A Jewish conception of conversion
Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster examines Jewish approaches to conversion and how new believers are welcomed into the fold.
On the second day of Passover, we begin counting the Omer, which lasts 49 days until the next major biblical holiday of Shavuot (Pentacost).
The Omer reminds us of steps or stages on the path of Exodus out of Egypt and through the Sea of Reeds, followed by the journey through the desert until the Torah is received at Sinai.
But given the miracle of the founding of the State of Israel, celebrated immediately in May 1948 by ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the Old City of Jerusalem (committed to the struggle for their own lives) in a religious service of resurrection and revival, similar in their In view of the recent Passover Exodus festival, this bold act, which takes place in an underground synagogue, sparked a number of other annual celebrations that are now celebrated every year for this period.
First, of course, we remember Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), which this year takes place on April 28. Much learning and study takes place before and on this date, in which we remember the extermination of two-thirds of the Jews of Europe.
Then, on May 4 and 5, the Day of Remembrance of Fallen Soldiers and Other Victims of Terrorism effortlessly turns into Israel’s Independence Day, to mark the date mentioned above when the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, announced the establishment of the State of Israel, which despite all odds survived for 74 years.
But there is still nearly a month to go until the next big Shavuot holiday, when we not only celebrate the giving of the Torah on Sinai, but also the book of Ruth, which we are also beginning to study at this time.
More of that closer in time – and it’s worth noting in passing that this year’s peak Shavuot festival coincides with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. No doubt, also more of that in June.
It is strangely strange to count the Omer for 49 days while being aware that Europe is once again fighting against a war, while the glorious imperial music, written especially by British composers for the previous great royal and patriotic events, strikes waves.
Does Handel count as an English composer? I hope so. Living in this country, Handel wrote so many oratorios celebrating biblical stories, including those of King Solomon and Queen Esther, not to mention the arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Zadok the priest, both based on the biblical books of samuel and kings. But many other great English composers also write in this vein – in no particular order: Thomas Tallis, Henry Purcell, William Walton, Hubert Parry, Arthur Bliss, Malcolm Arnold, Eric Coates, Vaughn Williams and the great Edward Elgar, who is particularly beloved in Israel for his cello concerto played during the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 during the Six Day War, by Jacqueline du Pré and her husband Daniel Barenboim.
This year, for the first time under Covid conditions, I went out for the Seder and was even asked to read a passage from the Passover Haggadah. The passage I was asked to read is from Genesis 15, and is known in English as the “covenant of coins” passage. It was the covenant made between Gd and Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, who was the first to recognize that there is only one Gd and that conversion is not about being coercive but to influence our neighbors by personal example.
Recently, after listening to and reading the headlines doing the rounds in the media, I couldn’t help but compare the Jewish attitude towards conversion to that of other very powerful religions, which take a different approach.
Over the past few days, we have been studying what to say to someone who wants to convert to Judaism. The Talmud states the following, which has become the paradigmatic approach of candidates for conversion to Judaism:
“Do you not know that at present the Jewish people are anguished, repressed, despised and harassed, and that trials are inflicted upon them?
If the candidate for conversion answers: “I know, and although I am unworthy (to join the Jewish people and share their pain, I nevertheless desire to do so”), then he is immediately accepted.
There is here a presumption of endless oppression, which should continue, and it is therefore at the very least curious that anyone wants to link his fate with that of the Jewish people.
And the court continues to inform the future convert of some of the lenient mizvot (commandments) and some of the strict mitzvot: the obligation to leave gleanings for the poor in the corner of his field, for example.
The court wants to make sure that the potential convert is truly aware of the real difficulty of things, by exposing the specific religious restrictions supported by Jews and the consequences of their transgression.
Only after this does the court finally outline some of the benefits of being Jewish.
They say to the candidate for conversion, “Know that the world to come is made only for the righteous, and if you observe the mitzvot, you will deserve it. Know also that the Jewish people at the present time are unable to receive their full reward in this world.’
In other words, there are good things about being Jewish, at least ultimately. And if you can handle a little delayed gratification, there is a reward in the end, but probably not in this world.
So what are we to make of this half-hearted embrace of people wanting to join the Jewish fold?
A religion of pessimism? Probably not. More like a religion of seeing things as they really are in the world as it really is, and therefore not wanting to inflict Jewish suffering on other people.
But here’s the thing! Despite all of the above, there has actually been a huge influx of converts into my own Shul, and I think this phenomenon needs to be replicated all over the world. What the reason is, I have no idea, but I think one of the main reasons may be the non-coercive nature of relations between Jews and their neighbors, and even towards those neighbors who show a keen interest in the Jewish religion for good or for bad.
Some may think that this is a mature way of going about life and that forced conversions or even self-righteous evangelism, exemplified today, for example, by religious leaders declaring as fact that they know the mind of Gd, can certainly make a statement at the time, but such an example usually proves harmful in the long run, both to others and to the religion itself.
Because no one knows the mind of God and all we can do is the best we can.
So as we ascend the little hill called Sinai (not at all tall or attractive), let us constantly keep in mind the longest reign this country has ever known, ruled by a monarch who herself gave the example and of which The next Platinum Jubilee coincides with the Jewish feast of Shavuot, the feast of conversion, the feast of second chances, the feast of new beginnings for all.