A Jew by Choice
Ger sh’ba l’hitgyer baz’man hazeh, omrim lo: ma ra’ita shebata l’hitgyer? Ee ata yodeya sheyisrael baz’man hazeh d’vouyim, d’choufim, s’choufim, u’m’torfim v’yisourim ba’im alaychem? Im omer yodeya ani…m’kablim ohto.
In our time, a convert who seeks conversion (to Judaism) is asked, “What do you see happening to you if you convert (to Judaism)? Surely you understand that presently (we are) sorrowful and oppressed, banished and in exile, and afflicted with sufferings?” If he replies “I understand,” he is accepted (as a convert).
Talmud Bavli, Mesechet Yevamot 113a
Ki el asher telkhi aylech u’va’asher talini alin amech ami vElochaiyech, Elochai.
Where you go I shall go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people are my people and your God my God.
There will be children with robins and flowers
Sunshine caresses each new waking hour
Seems to me that the people keep seeing
More and more each day, gotta say, lead the way
It’s okay, Wednesday, Thursday, it’s okay
Ahhh..Monday, Wednesday, Friday, weekday, ah, ah, ohhhh
“A Beautiful Morning,” by Felix Cavaliere and Edward Brigati (The Rascals)
As the weather continues to become more lusciously inviting, seductively appealing to us to not spend too much time indoors, we have the seemingly least compelling yom tov on the Jewish calendar, Shavout. Lacking the special agricultural rituals that marked it in ancient times, our rabbinical-conjured version has lost much appeal for most Jews these days. Timing-wise it couldn’t come at a worse time. The public school year is close to an end, and so therefore the Hebrew School schedule linked to that schedule has often skipped teaching much about Shavuot or at best given it brief attention. Then there is the weather. The days are so nice weather-wise that some may be reticent to spend another day in a closed space (especially if they have already been there on Shabbat), their face pointed at a book much of the time, when in high contrast, fresh air and space beckon outside of the synagogue.
However, the fresh air can be a partner to actually invigorate our religious commitments. We’ll touch on that in a bit. Many congregations don’t always read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot as tradition had prescribed (it makes the service much longer). This is unfortunate, for the Book of Ruth is the story understood by the rabbis to illustrate the beauty of someone coming to personal self-actualization through conversion to Judaism. They tied this concept to the legend of the Torah being given on Shavuot to inform us that we should all strive to consider ourselves to be as gerim/converts to Judaism.
I have had the tremendous honor of having been the guide for a number of people who have found their true self and home in Judaism. A popular “politically correct” term for a convert these days is a “Jew by Choice.” However, one thing that always resonated with me and has inspired me was that almost universally these gerim/converts explained that they didn’t choose to be Jewish like it was a choice on a menu of religions. Instead they felt they had found their home, found who they truly were, sometimes through reading and experimenting, sometimes through a connection with someone they had an important and deep relationship with. It could have been a relationship of love and finding their beshert or “soul mate” or sometimes been through a close friendship with a remarkable friend or from being inspired by a wise teacher or mentor. The example in the Talmud speaks of a “convert who comes to convert.” If he is already a convert, how can he convert? The Talmud uses this terminology because the ger has found his true identity—he already truly, really is a Jew. He only lacks the ritual that signifies the formal acceptance of the community.
The Book of Ruth demonstrates the beauty of this process when it occurs through an exceptional relationship. Obviously Ruth had developed a deep relationship with Naomi. Naomi was, however, more than just a “motherin- law.” Naomi was a tremendously supportive and accepting friend and a wise mentor. Due to this relationship with Naomi, Ruth found her true self. The convert converted.
Some people will quote the rabbis in condemning conversion for the sake of marriage. Those condemnations do occur throughout the Talmud and rabbinic literature. One must, however, understand what they truly condemn. Marriage in those days in that cultural setting was mainly a business deal between families. It may have been politically or economically advantageous at certain times in antiquity for a non-Jewish family to enter into such an arrangement with a prominent Jewish family. Obviously that variety of “convert” would have no real attachment or commitment to this new label. Today, when people marry for reasons of personal fulfillment, the dynamic is very different. Most often a big part of someone “falling in love” with the Jewish partner is the Jewish partner’s Judaism or Jewishness. I have been told that “I also fell in love with her Judaism, the holidays, the family” or “something incredible happened the first time I lit Shabbat candles with his mother.”
So who needs to be a “Jew by Choice”? It really is those of us who were born into Jewish families. We often grow up and take our Judaism and Jewishness for granted or have sometimes developed negative perceptions through unpleasant experiences in synagogue services or “religious” school. Some Jews look at our history and see the Holocaust and perceive of our present as being surrounded by anti-Semites and Israel haters. Those who understand the Jewish past and present in such a manner may not want to be bothered with the type of fearful baggage that can be generated by such a perception for a Judaism that through their own personal experience also had been found to be trivial or lacking in enjoyment. Such individuals may feel intimidated and insecure and respond by shying away from being “too Jewish” or may even become dysfunctional and join anti-Israel organizations or groups that unfairly criticize Israel and support movements such as the BDS movement (movement to boycott, disinvest, and sanction the State of Israel).
We need to answer the scary question the Talmud asks the Jews of late antiquity and the Middle Ages in the affirmative. Yes! I want to be a Jew! We need to emphasize the beauty and inspiration and joyousness of Judaism that counters any negativity emanated by haters. We who have been born to Jewish families need to take inspiration from those who found their way home so that we can become Jews by choice.
Take a stroll outside, inhale the revitalizing fresh air, exhale any negativity, take delight in the voices of children playing outside, smell the perfume of the flowers, soak up some energizing rays, and joyously choose to be a Jew.