Article: How will we treat our converts in 2010?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 7 January 2010

This article first appeared in The Jewish News, 8 January 2010

What will be the big issues in the Jewish world in 2010?

Israeli-Palestinian relations?  Almost definitely. The continuing impact of recession on Jewish families and our institutions? I’m afraid so. The importance of dialogue and cooperation between Jews and Muslims? We can only hope.

One thing is for certain.  With the JFS admissions policy continuing to grab the headlines, issues of status and conversion will remain near the top of our agenda.  Yet again, we are arguing about the authority of different Batei Din (rabbinic courts); the merits of different conversion processes; the annulment of conversions after they have taken place and about the role of kabbalat Mitzvot (the complete acceptance of mitzvot) in a conversion.

As we argue, it is easy to forget that this is not just a theoretical problem. Our arguing impacts deeply on the lives of all who choose to attach themselves to our people.  Instead of welcoming converts and celebrating the change that they have chosen to undertake, we risk creating a climate of hostility, which will continue to leave Jews By Choice on the margins of our community.  We will reinforce the negative attitudes of sections of the Jewish world which remain deeply suspicious of any convert, whatever the process they have gone through.

By excessive bickering about Jewish status, we give the impression that converts are a problem, and not a blessing.  And we are contradicting Jewish values rather than honouring them.  I acknowledge that there are negative attitudes towards converts in rabbinic literature. There are passages which prioritise purity of lineage rather than acknowledging the complete equality of the convert. This ideological strand erects high walls with halakhic barbed wire to make conversion difficult, and is deeply suspicious of the motives of anyone who wants to convert.  This attitude continues to have a real, pernicious effect on the culture of our community.  Whenever I study texts of this genre with groups of recent converts, they suddenly understand why they feel such suspicion from the Jewish community. They can identify the texts that explain their experience of exclusion, of being tolerated rather than embraced.

Yet there is another, equally powerful voice in our formative texts, one to which we must now pay heed.  It is a voice which is not merely tolerant of the convert but recognises the enormity of his or her decision.  A midrash asks why God loves the convert even more than Israel at the moment of revelation, at Sinai.  It says that Israel would not have accepted Torah without having seen the thunder, the lightning, the mountains quaking and hearing the sound of horns. Yet the convert, who saw none of this, comes and surrenders to the will of God. For me, there is something exceptional and inspirational about someone who comes into the Jewish community who was not raised as Jewish, but wants to take on Jewish obligations li’shmah (for their own sake).

The positive voice in rabbinic literature does not express enduring suspicion of the convert but instead welcomes the ability of the convert to be fully integrated into our community.  It does not focus on the lack of lineage of the convert, but asserts the ability of those who come to Judaism to create their own line as complete members of the Jewish people.

The quality of our community can be measured by our attitude to converts.  It is amazing that so many choose, for whatever reason, to attach themselves to the Jewish people. I am moved that so many can look beyond the divisions in the Jewish world and see a thing of beauty.

Maimonides praised the convert as one who ‘adheres to a people that is so abused and persecuted because they have learned to recognize that their religion represents truth and righteousness’.  In the spirit of truth and righteousness, this year we should make them feel welcome and acknowledge the example of passion, learning and commitment that they bring to Jewish life.