Sermon: Shavuot – Your People shall be My People

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 23 May 2018

Rabbi Hadassah Davis is now a Psychotherapist based in Reading.   Before that she was Rabbi of Bristol and West Progressive Jewish Community, Thanet Reform Synagogue and Reading Liberal Jewish Community. Rabbi Davis trained at Leo Baeck College, she was ordained in 1993, and in the collection of women rabbis’ writings “Hear our voice” reports the following experience.

“I don’t like converts. They’re all a bit peculiar. Well no the ones converting to marry, they’re usually all right. It’s the ones who want to convert for their own reasons. They’re invariably odd and I always try to put them off.” So said one of her tutors at Leo Baeck College in a class discussion one day.

Judaism contains two opposing views about converts to Judaism. One view is that “dearer to God is the proselyte who has come o his or her own accord than all of the crowds of Israelites who stood around Mount Sinai” — it is one of the reasons why we read the Megillah of Ruth, the beautiful Biblical story of a Moabite woman who decides to join the Israelite people on Shavuot.   Ruth’s decision to become a Jew was as precious as the statement of the crowds hearing the Ten Commandments for the first time that “we will do and we will hear”. But there is also an opposing view expressed in the Talmud passage “Proselytes are as troublesome to Israel as a sore.” This ambiguity in our traditional sources with both views expressed in many other passages leads to some confusion — but often Jews, today and in the past have been hostile to proselytes.

But the hostility that Hadassah heard as a student Rabbi that time was rather surprising, she says in her article for three reasons.  First the particular tutor who was the source of it

had always struck here as a middle-of the- road Rabbi, not given to extreme views or to speaking out before thinking. Second for a non-orthodox Rabbi it seemed a strange attitude to have — the Reform and Liberal movements in Britain together welcome over one hundred people each year to join the Jewish people through conversion, around ten per year through Alyth.   It is reckoned that since Reform and Liberal Judaism came to be over 250,000 people in total worldwide have converted to Judaism. We are in theory the most open part of Judaism to people who wish to join us. Thirdly Hadassah was startled by the assumption that the rabbinic students in his class could not possibly be converts.

After all, once converted to Judaism, converts have the same obligations and rights as born Jews and therefore the right to become a Rabbi. Indeed when I am speaking to people who intend to convert to Judaism I often make the point that once they are a Jew I hope that they become deeply involved in the Synagogue and would be delighted to work in partnership with them on the Synagogue council in years to come. But obviously the concept of a convert becoming a Rabbi had never occurred to Hadassah’s tutor or, such was his normal sensitivity, he would never have made such a statement in class.

Hadassah decided to probe him a little further and see what his reaction might be. “What makes you say that converts are odd if they want to convert for their own reasons rather than marriage? After all isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be halachically?” Today on Shavuot we should remind ourselves that the composer of the story of Ruth goes to great pains to ensure we know that her Jewish husband is dead and her mother in law unable to give her another husband before Ruth decides that Naomi’s God will be her God.

Anyway, in reply the rabbi answered, “Yes I know but in my experience, they’re all odd.”

“All of them”, Hadassah asked. “Yes, all of them”.

Hadassah reports that in that split second several thoughts went through her head. Should she challenge him or should she let it pass?

If she challenged him would she have to pay a price in her grades or his attitude to her as a tutor. But she knew that if she let his comments pass she would feel that she had somehow devalued a part of herself so she said: “Yes well I suppose becoming a rabbi could be seen as odd behavior by many people. Maybe that bears out your hypothesis that converts who convert for their own reasons are odd.” The rabbi looked at her in astonishment. “You mean…you’re a

convert.” “Yes”, replied Hadassah, “I’m a convert. I converted because I wanted to, not because I wanted to marry. True my father was Jewish (though I was not brought up as a Jew) and some people see that as the justification, but I converted for my own reasons.”

Hadassah’s tutor was extremely embarrassed, blushed, stuttered, apologized, apologized again. Over the next week he told Hadassah how deeply ashamed he had been about the offence he must have caused and how the experience had made him reconsider his views and he hoped that she could forgive him. Hadassah did, but still expressed her sadness that so many Jews do have problems with converts to Judaism.

It is sad, she continues because conversion is not easy. For Hadassah her conversion included rejection by two Rabbis before a third accepted her to study. Intense Synagogue

attendance every Shabbat and every festival, learning and changing. To add to the strain, she was, at the time a Casualty department sister living fifty miles away from the nearest Synagogue. In the end she left her job and moved home to North London. Many times, on the way, she was wracked by doubts, especially at the very end when the time came to go the Beth Din and choose a Hebrew name — was she doing the right thing making this huge change? Did she really want to be Jewish? What if there was another Holocaust?

Just at that time she went on holiday to Israel. The experience made her certain and also enabled her to choose her Hebrew name — which she also now uses for her all-purpose
first name — when she found herself near Jerusalem walking past a sign which read Hadassah hospital.

It was many years before Hadassah applied to Leo Baeck College. In her article she reports a number of her experiences as a new Jew dealing with all the challenges that she faced — that her Jewish memories are adult Jewish memories, not having childhood family sederim, not being able to remember the experience of Cheder, her first mitzvah when she opened the ark at her Synagogue but couldn’t find the cord to pull the curtains such a bag of nerves she was at the time, her feelings when she began as a cheder teacher when she had to learn what it was like to be a Jewish child by listening to children’s tapes and talking to Jewish parents to feel clear about what was needed, then her first service as a lay reader — her nerves and excitement. How she as a rabbi finds that she takes a more holistic approach to the conversion of others than perhaps many of her colleagues do – able to talk about the who gamut of changes that a person will face in their life.

At the end of the article she relates an experience of teaching a post bar/bat mitzvah class. One of the teenagers a bright girl was struggling with the concept of converts being Jewish. She was of the opinion that only a born Jew could really be Jewish — I have to say it is an opinion that I hear with distressing regularity especially from born Jews who do not actually practice their Judaism — possibly because the only bit of Judaism they can lay claim to is the bit that is theirs by birth.

This teenager said that converts, because they had not had a Jewish childhood could never really become fully Jewish. Hadassah threw in a few difficult questions. Then the teenager sat back in her chair agitated and frustrated and said, “I wish I could meet a convert face to face and ask them whether they think that they are really Jewish” – Hadassah, now the girls Rabbi, looked at her sat back in her chair and said “OK,” she said, “ask me”.

I love working with people who are converting to Judaism. These are people who cannot and do not take Judaism for granted. Their questions are challenging and their needs a privilege to meet. It is something that our Synagogue can say with pride that people are welcome to become Jews here. Ours is a straightforward process where we are happy to share what Judaism is with those who wish to know. Many of the people who make this congregation what it is are people who became Jews in adulthood.  Rabbi Josh and now Rabbi Hannah put a great deal of dedicated work and effort into teaching and preparing people to take the joyful step into Judaism, with the help of Jon Epstein.  It is a beautiful part of Alyth just as the Megillah of Ruth is a beautiful Biblical story.

Our Megillah makes the strongest point about conversion when we find that Ruth, the heroine of the story’s grandson is King David — in Judaism the ultimate hero. Jewish peoplehood is not only transmitted by birth — to those who wish to join us our God can be their God, wherever we go they are welcome to join us and our people can be their people, and if they wish to train and then be ordained, they can be our teachers and Rabbis.