Everyone knows that in Orthodox Jewish Law: if the mother is Jewish, the children are Jewish; if only the father is Jewish, the children are not Jewish. Why is it that Jewish women can make Jews; and Jewish men can’t?
The answer might go back to the first two Jews; Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah. Genesis 12:5 states, “Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all their accumulated property, and the souls they had made in Haran and they left to go to the land of Canaan.
Since it is impossible for any human to make a soul, this verse must refer to the people that Abram and Sarai influenced to join them in their religious quest.” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 39:14)
The Zohar says that all these converts formed a large caravan whose merits protected Abram and Sarai as they traveled from city to city. Ever since that time the merits of converts to Judaism have added to the strength of the Jewish people and thus helped protect us on our long journey.
If this is true why do many Jews fail to encourage non-Jews to become Jewish? Sometimes they fear a negative reaction on the part of the non-Jew or on the part of the larger non-Jewish society.
The Midrash correctly indicates that Abraham and Sarah both influenced non-Jews to become Jewish but it doesn’t explain why Sarai made more converts than Abraham. He should have influenced more non-Jews to become Jewish than Sarah since he traveled around more and had greater opportunities to meet people.
Unfortunately, Abraham sometimes rebuffed non-Jews. Rabbi Yohanan claimed that Abraham “barred people from entering under the wings of the Shekinah” (converting to Judaism) and that is why his descendants were enslaved in Egypt. (Talmud Nedarim 32a) Abraham is specifically criticized for discouraging Timna the sister of Lotan (Genesis 36:12) who the Rabbis determined wanted to convert to Judaism.
Because Timna was rebuffed by Abraham she married a pagan. Her son Amalek passed on Timna’s resentment of being pushed away by Abraham, to his mother’s descendants who eventually became the tribe that attacked the Jewish people when they were on the way to Mount Sinai. (Talmud Sanhedrin 99b)
Thus our sages taught that a negative attitude toward non-Jews who are interested in becoming Jewish can lead to anti-Semitism in later generations.
How do we know that Sarah was more successful in encouraging non-Jews to convert to Judaism? Years later when God tells Abraham, “Abide by everything that Sarah tells you” (Genesis 21:12) the Midrash explains, “You should listen to Sarah since in prophecy she is on a higher level than you.”
How could Sarah be on a higher spiritual level than Abraham? Because she influenced more non-Jews to become Jewish than Abraham did. This might be the reason more women than men become Jewish every year; and the women seem more Jewishly committed because they [see below] have souls with roots that stretch back to mother Sarah.
For centuries it was much harder to make converts because almost all Non-Jews lacked a Jewish soul; but according to a rabbinic Midrash all the Jews standing at Sinai were accompanied by the souls of all the non-Jews who were destined to become Jewish in the future. So they had Jewish souls, and as the centuries passed more and more of these Jewish souls were recent Gilgulim-reincarnations of their own Jewish ancestors, as the following autobiography indicates.
My Story by Eliana Gabrielle Kimberly Tillman 1/15/11
My first Jewish memory was when I was in elementary school. I don’t remember which grade it was, but I do remember it was music class. It was in December so we were learning holiday songs. In addition to the songs that were heard everywhere during that time of year the teacher also taught us a couple of new songs that I had never heard before.
We also learned to dance the Hora. Despite the fact that I had never heard these songs or danced this dance, I distinctly remember feeling that they were familiar to me.
My immediate family never attended church on a regular basis. My extended family who we rarely saw were different in so many ways than any of us. They all spent a lot of time and effort memorizing parts of their bible. They then used the passages they memorized as ways to make themselves feel superior to others. When we did go to church it was a Presbyterian church, but more often than not we came up with excuses why not to go.
While in high school, I had the biggest crush on one of my brother’s friends. When I found out that he was Jewish, I liked him even more. If I had been asked, I wouldn’t have been able to say why that made him more attractive, but it did. Of course, no one even knew that I had a crush on him. I later found out that he had decided he didn’t want to be Jewish and started studying Buddhism.
I just couldn’t help but think that he had been given the gift of being born Jewish and he was giving it back. It made no sense to me. I later learned that he had been adopted by Jewish parents and just didn’t feel connected. I certainly understood that feeling.
Many times through the years I would see a movie or read a book with a Jewish character and I would feel a connection. I don’t know how old I was when I first learned about the Holocaust, but I was devastated. I cried like my whole family had died. I couldn’t understand why others seemed so untouched by it.
I, on the other hand, was moved by everything Jewish. I met Jewish people through the years and always wanted to ask questions to find out more about the faith, but felt that it was not allowed for me.
When I was 20 years old, I married my ex-husband. He is Catholic. I promised him that I would attend classes to learn about Catholicism. I still had the same questions that I had always had growing up. Why was Good Friday good? How could the day on which the person who was supposedly part God and part man was crucified be at all good? If Jesus was the Messiah, then why wasn’t there world peace?
If God was kind and just, why would people who had never heard of Jesus have to go to hell? I had many more questions which always received the same reply. You have to take it on faith.
The man who led the adult classes said one day in response to one of my many questions “what used to be obligations are now invitations”. I was glad at least that I didn’t have to agree with everything, but I knew that the disagreements I had were not limited to little details about whether to go to confession or agreeing with whether priests should be allowed to get married.
Still I tried. I went to church and said the prayers. I thought if I said them enough, I would eventually believe them. Every time we would go I felt like it was obvious to everyone that I was just saying the words and not feeling them. Eventually I didn’t say the words anymore that I didn’t believe. Then I just stopped going.
I then started having recurring dreams. One was about going to synagogue. In the dream, I would enter the synagogue and wonder why I was there, not being Jewish and all. Prayers would begin and I would sit down. As I had never attended synagogue, the prayers were indistinct and blurry. After a few minutes of listening, however, I would feel this wonderful sense of peace and comfort like I had never felt before in a church.
In another dream that often repeated itself, I would be so very thirsty. I would drink glass after glass of water, soda, juice, etc. and the minute it would touch my lips it would turn to air. These dreams would both end when I converted.