What Difference Does Conversion Make?

Sermon given June 11, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Most of you have probably never heard of one of the greatest heroes in all of Jewish history. Her name was Rahav. Erin will read about her in tomorrow morning’s Haftarah. Rahav saved the Jewish people, as they were about to enter the Land of Israel, just before the Battle of Jericho. So, why don’t most of us know about Rahav? Is it because she was a woman? Or because she was a prostitute? Maybe the reason we don’t hear much about Rahav, is because she wasn’t Jewish. Or was she?

Rahav certainly started off her life not being an Israelite. She was a subject of the King of Jericho. And yet, when she hears of the wonders that God has done for the Jewish people in Egypt, and for forty years in the wilderness, she professes faith in the Lord of Israel. She puts her very life and the lives of her family in the hands of the Israelites whom she has saved. She links her fate with the welfare of Israel.

Most of us think of Ruth as the first convert. The truth be told, though, the Bible recounts no conversion ceremony whatsoever, not even for Ruth. Some would say that Abraham and Sarah are the first Jews-by-Choice, the first man and woman to begin their lives as idolaters and then come to serve the God of Israel. Whether one technically calls any of these biblical characters “converts,” we affirm the powerful importance of those who start in one spiritual place and end up in another, linking their destiny with the faith and people of Israel.

Abraham and Sarah found our people’s covenant with God. Rahav saves the very lives of the Israelites, entering the Promised Land, after the Exodus. Ruth becomes the ancestor of King David, and ultimately, of the messianic redeemer to come. To the extent that they are converts, then clearly their conversion makes a profound and significant difference to the history of the Jewish people.

History, though, deeply interfered with the way Jews viewed conversion. Throughout most of the centuries that Jews lived under Christian rule in Europe, conversion to Judaism was illegal, often punishable by death, both for the convert and for the Rabbi who solemnized the conversion. We won’t have trouble understanding why a later Rabbi would come to assert that “converts are as difficult for the Jewish people as leprosy.”

I suspect, though, that the Rabbi in question had more in mind than the threat to his own person, if he accepted a convert. Jews-by-Choice challenge the Jewish community in a variety of ways. Some might argue that converts could dilute our Jewishness. Without personal connection to the lineage and history of the Jewish people, some might think that Jews-by-Choice may not be as vigilant in their attachment to our Covenant. More often, though, Jews-by-Choice challenge those of us who were born Jewish to take our own Judaism more seriously. Frequently, a conversion candidate will ask me how these Jewish folks, who have been offered this incredible gift of having been born Jewish, can take this blessing for granted, rarely attending worship services and tolerating their own cursory knowledge of Torah and Jewish tradition. More than once, I have seen a convert lead a born-Jewish spouse or significant other into much more punctilious observance of our Jewish faith.

Conversion does make a tremendous difference on the immediate Jewish family of the Jews-by-Choice. Not only the Jewish spouse is affected. Here at Temple Beth-El, we rejoice in a phenomenon that some might find surprising. A large percentage of our Jews-by-Choice are folks who have been living in interfaith relationships for a number of years, sometimes even decades. A few have even converted after divorce from a Jewish spouse. Most of these folks have already been raising Jewish children, and have been deeply involved in the Jewish life of their families. In a sense, one might expect that these conversions wouldn’t change anything. For a long time, these families have observed Judaism, to the exclusion of other religious faiths and practices. And yet, the conversion, and perhaps the conversion process, infuses these families with new spirit. The children, who might never have thought of their non-Jewish parent as an adherent of any other religion, per se, nevertheless come to see Judaism in a new light. Their parents, for some months, at least, spend more time at the Temple than the children. The children come to see Judaism as a desirable pursuit for adults.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic about conversion to Judaism at Temple Beth-El is that the largest group of our Jews-by-Choice are not in a committed relationship with a Jew at all. These are single folks, occasionally married couples, and even families, who come to Judaism on their own. They learn about Judaism, and they study and worship with us for many months. They join the covenant of Judaism, often with no Jewish relatives and little Jewish support system in their friendship networks. Temple Beth-El is their Jewish family and community.

I hope that by crediting those individuals who come to Judaism on their own, I am not heard as denigrating those who convert in anticipation of marriage to a Jew. Even folks who come here, exploring conversion in advance of a contemplated Jewish wedding, are choosing Judaism because they believe in our faith and they wish to practice our tradition. They are making a powerful decision, with knowledge and commitment.

Given the rigors of our conversion program, nobody could convert by default. We offer no “quickie” conversion here. Indeed, more than a few Temple members have told me that they are sure that they would never qualify for conversion at Temple Beth-El. Not only does class meet every Wednesday or Sunday, but weekly worship attendance is also expected. On holidays, our conversion candidates attend services that most Temple members may not even realize exist. They pass a serious exam, and they learn to read Hebrew. They are individually counseled by Arlene Dryer at Jewish Family and Children’s Service, and they meet in group sessions, facilitated by Gayle Kipp, who has been specially trained by the Union for Reform Judaism. Perhaps most challenging of all, they meet individually with each of the Rabbis, who seek to explore every aspect of the thought process leading to conversion. The folks who were blessed on the bimah this evening, and others like them, have “been through the ringer,” if you will. They have joined our Covenant with deep knowledge and firm conviction.

Our own congregation is most welcoming of converts. Jews-by-Choice serve as Trustees of our congregation. Until two days ago, one of them was an officer of the congregation. Occasionally, I look around at an adult study class, and I realize that, without Jews-by-Choice and their families, the room would be virtually empty.

Rarely, though, I still hear echoes of the old canard that converts are not “real” Jews. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our ancient Rabbis declared that, once a convert emerges from the mikvah, from the ritual bath that solemnizes the conversion, she or he is “Yehudi l’chol davar, Jewish for all purposes.” Moreover, I ask all born Jews in this room to examine the color of your skin. Does anybody actually think that this color naturally occurs in the Middle East? The truth is that all of us, children of Abraham and Sarah, are children of converts, somewhere along the path of history.

The greatest value of Jews-by-Choice in our congregation may be seen in an examination of this week’s Torah portion. Moses sends spies, to report if the Land of Israel is a good one, and to determine whether or not it can be conquered, and if so, how. Perhaps these Jews-by-Choice are our scouts. They have spied out the land, first as outsiders. They have looked at our faith; they have taken up our practices; they have joined our community; they have found Judaism to be good. Just as the spies found clusters of grapes so large that they had to be carried on a pole borne by two strong men, our conversion candidates have found our covenant to be fruitful.

Sometimes, those of us who are born Jewish are like the other ten spies, or are like the community of Israelites. We imagine the task of maintaining Judaism to be gigantic. We can’t fathom weekly worship attendance or regular study of Torah as adults. We kvetch if anybody actually imposes Jewish obligations upon us.

Let us be grateful that Judaism has always included conversion, preventing ours from being purely a tribal faith. Let us be inspired by the spies among us, the Jews-by-Choice who have scouted out our faith and embraced it with fervor. Let those of us who were born Jewish find the blessing that our Jews-by-Choice have revealed to us. Let us all embrace Judaism with joy.