Few subjects draw as much contention as conversion to Judaism. On the one hand the Israeli rabbinate sets up formidable blocks consisting entirely of religious obligations. On the other hand the liberal diaspora movements fall all over themselves with “outreach” to those with little knowledge or commitment. It is all too easy to forget what a great gift the righteous convert is to the Jewish people.
Righteous convert, ger tzedek, is not to imply that all converts are saints (although a proportion certainly are). Rather it is to distinguish them from “Jews-by-choice.” That infelicitous term confuses on all levels. In some ways all Jews are in it “by choice.” It is easy enough to leave Judaism. Unless the Nuremberg race laws are invoked one can simply choose to walk away from the Jewish community and the Jewish religion. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of Jews have done so. On the other hand many a convert feels he or she has had no choice, but was pulled inexorably toward their true identity.
The biblical Ruth is the paradigm of the ger tzedek. Ruth first learns about Judaism when she marries a Jew. While her husband is bad news, she adores her mother-in-law (it happens). Ruth converts under the aegis of the reluctant Naomi, telling her “Don’t cry for me to leave you, because wherever you go I will go, wherever you stay I will stay. Your people are my people and your God is my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.”
The order of Ruth’s commitments is telling and describes the ideal conversion. 1) She will not be dissuaded. 2) She follows Naomi’s way of life, the Jewish way. 3) She identifies completely as a Jew. 4) She accepts the God of Israel. 5) She consigns her future to that of the Jewish people. 6) She rejects the possibility of returning to her origins.
Notably only one of the commitments deals with religion (this is the Bible). Clearly Ruth understands that while a belief in the One God is essential, faith alone is not enough to become a Jew. No less important is behaving Jewishly, joining the community, sealing oneself into the people’s fate.
One can argue that many, if not most people born Jewish do not fulfill these requirements. Similarly, many, if not most, native-born Americans would not pass the test for naturalization. But American citizenship is understood to be precious and few would argue that standards should be lowered. Because the bar for becoming Jewish is so high, other Jews should aspire to reach that level, not bring converts down to a lower bar.
Entry into the tent of Jacob has never been easy. The journey is often long and lonely. For most of history converting from Christianity or Islam was punishable by death, so conversion itself could be martyrdom. Discouragement from outside and inside was the first of the hurdles that faced Ruth and all her spiritual descendants. The ability to overcome discouragement is an example for all Jews in all times.
The early Roman empire was a golden age of conversion. Then as now significant numbers of people had the education, time and means to explore intellectual and philosophical ideas. Then as now the world outside Judaism was materially rich but spiritually arid. Corruption and injustice caused a malaise among the elite.
Out of that world came such extraordinary gerim as Shmaya and Avtalyon and the forbears of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir. Onkelos, the greatest commentator of Scripture of that time—famed as The Translator—was a nephew of the emperor Nero. So significant were the contributions of gerim and their descendants that it was said that converts had a special, God-given gift for Torah study. Since they could not inherit the crown of the kingdom of Israel, or the crown of the priesthood, they received a leg up on achieving the crown of Torah.
Righteous converts are the equals of all Jews. As the saying goes, all Jewish souls were present at Sinai. But the righteous converts bring an additional gift to the celebration, the gift of modeling true Jewishness and adherence to Judaism. They are an inspiration to those who would deepen their understanding of Judaism, raise their enthusiasm for the Jewish way and find the joy in being a Jew.