October 21, 2004
Choosing to be Jewish
Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)
Jews-by-choice are one of our community's greatest gifts. They represent an ever-growing population that continues to invigorate and enrich the Jewish people. By the year 2020, sociology professor Egon Mayer predicts Jews-by-choice will number 10 percent of the Jewish community living in the United States.
Our forefather Abraham -- the first person to enter the religion of Israel -- was a Jew-by-choice. Not knowing the legacy he would leave behind, he willfully changed his physical and spiritual environment in order to become Jewish. This week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha, highlights Abraham's conversion -- along with his wife Sarah's, who is also a Jew-by-choice.
While methods of conversion to Judaism have changed from the time of the Bible until today, one procedural requirement can be found within most of our movements. A non-Jew wishing to become Jewish must sit before a beit din, or rabbinic court, comprised of three rabbis. Unlike Abraham and Sarah, most Jews are born Jewish. And unlike those wanting to become Jewish today, native-born Jews have never sat before a rabbinic tribunal wanting to convert. Having had the privilege of serving on many such panels, allow me to share some of the questions posed to one wishing to join the Jewish people.
Typically, the first question asked is the most basic, but arguably, the most important: Why do you want to be Jewish? The question does not ask how do you keep a kosher kitchen, or what percent of your income do you give to tzedakah? For certain, those are important issues. But underlying one's Jewish identity is the question: Why? Is it Jewish thought, or culture that animates your love for Judaism; perhaps it revolves around community and Jewish values, or it is an expression of your love for God?
Whatever the reason, this week's Torah portion points out that Abraham and Sarah's "conversions" were completed once the Hebrew letter hey was added to their names (Genesis 17:1-2, 15). According to rabbinic interpretation, hey is a letter that implicates God. It expresses human allegiance and devotion to our Creator. Once God became central to their lives, Abraham (Abram) and Sarah (Sarai) were ready to fulfill their divine mission as Jewish exemplars to the world.
Those seated before a rabbinic court are also asked to share their views on God. More specifically they are asked: In what way does your belief in God affect your behavior? After all, if one's belief in God does not positively influence one's actions, then belief is purely theoretical, or worse, irrelevant. Rabbi Heschel was correct: "If God is not of supreme importance, God is of no importance!"
As the rabbinic proceeding continues, more questions are posed. For example: If you invite people into your home, what would indicate to them that they have entered a Jewish household? Are their mezuzot hanging on the doors, Jewish books on your shelves, an atmosphere of love and peace felt in the house? Given the poor affiliation rate among Jews, the following question is raised: Do you promise to establish a Jewish home and to participate actively in the life of the synagogue and of the Jewish community? With popular trends opposing circumcision of babies, this question is asked: If you should be blessed with children, do you promise to rear them in the Jewish faith, and to have all male children brought into the covenant of Abraham through the rite of brit milah? This week's reading mentions that Abraham was 99 years old when he underwent circumcision.
The commitment and love that both Abraham and Sarah displayed to God, the Jewish people and all humanity is inspiring. Most inspiring, however, is the fact that they were Jews-by-choice. Abraham and Sarah did not sit before a rabbinic court prior to their entering the Jewish people. If anything, they were served by a higher court, one where God presided. For the rest of us, we must struggle with the same questions posed to those wishing to enter the Jewish religion. And like Jews-by-choice who successfully defend their knowledge of Judaism, and loyalty to the Jewish people before a rabbinic court, may we prove to be equally worthy.
This column originally appeared in The Journal on Nov. 10, 2000.
Michael Gottlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma'arav in Santa Monica.