore, we say that the soul of every ger was always part of us. Juan is just another Irving — both are returning to where they rightfully belong.

Something like becoming a mother: Every woman is essentially a mother inside, but she needs a child to awaken the mother within. So too, every Jew needs the Torah to activate the Jew within.

This is what the Zohar means when it says,

"There are three knots tied one to another: Israel is tied to the Torah, and the Torah is tied to the Holy One, blessed be He."29

Those of you rabbis who took arithmetic in school may come to a startling conclusion: That makes only two knots! And so, it is explained: The third knot is the knot between Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He. Only that to activate and awaken that knot, there must first be the knot of Torah.30

This is what it says in the Midrash,

Which came first, the Jewish people or the Torah? Since the Torah says, Command the Children of Israel, Speak to the Children of Israel — from this I infer that the Jewish People precede the Torah.31

And so it is with the Ger: The most essential element of the Ger is his attachment to the Jewish People. But how can that attachment be activated? Only through his acceptance of Torah, the covenant that awakens our essential bond with one another.