Weekly Sermon

BEHAR 5782

 

BEHAR 5782

The Blessing of Converts

I have been a rabbi now for most of my life, and I can say that one of the most fulfilling things I do is to facilitate a candidate for conversion to become a Jew. There is always such a glow and excitement on their faces. They truly feel that their conversion is a transformation of their soul, and that’s why today, we call converts, “Jews by Choice.”

It isn’t always easy for a convert. People do have their prejudices, and sometimes—but never here in Shaarei Shamayim—the convert is the victim. How many times over the years have I heard, “She’ll always be a shiktza (a derogatory name for a non-Jewish woman),” or “Once a goyisha cup (goy in Yiddish is a non-Jew and cup is a head), always a goyisha cup?” What about all those jokes, like the old one about the convert standing in the mikveh to complete the conversion when the convert yells out to the rabbi, “Do I really have to go under the water? I’m so afraid of putting my head under water.”  

         The rabbi reassures the convert and again explains how important it is to have the holy waters of the mikveh completely envelop you. But the frightened convert is not sure he can go through with it and asks, “What will happen if I only go into the water up to my neck?” 

         The rabbi responds, “Most of you will be Jewish, but you will always have a goyisha cup!”

We may chuckle when we hear these jokes, but they’re not funny—and they belie the strong sense of commitment to Jewish life that today’s converts have. The Torah (Lev. 25:23) today tells us that in Gd’s eyes, all Jews are converts: V’haaretz lo timacheyr litzmitut, ki li Haaretz, ki geyrim…atem imadi (The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine [Gd’s], for you are converts with Me). Gd calls us “His converts!”

        The Torah repeatedly enjoins us to love the convert, and instructs us (Lev. 19:33-34) on how we should treat converts:

          And if a convert comes to live among you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The convert that lives with you shall be to you as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt; I am the Lrd your Gd. It’s clear that the Torah commands us to “love the convert,” and I am proud to say that our shul has always made converts feel at home.

        Soon we will celebrate Shavuot. On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth. We learn from Ruth—a Moabite princess who converted, the great‑grandmother of King David and the progenitor of the messiah—what a model convert is. In her declaration of faith to Naomi (Ruth 1:16‑17) she says: Wherever you go, I will go, (implying a step‑by‑step, literally halachic, lifestyle Judaism); wherever you lodge, I will lodge, (implying sexual morality); your people shall be my people, (Jewish nationality); your Gd my Gd, (Jewish theology and ritual); and where you die I will die and there I will be buried, (eternal commitment).

When I grew up I heard some scoff at converts—some of whom didn’t uphold their commitment to Jewish tradition. They expressed doubt that most converts are sincere. This was simply not true. Today the prejudice takes a different form. Today there’s a great deal of politics over the issue of conversion in the Jewish world. One group doesn’t recognize the conversion of another. Yes, there are Torah standards of conversion and yes there are non-traditional (Conservative and Reform) conversions that no longer adhere to those standards. But these converts chose Judaism and should be respected and honored for their choice and desire to be part of the Jewish people—even if there is a technical problem with their conversion.

And even within the Orthodox world, there are groups that won’t recognize the conversions of another. I’m very much embarrassed by it all when I share this with candidates for conversion, but the politics of conversion are a discussion for another time. 

What does a Halachic Kosher conversion consist of? The Talmud (Yevamot 47b) cautions us: “not to [overload the would‑be convert] with too much information or with too many details.” Rashi explains that this is, “so as not to scare him off.” A Kosher conversion requires only 3 things: #1 the acceptance—it doesn’t say complete observance yet—of Jewish heritage and traditions; #2 circumcision for a male; and #3 the immersion in a mikveh before a kosher Bet Din Jewish court (Yoreh Deah 268). Period!

estion is: should we encourage conversions? Jews don’t proselytize! The Talmud tells us to discourage a would-be convert 3 times. We should say things like: “Don’t you know that there are many people who don’t like Jews? Why subject yourself to that?” Or, “There are 613 commandments in the Torah. As a non-Jew, you are only required to keep the 7 laws of Noah. Why subject yourself to that?” If he/she still wants to convert, says the Talmud, we should accept them immediately.

Today, because assimilation is so rampant—although I don’t believe in proselytizing—I don’t think we should make it too difficult for anyone who wants to be an MOT—member of the tribe. Because out of the 6 million Jews in America, only 3½ million identify as Jews. Today, every practicing Jew is, in effect, a “Jew by Choice.” Even those of us who were born to Jewish parents must choose to follow a serious and committed Jewish lifestyle if we expect Jewish tradition to continue through the lives of our children and grandchildren.

So yes, we should welcome and embrace converts. The Talmud (Berachot 34) teaches us concerning baaley teshuva (those who had left the fold and returned to Judaism): Makom shebaaley teshuva omdin, eyn tzadikim gamurim y’cholin laamod, “In the place where those who return to Judaism stand, even those who are completely righteous cannot stand.” Such is the holiness of a sincere penitent. I would add, that if this is so for a Jew who strayed off the path, how much more so should it be true for a righteous convert who never knew the path of Judaism! Sincere converts are truly holy souls.

An old story illustrates this. A father sends his son off to college telling him, “Go, study hard and have a good time. Only promise me that you won’t marry a shiktza.”

         As fate would have it, he falls in love with non-Jewish girl in his junior year. They move in together, but he doesn’t tell his father. She even surprises him by studying with the Hillel rabbi and converts.

         After graduation they get married, and he gets a job working in his father’s store. After they return from their honeymoon the father knocks on the door early one Saturday morning saying, “Let’s go downtown to the store to do our monthly inventory.”

         “I can’t,” the son says, “It’s Shabbos and my wife will have a fit. We have to leave for shul soon.”

         Infuriated, the father shakes his finger at his son saying, “I told you not to marry a shiktza!”  

I’ve often felt that many converts were born with a Jewish soul that radiates forth and influences the lives of those around them. Often the non-Jew is attracted to someone because he/she is Jewish—even if he/she is a non-practicing Jew—and winds up making a practicing Jew out them. No doubt, Jewish life is as vital as it is because of converts’ contributions. 

Let me leave y with a true story—repeated many times in our time—told by a colleague in his writings:

         A young woman went to her parents telling them of her desire to become Jewish and marry a Jewish man. The parents were mildly upset, but agreed. They warned her, however, not to tell her grandmother who was very religious and would not accept her conversion.

         The young woman loved her grandmother and wanted to be honest with her. She told her grandmother the truth. After hearing the news, the grandmother leaped out of her chair and went into the bedroom. Loud crying could be heard through the door. Upset, the young woman gently knocked at the door, went inside, and told her grandmother of her love.

         The grandmother drew her close and hugged her. “You don't understand,” she sobbed. “I was born a Jew. I have hidden this fact almost my whole life, ever since I married your grandfather. I never told your parents. Nothing could make me happier than you coming home and be Jewish.”

The Sefas Emes, in his commentary on the eyrav rav (mixed multitude) that accompanied the Jews in their Exodus from Egypt, tells us they were converts. He cites the promise made by Gd to Abraham (Gen. 16:14) that his children would be slaves for 400 years in a land that was not theirs, but they would go out, birchush gadol, “with a great treasure.” That “treasure,” says the Sfas Emes, are the Jewish converts.

On a soul level, a conversion to Judaism is a homecoming, or what one student of Kabbalah has called a “corrected cosmic error.” I thank Gd for our sincere converts and am honored anytime I am asked to assist in their conversions. Jewish converts are a blessing. They inspire me as I hope they inspire you to come home and stay home. Amen!


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