Jewish life is nothing if not interesting! We are a religion, yet we retain historical and emotional ties to the Land of Israel and a shared destiny. We are a people, but we cherish a set of holy writings, rituals, and faith. Jewish tradition mandates a particular attire, sexual ethics, dietary restrictions, yet lacks a central authority or enforcing agency. (If you hate organized religion, you’ll love Judaism!). The ethics of Judaism have transformed and elevated the world, yet we are just as well known for our humor, our shtick, and our cuisines. And, finally, we share a language (Hebrew), a calendar (festivals, holy days, and Shabbat), and a history, yet we continue to welcome newcomers into our midst, on equal footing with born Jews.
How do we make sense of this dizzying diversity and raucous contradiction? What is the kind of identity that “Jew” bestows, that integrates peoplehood, faithfulness, history, innovation, and above all, hope?
Embracing the Stranger
To explore this whirl of contradictions is to dive deep into the heart of Jewish existence. Conversion, for us, is no peripheral concern. Instead, it expresses our very purpose in the world. Consider that the word “proselyte” specifies a person converting to Judaism. Derived from the Greek for “stranger,” it was the primary term for such a person during the Second Temple period, when rabbinic Judaism emerged. Stranger is no neutral, marginal term for a faithful Jew: The single most repeated command in the Torah is the imperative to maintain one law for both the Israelite and the stranger. We are commanded to care for the stranger, for we, too, were strangers in Egypt. In a very real sense, how we treat converts and would-be converts is our chance to rectify the way we ourselves have been treated by an often-bigoted humanity, to demonstrate God’s love and welcome for all, to help heal the world.
No surprise, then, that in eras of relative freedom, conversion was normative in Jewish life, as we allowed our hope and optimism to shine. In the relative freedom of the Second Temple period, Jews were accused in the Christian bible as being willing to “compass sea and land to make one proselyte” (Matthew 23:15). Rabbi Eliezer relays the instruction, “When a person comes to you in sincerity to be converted, do not reject him, but on the contrary encourage him” (Mekhilta, Amalek 3.) Indeed, this embrace is recognized as the implementation of God’s very nature: “Proselytes are beloved; in every place God considers them as part of Israel.”
Our mission in the world is to express this robust optimism and faith in the steady appeal of God and Torah: “The Holy Blessing One exiled Israel among the nations only in order to increase its numbers with the addition of proselytes” (Pesahim 87b). Not only is it the mission of the Jewish people as a whole, but each individual Jew is given the opportunity to imitate the Creator: “Whoever befriends a proselyte is considered as that person’s creator” (Genesis Rabbah 84:4).
Of course, this inspiring boldness was not Judaism’s only voice. In times of persecution and oppression, when fear and rigidity took over, we moved away from welcoming converts, defensively circling our wagons. Amid the persecutions of the late middle ages, Solomon Luria gave voice to this defensiveness when he wrote, “Would that the seed of Israel continue to stand fast and hold its own among the nations throughout the days of our exile and no stranger be added to us who is not of our nation.” Some saw the Jewish soul as qualitatively distinct (and superior) to that of a non-Jew: the poet Yehudah Ha-Levi and the Chassidic classic Tanya are both marred by that chauvinism.
But the dominant voice, the halakhic position, remains one of courage and welcome: “When a proselyte comes to be converted, one receives the proselyte with an open hand so as to bring the proselyte under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 7; Leviticus Rabbah 2:9). In his halakhic writings, the great Maimonides insists, “Anyone who becomes a proselyte throughout the generations and anyone who unified the Name of the Holy One … is a pupil of our father Abraham … for the Creator has already chosen you and has separated you from the nations and given you the Torah” (Responsa Rambam, ed. Friedman, no. 42).
The Challenge In Our Time
Our generation faces the age-old existential choice: do we insist on living in the warm sunlight of hope and courage, or do we retreat into the dank shadow of fear and defensiveness? Will our Judaism express the resilience, flexibility, and joy that God’s love ought to inspire, or will we mute Judaism’s true vitality in response to the disappointments and dangers of the world’s barbarities? Is Judaism to be a derekh hayyim, a way of life, or a siyyag, an enclosing fence?
This choice – offered in the Torah as God’s invitation to choose life – speaks with particular insistence to today’s Jews. Living generally in lands of democracy – North and South America, Europe, Israel – we face an age of unparalleled openness and communication. The internet and the ease and frequency of travel make this truly one world, with friendships and ties that cross borders and time zones every day. This openness carries hazards – that Jews no longer will retain loyalty to Judaism based primarily on fear or social ostracism, that some Jews will choose to walk away. That Jews now socialize broadly and enjoy professions and associations open to them across religious and ethnic lines means that a link to Judaism cannot be assumed by default. It must be earned.
Those realities emerge from a quick review of statistics, taken from the National Jewish Population Study, 2000-2001 (and they have only intensified since):
• Almost 80 percent of Jews in the United States over the age of 30 were born to two Jewish parents. That number declines to 48 percent for those Jews who are between 18 and 24 years old.
• This fact has significance for other Jewish commitments: Of the respondents with two Jewish parents, 41 percent affirm that Jews everywhere share a common destiny (as opposed to 24 percent with one Jewish parent), 53 percent feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people (as opposed to 33 percent), and 36 percent feel strongly attached to Israel (as opposed to 4 percent).
Given these statistics, it is not surprising that some people respond in fear by creating a false dichotomy of inreach opposed to outreach, as though there is a finite amount of energy available to address Jewish vitality and passion, as though we could either attend to born Jews or ignore them to attend to a broader population, as though making a vigorous case for Judaism to interested non-Jews would not grab the attention of indifferent Jews.
The time to repudiate this self-fulfilling fear is now. We must stand resolutely, clearly, for a richer Jewish engagement with anyone open to the joy, wisdom, and vigor of Jewish spirituality, observance, and learning. Judaism’s affirmation of oneness is an insistence that the Holy One of Israel showers love on all creation, on every person, and that every person is a source of holiness we dare not neglect.
For 10 years, I was a congregational rabbi at a medium-sized suburban synagogue. Each year, I insisted on teaching an 18-week introduction to Judaism. At the end of the course, I would convene a beit din (Jewish court) to assist all those interested in converting. Over that decade, we helped more than 200 people become Jewish. (At least eight went on to become rabbis!) These people shared their newfound learning, spirit, and joy with the other members of the congregation and community, giving the lie to the supposed opposition between inreach and outreach. As a result, our congregation grew from 200 membership units to 600. Each year, these new Jews would persuade their born-Jewish friends to enroll in the course, and so the congregation grew more observant, more learned, more engaged with each passing year.
A few summers ago, I witnessed that same miracle in East Africa. Having had the privilege of ordaining Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the first African rabbi of sub-Saharan Africa, I traveled to Uganda with a beit din of Conservative rabbis. We interviewed and converted about 250 people – from Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and the Lemba tribe in South Africa. United by our love of Torah and desire to serve God, these questing Africans gave us the gift of renewed passion and gratitude for our beautiful heritage.
In an open society, there is no way to exclude interested people from a good thing, nor should we want to. Today, at the American Jewish University, it is my good fortune to supervise one of North America’s largest such programs, the Miller Introduction to Judaism. Each year, hundreds of people find meaning and identity in the warm embrace of Jewish faith. We are now embarking on a campaign to expand significantly and diversify our program to meet the changing needs of today’s seeking people. Using group study of classical texts, experiential learning at the Brandeis-Bardin campus, drama, literature, and cooking, we intend to share the rich treasures of Judaism with the broadest possible community. Some students will want to convert and we will welcome them. Some will not be ready for that step, and we will welcome them too.
Let those who are hungry for learning find sustenance with us. Let those who lack community find a home in Judaism. Let those who are wounded by a callous and indifferent world find healing in the balm of Jewish ethics and let those buffeted by the enervating distractions of contemporary materialism find depth and harbor in a robust relationship with God, Torah, and the Jewish people.
In reaching out to these thousands of people, at the same time we will remind ourselves of the greatest privilege we never earned – being the people of Torah, lovers of oneness, part of Am Yisrael.