WELCOMING THE STRANGER
Kol Nidre, October 1, 2006, 5767
There are many joys in a rabbi’s life, such as right now, being in the midst of a community that has gathered on the most powerful night of the Jewish year to celebrate the astonishing ability to choose a better way to live. Besides holidays, we have life cycles, and of the life cycles, being a midwife in the transformation of identity that we call conversion is a precious experience. There are no words to describe the faces of those who emerge from the mikveh as new Jews, radiant as Moses he descended Sinai.
Convert and Jew by Choice are graceless words that don’t do justice to the love, faith, hope, and courage of those who people want to claim Judaism and the Jewish people. Their commitment is as profound as marriage, asking that they renounce all other faith paths and to embrace a people with a perilous history. Tonight I want to talk about not only the reasons why someone wants to become a Jew but also the Jewish community’s response to those beloved people who choose to become part of the cosmic family and earthly community.
It is not only hard to be a Jew, as the saying goes, it is hard to become one. This was not the case in our early history, but by the middle Ages, it had become a capital crime to proselytize for Judaism. Why Jews still have reticence about non-Jews joining us is another story. You’d think that our community would be actively seeking anyone, for whatever reason, who is interested in becoming a Jew. Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Holocaust and loyal Jew, has said that anyone in today’s world who calls him or her self a Jew is a Jew. Sadly, few in our community agree with him. The greatest barrier to conversion is the Jewish community, including both the laity and its leadership.
Once a person has looked into his or her soul and has made the decision to become a Jew, they might anticipate that they would be welcomed enthusiastically. Strangely, this isn’t the case, especially if there isn’t the prospect of raising Jewish children as a reason. For the more timid, the sense that we are a closed club is enough to discourage them. Thank God there are others who persist.
Many of us think that we have a tradition that discourages conversion. Rabbis have long held to the custom of turning away a would-be Jew three times before they receive them. The problem is that most non-Jews, upon being turned away, don’t know that they’re supposed to persist. They take it as a message that they’re not welcome. Today rabbis need to be cheerleaders, not prison guards.
We have a long history of others trying to convert us, and we don’t want to do unto others what we hated done to us. The resistance is deeper, however. Many Jews believe that you can’t become a Jew anymore than you can become African-American; it’s a DNA issue. They forget that the first Jews were converts. Torah teaches us that the, Zipporah, Moses’ wife, was a Midianite, and Ruth was a Moabite. Furthermore, it was her lineage that led to David, King of Israel.
Perhaps our reluctance is a form of unconscious racism. Not everyone has the stuff to endure prejudice and oppression. Only a few of us have been chosen for that. Some are afraid that opening the doors will lead to dilution; the unique character of Judaism will be lost if sushi instead of flanken becomes Jewish food. For these Jews, it doesn’t matter how much the convert knows about Judaism, somehow they just don’t seem Jewish.
More profoundly, our diffidence may reveal our own ambivalence about the tradition. More often than not, when I meet with a couple where only one is Jewish, it is the non-Jewish partner who is positive and enthusiastic about the process. The Jew asks why it is necessary, because for them being Jewish is something they take for granted and they may not think that it’s such a great thing.
I’m passionate about conversion not only because we’re barely one and half percent of the world’s population. The more compelling reason is that I’ve witnessed the blessing that Judaism has brought to those who have chosen it, and the blessing that they have brought to Judaism. We need more Jews, especially those who have chosen to live Jewishly. Furthermore, the Talmud tells us that converts are so important they are why the Jews were scattered among the nations, to add proselytes to Israel.
Choosing to become a Jew means joining an ancient yet living tradition that has always been outside mainstream culture with its own calendar, vocabulary, and rituals. It also has no catechism to learn. It’s about contradiction, paradox, and mystery. A simple question regarding kashrut, for example, might produce many answers depending upon denomination and community.
Few Jewish subjects, outside Israel, are as controversial as conversion, yet it is profoundly important to the future of Judaism. Every year more people choose this path. They make up roughly eight percent of the Jewish population, and that doesn’t include those who are de facto Jews, i.e. those who have Jewish children with their Jewish spouses and live a Jewish life.
Many converts discover Judaism when they become seriously in love with a Jew who wants a Jewish home. They soon find themselves exploring a complicated, often paradoxical set of beliefs amidst a people who regard belief secondary to behavior. Since born Jews best understand conversion in the more earthly terms of family, children, and community, the person who wants to become a Jew for the sake of marriage is most readily welcomed by the Jewish community because it’s not a mere spiritual quest.
When I’m approached by a Jew and non-Jew wanting to marry, conversion is not necessarily what they initially want; it’s the rabbi, chuppah, and stomping on a glass. Regardless of what has brought them to me, I seize the opportunity and offer myself as a teacher of a terrific wisdom tradition. No strings attached; just study for a few months with me.
Since the Jew often knows little about Judaism I suggest that they both learn with me, and after a few months we will revisit the decision to convert. While I’m not trying to twist anyone’s arm, I’m absolutely convinced that the tradition will awaken him or her to a way of life that both of them will find appealing. After all, it works for me. Most of the time, they end up under a huppah ready to begin their married life as Jews. For some, however, marriage is already a big enough decision and conversion may take place in the future. I remain their friend and guide and suggest an officiant. Why I don’t perform intermarriages in a subject for another sermon.
The first conversation I have with someone exploring Judaism is to tell him or her they will be learning how to look at the world as a Jew. For all of us, born Jewish or not, this is meaningful because of the Christological culture in which we live. An example of this is the Jewish attitude towards sex. Many traditions have ambivalent attitudes, at best, about desire. Not so in Judaism. Sex is one of life’s great earthly pleasures. Husbands have responsibility to their wives to offer it, and it is a mitzvah, a commandment to make love on Shabbat. Dayenu! A good enough reason to become a Jew.
I also tell them that while they think that they are entering a community of knowledgeable practitioners, this is fiction. My great grandparents went to shul because they were Jews. I go to become a Jew, just like everyone of our generation. Jews by choice enrich our community with the knowledge they bring from other traditions, and the kind of Jews that we will all become depends upon the presence of those who choose to walk with us. Born Jews are by no means better or more ‘real’ Jews in the eyes of our tradition.
I tell the would-be Jew that their decision will help many born Jews in their vision of Judaism. It is a path that many freely choose because they see its wisdom and strength. It is not unlike having visitors or newcomers to Santa Fe, when we see where we live with fresh appreciation through their eyes. I also ask them to join a Jewish community, because one cannot be a Jew alone. We are a people who claim each other as members of an eternal family when we gather together to study, pray, and do more good deeds than we can do alone.
Usually, I set up a six month to yearlong track of reading and meeting with me. They choose a topic about which to write a paper that is both scholarly and personal. They may choose a Biblical figure, part of the liturgy, or an aspect of history that has special meaning for them.
When we both feel that they are ready for the ritual of conversion, I invite them to choose a new name, a Hebrew name they will use when called to the Torah. They also pick a Jew whom they respect to be on a three-person committee called a Bet Din. I choose the other person who is a spiritual leader or an esteemed member of the community.
The Bet Din will convene on the day of conversion and ask the candidate questions. The questions are open-ended, such as why the person wants to be a Jew, and they can be specific, such as, “How do you plan to keep the Sabbath?” “Do you regret putting aside Jesus or any other path to be a Jew exclusively?” The answers are taken seriously but they are not hurdles to jump over. The intention of the questions is to help the convert understand that every Jew today has to ask these questions, too.
The next step is the mikveh, a ritual immersion that gives the convert a personal experience of the revelation at Sinai. The Talmud teaches us “As soon as the convert immerses and emerges, he or she is a Jew in every respect.” The water must be from gathered natural rain-fed waters, whether they are in a pool especially created for mikveh or a natural body of water such as a lake. The mikveh is such an important ritual that traditional Jewish communities must build one before they build a school or synagogue.
We use the mikveh not just for conversion. A sofer, or calligrapher of sacred text immerses before writing a single word. Brides and grooms immerse and so do married women according to the rhythm of their menstrual cycle. For most of Jewish history, mikveh has been part of Jewish conversion. Conservative and Orthodox rabbis require it, while Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis strongly recommend it.
Until this point, the conversion process has been cerebral; now it is physical, yet it touches the soul as well as the body. All water has its source from the river that flowed from Eden. Its connection to the beginning of the world resonates for the one who is ready to feel new and whole.
There are three immersions in which the water, like a lover, touches you everywhere, between each strand of hair. The first asks that you enter the water with all that has brought you here and to let go of what you no longer want to carry. The middle immersion takes everything of the moment and place into the water for you to absorb with wonder and gratitude. The final immersion is the womb. As we once floated without knowledge of the future, our lives still in a dream-like state, so we enter with the openness of a child to what this new chapter will bring us.
Enrobed and dripping, the new Jew joins all present in singing Halleluyah and Shehehiyanu. He or she says the Shema and I give them a certificate signed by the Bet Din and it announces the Jewish name that they have chosen.
The tradition teaches that it is forbidden ever to refer to someone as a convert. From this has come a gratuitous shyness around the subject. Those who have chosen this path should proclaim it proudly, just as if they had earned a black belt in karate. And born Jews shouldn’t avoid the subject as if the person has a disability that it isn’t polite to mention. Just as our community is eager to share news of simhas like marriages, babies, and Bar/Bat Mitzvah, we should do the same with conversions. Many of our finest rabbis and cantors are converts.
It’s time to open the doors to Judaism. I’d like to advertise in Pasatiempo that we welcome the stranger and regard the proselyte as especially beloved. The future of Judaism depends upon not only strengthening the connection of born Jews but upon our willingness to receive those who would scale the high wall to join us. May we open our arms to them.