mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)
mabfan

Coverting to Judaism

Amidst all the other wonderful news today, a friend of ours completed her conversion to Judaism. Nomi accompanied her to the mikvah for the culmination of this phase of her religious and spiritual growth, for which she was very grateful.

That conversion, and the post Nosy Questions by another friend of mine who converted to Judaism, got me thinking. As Shimshonit notes in her post, many of us who are born Jewish have an odd reaction when meeting a convert, which is to ask them point-blank why they would choose to convert to our religion. I doubt this sort of thing happens in other religions. I can't see a Catholic person, for example, expressing surprise that a new acquaintance of theirs had chosen to follow a Catholic life. But those of us who are Jewish are often surprised that someone would choose to follow a Jewish life, and sad to say, to the dismay of many converts we often express our surprise out loud.

Shimshonit's post is more concerned with the etiquette of responding when someone asks such a personal question. I'm more interested in the flip side of the story, though, which is to wonder why a Jew would ask such a question in the first place. After thinking it through, I think I've come up with a few reasons.

Let's begin with the obvious one: anti-Semitism. Almost everywhere in the world, Judaism is a minority religion, and even for those Jews who choose not to practice it, being Jewish can be a daily struggle. For many of us, it doesn't seem logical for a person to choose to affiliate with a group that has been persecuted for many years and is still marginalized today. Furthermore, many anti-Semites will still bear their irrational hatred against some who was born Jewish, even if that person converted to some other religion. So if someone converted to Judaism and then changed their mind, they might still face anti-Semitism for the rest of their life. For those of us born Jewish, it seems an odd burden for anyone to choose.

Furthermore, anti-Semitism of the past caused Jewish communities to be skittish about a non-Jew's desire to convert in general. In many countries, laws were passed forbidding Jews from soliciting converts, which is one of the many reasons why we tend not to proselytize even today (except to other Jews). I suspect there's still a tribal unease that the non-Jew expressing interest in converting might be insincere, because of the history of non-Jewish spies catching Jews in elaborate stings and bringing them up on charges of trying to convert non-Jews. So this skittishness would naturally transmute into a wariness toward someone expressing interest in conversion.

The next obstacle we would see to conversion is the bizarre customs of Judaism. Now, personally, I don't consider them bizarre, as they are the customs I mostly grew up with, and for me they're natural. But I have little problem viewing my lifestyle from the outside, and realizing that a lot of what we do can seem a little odd. (I think it was Robert Heinlein's character Lazarus Long who said that one person's religion is another person's belly laugh.) Those of us who enjoy these observances, however, can usually discuss them in the greater context of how they enrich our lives. So why would we flip around and drop our jaws when meeting someone who chose to adopt these customs into their own life?

My guess is that it once again has to do with our minority status in the world. I know that when I try to explain my customs of keeping the sabbath or keeping kosher to non-Jewish friends, some of it can come off sounding, well, a little weird. And truth to tell, I've had close friends who weren't Jewish confide that they do think my customs are weird. So again, when much of the world tells you that your lifestyle is an odd one, you start to wonder why anyone would choose it if it hadn't been chosen for them from the beginning.

While I do think all of the above is relevant to the question, from a religious perspective there's an even more important reason why we wouldn't expect anyone to convert voluntarily to Judaism. According to our beliefs, you don't have to be Jewish to benefit from Judaism. Like most religions, Judaism has an afterlife concept, and although the emphasis in the religion is on the here and now, we do maintain a belief in some sort of world to come. But you don't have to be Jewish to earn a share in that world to come. A non-Jew who decides that Judaism has it "right," as it were, can choose to follow a set of seven principles called the Noachide laws, and as long as they follow those principles, they can know that they too will enjoy whatever afterlife awaits those of us who practice Judaism.

The concept that non-Jews can share in the world to come is even made explicit at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel. There's a whole section devoted to righteous Gentiles, non-Jews who saved Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust. The Jewish belief is that these righteous Gentiles have the same standing as the high priests of Israel.

On the other hand, many other religions include a need to believe in their tenets and to practice their customs in order to benefit from the afterlife. For example, there is a Christian belief that one must be "saved" in order to go to heaven. (Before I continue, let me emphasize here that I understand that not all Christians share in this belief.) According to this belief, there are some Christians who would say that without accepting Jesus as one's savior, the good deeds performed by a non-Christian are simply not enough to get the non-Christian into heaven.

(My older brother actually learned this as a hard fact in college. In one of those late-night college bull sessions filled with blunt honesty, a Catholic acquaintance of his admitted to the belief that my older brother's soul was eventually destined for hell. This was in spite of the guy's belief that my older brother was essentially a good and decent human being. My older brother shrugged it off, since the guy clearly didn't let his belief stand in the way of being friends with non-Catholics; but I was somewhat taken aback when I heard the story.)

So that's the third and final piece from what I can see. The born Jews who ask converts why they would choose to convert to Judaism might well be looking at it from this perspective. From a cost-benefit analysis, it's a lot easier to follow seven precepts than 613 commandments, and in the end, the result is the same. So if you don't have to do it, why bother?

As it turns out, I also think I have an answer to that question.

Years ago, when I was a callow teenager too stupid to realize how rude I was being, I asked a recent convert to the Russian Orthodox church why she had chosen to convert. I was doing a paper for Social Studies on the Russian Orthodox church and had arranged to interview some of the members of a church near my high school. One of them, the secretary of the church, told me that she had just converted within the year, and without thinking I blurted out my question. She was very gracious, though, and without rancor she answered me.

I don't remember her exact words, but she said something like this: When you have finally found the perfect way to live your life, you want to start living your life like that as soon as possible.

So for those fellow born-Jews out there who would wonder why someone would convert to our religion, the answer is simple: believe it or not, it's because they want to be Jewish.

My own feelings are that the converts to my religion validate my own choice to remain Jewish and to practice my religion, and for that I thank them.
Tags: jewish, personal
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