Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Become Jewish?

By Susan Esther Barnes

I recently read Rabbi David Wolpe’s book “Why Be Jewish?” I love his podcasts. They are both entertaining and insightful, so I was looking forward to reading this book. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was sadly disappointed. I didn’t feel like he actually answered the question.

The book is divided into the following three sections: To Grow in Soul, To Join a People, and To Seek God. But you can do all of those things without being Jewish.

There are certainly many reasons not to be Jewish. Chief among them is that historically, Jews have been a persecuted people. There have been crusades, pogroms, and the Shoah (Holocaust). Even today there are groups like Hamas, skinheads, and neo Nazis that want to kill all the Jews. These groups can be found all over the globe.

There are countries such as Saudi Arabia where no Jews live, and where Jews are not allowed to even visit if they have an Israeli passport or even an Israeli stamp in their passport.

In addition, as Jews we believe that non-Jews are only responsible for following the seven Noahide laws, which are a subset of the Ten Utterances, or what the Christians call the Ten Commandments. Non-Jews who follow those laws have earned a place in the world-to-come (heaven).

Once someone becomes Jewish, however, they are responsible for following all of the laws in the Torah, or at least those laws which can still be carried out (for instance, we can’t follow the laws of sacrifice since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed). So if you’re not Jewish not only can you still earn a place in the world-to-come, it’s actually much easier for you to do than it is for a Jewish person.

If you’re born Jewish then there’s no need to answer the question “Why become Jewish?” You just are. You can deny it or try to convert to something else, but in the eyes of the Jews, there is no getting out of it. Once a Jew, always a Jew. (I’ll leave aside for the moment the abomination of Rabbis in Israel “reversing” conversions after the fact).

But if you weren’t born Jewish, why convert? Why make yourself a target for hate groups, and why take on the burden of the additional commandments? If you want to study Torah, celebrate the Jewish holidays, attend synagogue services, etc., you can do all of those things without converting.

If you live in an Orthodox Jewish community, I can see non-conversion as a problem. In that case, you can’t marry an Orthodox Jewish person if you’re not Jewish, Orthodox Jews won’t eat anything you cook by yourself no matter what ingredients you use or whether you cook in a kosher kitchen with kosher implements, and they won’t even drink a glass of wine if you pour it.

Although some people convert because they want to marry a Jewish person, there are many others who convert who are not dating or engaged to a Jew. And I can’t believe they do it because they want to cook or pour wine for the Orthodox.

The most common reason I have heard from converts is, “I want(ed) to convert because I feel I was born Jewish.” As self-contradictory as this statement may sound, it’s the only one that makes any sense to me.

There are people out there who weren’t born to a Jewish mother and/or weren’t raised Jewish, but they were born with a Jewish soul. And somehow, at some point in their life, they find Judaism and discover that their place is among the Jewish people.

They are not “converting” in the sense that they are not changing from one thing to another. It is simply that they have discovered who they are, and they want to declare that identity to themselves, to other people, and to God.

So I don’t know that anyone ever actually becomes Jewish after they are born. I have never heard anyone say, “Oh, I was totally not Jewish before, but then I changed myself and became Jewish.” Maybe that’s true for some people, and if so, I’d love to hear from you, and to hear why you became Jewish.

But in the meantime, the only reason I can think of for someone to become Jewish is to acknowledge, accept, and fulfill the yearning of their already Jewish soul.

1 comment:

  1. For me it was *definitely* about having a Jewish neshama. I can remember being 9 or 10 and reading The Chosen (yes, I was *that* girl) and trying to understand why I felt such a strong connection to the Jewish characters. I started noticing hechshers by the time I was in high school (nobody told me what they were, I just sort of figured it out) and by college was actively involved in Hillel. Did I mention my mother is a Lutheran minister? When I finally was ready to tell her that I needed to convert (junior year), her response was "well, I'm glad you figured it out - I've known since you were nine." I would imagine the experience is somewhat akin to coming out.

    I've met people who converted for marriage and I don't really get it - I can't imagine why anybody would chose to take on the mitzvot, etc if they weren't Jewish on the inside before they started the process.