It’s not just about chicken soup
Thank You Shabbat Four
March 9, 2018/23 Adar, 5778
Jews who Choose Judaism
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
Jewish tradition may ask us never to call someone who has converted to Judaism a “convert.” Rather he or she should only be called a “Jew.” Nonetheless, Jewish tradition extols converts in ways that make converts exemplars of Judaism to all Jews.
The most famous and oft-repeated tale from the Talmud emanates from conversion. In fact, it is so famous that I’ll simply start it, and someone can then can volunteer to finish it.
One day, a man went to Shammai, a great Tanna, “Teacher,” at the turn of the common era, who earned his livelihood as builder. The man said to Shammai, “I will convert to Judaism on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Deeming such a request impudent, Shammai brandished one of his builder’s tools like a weapon and chased the man away. The man then went to Hillel, the greatest Tanna of the time, and repeated the same request: “I will convert to Judaism on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”
Who would now like to finish the story with Hillel’s response?
…“What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”
If you are familiar with Christianity’s Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” based on the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament, where do you think Jesus learned this? Modern scholars have every reason to believe that Jesus was a disciple of Hillel.
Modern scholars also have every reason to believe that Hillel became the greatest Tanna of his day and the spiritual leader of the Jewish people, precisely because he hailed, not from Judea the Jewish nation, but from Egypt. The message he gave simply by his origins is that you don’t have to be a Judean to be a Jew. Judaism is not a religion of nationality, how much the more so geography. Unlike Zeus on Mount Olympus, Poseidon in the seas and Hades in the Underworld, God is the universal God. Thus Hillel became the champion of the great age of proselytism for Judaism across the Roman empire. So successful was Jewish proselytism of the day that the historian Josephus reported that one out of every ten citizens of the Roman empire was Jewish. By comparison, today’s American Jewish community is a mere 1.6 % of the U.S. population.
Once Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire circa 312 of the common era, conversion to Judaism and proselytism for Judaism became capital offenses, punishable by death. But when and where they could, people continued to convert to Judaism.
The story is told that the kingdom of the Khazars, a people residing on the Asian steppes between the Black and Caspian Seas, converted en masse to Judaism sometime roughly between the seventh and tenth centuries. Rabbi Judah HaLevi based his philosophical treatise, The Kuzari, on the Khazars’ mass conversion. The conversion of the Khazars also gave rise in our own day to Arthur Koestler’s best seller, The Thirteenth Tribe. However, modern scholars debate whether the Khazars’ mass conversion lies somewhere between fact and fiction. Nonetheless such grey areas have given light and inspiration to Judaism and the Jewish people ever since the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Torah.
Another such story is much closer to our time. Polish Count Valentine Potocki, was burned at the stake on Shavuot, 1749. While living in Paris, Potocki befriended a Jew who introduced him to the faith of Israel. The more Potocki learned, the more he was enchanted, until he converted to Judaism. When he returned to his native Poland, he was arrested for heresy, and tortured to recant his conversion. He refused. Facing execution, he was asked a final time to recant. Potocki responded, “I have discovered a chest filled with precious treasure. Why should I now give it away?”
Shavuot commemorates the revelation at Mount Sinai, the moment when all Jews embraced our covenant with God. Accepting the covenant is the essence of Judaism, and as such, the essence of converting to Judaism. As the story is told, as the flames engulfed Potocki, he recited Shema Yisrael.
The special grace note for Shavuot and conversion is the Haftarah assigned to the Holy Day: the Book of Ruth, highlighted by the words that Ruth spoke to her daughter in law Naomi, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay, your people will be my people and your God my God, where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” Ruth’s words of devotion became the biblical benchmark for conversion to Judaism.
And lest we otherwise overlook it, Abraham and Sarah were the first Jews but they were not born Jewish. Therefore Abraham and Sarah were also the first converts to Judaism! What we may have overlooked was not lost upon our ancient sages. They ruled that the person who converts to Judaism is greater than the person born Jewish, because the person who converts has received the Ruach HaKodesh, the Divine Inspiration to convert, just as Abraham and Sarah received that Divine Inspiration. Therefore when a person converting to Judaism takes on a Hebrew name, he or she is noted as the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah.
Over the years, I have worked with literally hundreds of people for conversion. I once asked Mrs. Marcovitz, the woman who ran the Mikveh for decades until the new Mikveh opened last year, “Which rabbi brings the most people to the Mikveh for conversion?” My question was borne of idle curiosity. She said, “You do.” Her answer surprised me then, but as I look back over these thirty-eight years that I’ve served the Pittsburgh community, Mrs. Marcovitz may indeed be correct.
Working with people who choose Judaism has been gratifying for me, in part because at times, I’ve sensed how difficult it has been for them.
For instance, I received a phone call on Monday from a person telling me that he’d like to convert to Judaism. I informed him that one of the requirements for conversion is attending the Introduction to Judaism course, which in fact began last night. With time of the essence, I suggested that we meet yesterday morning. He agreed. Yesterday morning came and went, and he never showed up, nor did I receive a phone call telling me why. This scenario was not all that unusual. If experience is any teacher, he may call me again and request that we reschedule our meeting. Experience also teaches that I may never hear from him again.
For every person I’ve guided in conversion over the years, there may be another person whose story is similar, if not identical, to yesterday’s no-show. More typically, they are people who meet with me once and never meet with again, nor with any other Reform rabbi, nor I am quite certain nor with any Conservative rabbi, and as logic would dictate, how much the more so, nor with any Orthodox rabbi.
I don’t think it’s necessarily easy to convert to Judaism. Perhaps this is true for every religion, but I speak with authority only regarding Judaism. I might cite dozens of different anecdotes describing the challenges that people face on their journey to Judaism, but ultimately one anecdote may tell all.
Years ago, I was meeting with someone who had completed all the requisites for conversion: Shabbat and holiday observances in the home and here at Temple, regular meetings with me for counsel along the path, completing the Introduction to Judaism course, team taught by the area Reform clergy, along with recommended readings. All these endeavors had taken the typical year or more. She was ready for her interview with the Beit Din and immersion in the Mikveh. She said to me, “How much chicken soup do I have to consume before I really feel Jewish?”
I have repeated this anecdote countless times because it is so illustrative of what being Jewish is and isn’t. There is no mitzvah among the 613 mitzvot that says “Thou shalt eat chicken soup.” But there are mitzvot to feed the hungry, to shelter and clothe the needy, to redeem the oppressed, on and on. Judaism is not a religion of common culture. Judaism is a religion of moral virtues and shared values, of rituals celebrated with family and community. One of the many reasons that synagogue affiliation is declining is because too many Jews have believed that eating bagels and lox while reading The New York Times on Sunday mornings are fundamental Jewish acts. Ditto now hummus and felafel. Or they shep naches, “take pride and delight” when Jews win Oscars, although this week not one Jew won a major Academy Award. …Or they feel shame at the antics this week of Sam Nunberg.
Neither is Judaism a religion conveyed by genes. My daughter Shira texted me this week that her fiance Ed has discovered through his father’s recent genetic testing that his DNA is 2% Jewish. Knowing that Ed is working his way through all the requisites to convert to Judaism, I texted back, “Pretty soon he’ll be 100% Jewish.”
Truth be told, we are living in a time when all of us, even those of us who were born Jewish, choose to be Jewish, or sadly, not to be Jewish. To wit, every demographic survey indicates that the fastest growing Jewish population in the U.S. are those who have no religious affiliation with Judaism.
Questions such as “How much chicken soup do I have to consume to feel really Jewish?” clarify and refine what it is to be Jewish. Being Jewish is not a “feeling.” Being Jewish is “doing;” keeping as many of the mitzvot to bring God into your life and mine, to assert God’s goodness in this world that sorely lacks for goodness.
A Midrash teaches, “The convert is dearer than the Jews who stood before Sinai. Why? Because had those Jews not heard the thunder and the blasts of the shofars, nor seen the lightning and the mountain quaking, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the one who converts has neither seen nor heard any of these things, yet has come and surrendered to the Holy One and accepted the reign of heaven on earth. Could anyone be dearer to God?”
To all of you who chose to be Jewish, thank you for making all of us better Jews.