Focal Point |
I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day. (Deuteronomy 29:13-14)
In an extraordinary way, this text conflates time and generations to embrace all Jews in the covenant. As the Midrash Tanchuma (Nitzavim 3) notes, the souls of all future Jews stood at the Revelation at Sinai. Later rabbis understood that this includes converts to Judaism as well.
Judaism calls us to recognize the convert with compassion and sensitivity. Ours is, perhaps, the first religion to recognize and welcome the ger, the "stranger" who chooses to identify with the faith and the fate of the Jewish people. This, despite the fact that Judaism also uniquely teaches that one need not be Jewish in order to achieve salvation. Rabbi Y'hoshua (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:2) highlights this message of universal salvation: "The righteous of all nations shall have a share in the world-to-come." From our viewpoint, no one needs to convert to Judaism in order to be saved. Yet, many people do choose to convert to Judaism.
When we look back to our history and our tradition, we see that Jews not only have welcomed converts, but also, at times, have actively proselytized. Reform Judaism encourages others to join the Jewish people. Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) from 1973 to 1996, said this about Reform outreach: "My dream was to see our Judaism unleashed as a resource for a world in need, not as the exclusive inheritance of the few, but as a renewable resource for the many; not as a religious stream too small to be seen on the map of the world, but as a deep-flowing river, hidden by the overgrown confusion of modern times, that could nourish humanity's highest aspiration" (quoted in Dana Evan Kaplan, American Reform Judaism:An Introduction [New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003], p. 175).
In ancient days too, the Talmud argued that Jews were exiled from the Holy Land for the specific purpose of attracting proselytes: "The Holy One, blessed be God, exiled Israel among the nations only in order to increase their numbers with the addition of proselytes" (Babylonian Talmud, P'sachim 87b).
Individual cases of conversion were documented throughout the Middle Ages, though fear of punishment kept some Jewish communities from actively seeking converts. This anxiety became so great that the Jewish councils of Lithuania and Moravia threatened to impose internal penalties on any Jew who proselytized or sheltered converts.
For post-Enlightenment and modern Jewry, the legal restrictions on proselytizing have been removed. But fear of how proselytizing may affect perceptions of Jews and Judaism still restrains active conversion campaigns. However, today we feel more comfortable reaching out assertively to those who may wish to become Jewish than we have in the past. Inspired by Schindler and supported by the work of our Outreach programs, the Reform Movement conveys our openness to the possibility of conversion to Judaism, as well as our true appreciation for the Jew-by-choice.
From the perspective of Jewish tradition, those who choose to join the Jewish people do not belong in some permanent convert category, but are fully Jewish in all matters. Their authenticity should not be questioned. Their Jewish status should not be investigated. Rather, converts belong fully to the Jewish community. Consider the wonderful models from our early tradition, Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews. Note that the celebration of the festival of Shavuot largely centers around the convert Ruth the Moabite, who declares to her mother-in-law, Naomi, "Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God" (Ruth 1:16). Not only does Ruth choose Judaism, but she also establishes the messianic line as the great-grandmother of King David. While some early rabbis worried about the motivations of converts, most of the rabbis of the Talmud agreed with the opinion, "When a proselyte comes to be converted, one receives him with an open hand so as to bring him under the wings of the Divine Presence" (Vayikra Rabbah 2:9).
In Jewish law and practice we see several positive ideas about conversion. According to the Talmud, the legal status of the proselyte equals that of the born Jew. Also, the thirteenth blessing of the Amidah asks God's attentiveness toward geirei hatzedek, the "righteous proselyte." When questions arose as to whether converts to Judaism could authentically invoke the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the God of their ancestors in the first paragraph of the Amidah, known as the Avot prayer, or say asher kid'shanu, "who has sanctified us," when reciting a blessing, Moses Maimonides affirmed: "God, in His glory, loves proselytes. . . . A man who left his father and birthplace and the realm of his people at a time when they are powerful, who understood with his insight, and who attached himself to this nation which today is a despised people, the slave of rulers, and who recognized and knew that their religion is true and righteous . . . and pursued good . . . and entered beneath the wings of the Divine Presence . . .Adonai does not call you fool but intelligent and understanding, wise and walking correctly, a pupil of Abraham our father . . ." ( Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte). In Maimonides' view, converts, then, are fully and authentically Jewish.
The Jews-by-choice in the midst of our Reform congregations and our communities follow a long and respectable tradition of conversion to Judaism. They need to be recognized by us as nothing less than Jews who stood in covenantal relationship to God at Mount Sinai.
By the Way |
- A number of kids about to turn 13 who aren't Jewish are bugging their parents for parties that resemble those held following Bar Mitzvah ceremonies. In some affluent communities, parents line up the same entertainment and book the same party places. (Elizabeth Bernstein, "You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Want a Bar Mitzvah," The Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2004)
- The dichotomy between Jews-by-birth and Jews-by-choice has lost much of its force because so many Jews-by-birth are faced with deciding whether they chose to become Jewish in a meaningful sense. . . . If being Jewish is more voluntary and self-committing than ever before, then the situation of the Jew-by-choice is no longer exceptional. (Robert M. Seltzer, "Joining the Jewish People," in Martin Marty and Frederick E. Greenspahn, Pushing the Faith: Proselytism and Civility in a Pluralistic World [New York: Crossroads, 1980], pp. 62-63)
- I have always considered myself a Jew, even if that's not the opinion of some rabbis. . . . I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that's unacceptable for many. . . . For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That's my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it. I think that in being a disciple of Christ in my way, I enter into God's design, part of a promise made good." (Cardinal of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, quoted in John Vinocur, "A Most Special Cardinal," The New York Times, March 20,1983)
- Be it further resolved that ARZA calls upon the government and Knesset of the State of Israel to act immediately to remove any impediment to recognition of conversions in Israel outside of the Orthodox rabbinate whether the final beit din occurs within the State of Israel or abroad. . . . (ARZA Board Resolution for the Support of the Israel Religious Action Center, April 2005, www.arza.org)
Your Guide |
- What do you think makes Judaism attractive to people from other backgrounds?
- Do you agree with Seltzer? In what ways are you a Jew-by-choice?
- How do you respond to Cardinal Lustiger's definition of himself as a Jew?
- How do you reconcile our tradition's openness to converts with the difficulties facing Reform Jews in Israel, including questions about the Jewish status of our rabbis and converts?
Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,537–1,545; Revised Edition, pp. 1,372–1,381;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,217–1,234