Posted on May 24th, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Congregation, Featured, Intra-Faith, Leadership, Social Issues, Theology
Tagged with Conversion, Dialogue, ethics, Faith, Formation, God, identity, Judaism, pluralism, questioning, Questions, Religion, Scripture, seminary, tolerance, transformation
Dear potential convert,
I am excited to have this opportunity to talk to you about conversion. Conversion is an important act, both for the convert and for the Jewish people. Engaging with the historical understanding, processes, and rituals of conversion raises many questions about what it means to be a Jew. Who are we, as a people, and who do you, as a convert, become when you join this community that spans time and space?
As a child of a convert, these are questions that I have often asked myself and my fellow Jews. I am aware that there is a strand of Jewish thought, dating back to biblical times, that understands Judaism as an ethnicity. This view excludes people from joining in and emphasizes the genetic connection between members. Were this to be the only way to view Judaism, I would never be able to be a full member of this community. Through my studies this year in hilkhot giyur, the development of Jewish law about conversion, I was pleased to learn that there is another, just as ancient position. This view sees Judaism as a community of practice. Jews are people who share a set of beliefs and practices, and Judaism is a religion that is open to all those who wish to embrace these beliefs and practices.
In addition to these two primary strands of belief, there are countless other views of what it means to be Jewish. Judaism can be seen as a group of people connected to a certain portion of land (Ruth, Devarim, Bikkurim Tosefta, Bikkurim Mishnah 1:1, 1:2 and 1:5), as a spiritual lineage (Midrash Tanaim, Beresheit 17:5, Yerushalmi, Ruth), a people who share a mythology or history (Devarim 23:5, Tosafot Baba Batra 81a), a people linked by fear, insularity and self protection, a people formed through shared suffering (Yevamot 24), and a people either born into the religion or “reborn” into the religion through a set ritual. This is a long and varied list of frameworks to consider and I look forward to discussing these paradigms with you further as we embark together on this process.
Most importantly, from looking at these diverse and often juxtaposed viewpoints, I can say that Judaism is a tradition which encourages us to explore all possibilities—both those we readily embrace and those that are challenging to us—and to find our own articulation via this exploration. Speaking for myself, I can say that my understanding of Jewish identity has changed over time, and has included ideas that touch on many of the views articulated in our texts: Jews are people who go to synagogue, Jews care about social justice, Jews are the kids of Jewish parents, Jews speak Hebrew, Jews have a special connection to the land of Israel, Jews believe in Gd, Jews believe in the Torah, Jews are ethical and caring people, Jews love studying texts, Jews are committed to community. Of course, there is no one description that can capture what it means to be Jewish. For every definition one can think of, there are Jews who believe or behave oppositely.
From this we can learn that Judaism is not a religion that takes one hard line on any issue, but rather holds many competing perspectives in tension with one another. While we may likely find one or two of the framework listed above to be useful for our exploration of conversion, I believe our understanding of Jewish identity will be deeper and richer for having considered them all.
Starting the process of conversion means entering into a period of exploration and self-discovery. Most important to me is that you engage honestly, and whole-heartedly in this process, that you open your mind to seeing the world and yourself in a new way, yet to maintain your powers of discernment. In the Talmud the rabbis detail the process one should engage a potential convert in. It starts with a question: why? And ends with a ritual moment of transition: mikvah (immersion). The Rambam adds to this list by including the element of Judaism most essential to him: philosophical understanding and acceptance of Gd. If I may be so bold, I will follow the Rambam’s example by adding a few elements of my own that get at the heart of what I believe it is to be Jewish: to think critically, to sit with contradictions, and to open your heart wide to all that you can see and understand and to all that you will never comprehend yet deeply know to be true.
Image: Stadtarchiv Friedberg via Wikimedia Commons