Monday, June 27, 2011

Conversion to Judaism

 וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת-הַגֵּר: כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

Normally, we post only the English translations of Biblical verses on our blog.  This blog is written as a place for the English speaking world to connect to our yeshiva in Northern Israel.

However, the verse above (from Deut. 10:19) is a bit tricky.  Specifically, the word GER (גר)

Let's remove the word in question, and translate the rest of the verse:

"You shall love the ____, because you were ____ in the land of Egypt." 

Most religious Jews would tell you on the spot that the phrase "v'ahavtem et ha ger" means, "you shall love the convert".

Yet, if we use the word ger to mean convert, the rest of the verse doesn't make sense.  Jews weren't converts in Egypt!  To the contrary; our tradition teaches us that the Israelites kept their own names, language, and clothing, throughout the 210 years of slavery.

In a way, all Israelites became converts when the nation accepted the laws of the Torah - but that wasn't "in the land of Egypt", it was on Mount Sinai.

So let's take a look again at this verse:

  "You shall love the ____, because you were ____ in the land of Egypt." 

If you've already looked up the verse for yourself in an English translation of the Bible, you probably found the word GER translated as "stranger".  G-d is telling us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt.  We were a minority, a slave class, no friends or family in high places to help us, no political power, nothing.

What does that have to do with a convert?  According to Jewish law, a person who has completed a valid conversion is a full-fledged Jew - just as Jewish as someone born to a Jewish mother.*

Conversion to Judaism is a process that takes years to complete.  It involves study, understanding, and practice of our holy directives.  Someone who is in the process of conversion will look, dress, and act like any other observant Jew.  Only when this Gentile fully integrates Torah into his/her life, and understands his/her obligations in Jewish law, will the local rabbi bring this person to a Rabbinical court to complete the process.

 So then, why do we use the same word to mean "convert" and "stranger"?

In fact, this double use of a single word teaches us a great lesson in how we must relate towards the converts in our own communities.

When a convert joins a Jewish community, he/she has no family, no connections, no mentors from childhood, no communal clout... ...just like our ancestors in Egypt!

It is distressing that conversion to Judaism has become such a political mess, especially here in Israel.  Many of us personally know of people who converted according to Jewish law outside of Israel, and subsequentially made aliyah (moved to Israel).  Unfortunately, their status as Jews can sometimes be challenged, if they want to get married, or serve in an official Israeli Rabbinic capacity.

 While it is important for the Israeli Rabbinate to verify that a convert became a Jew in the proper fashion, it is equally important that converts are treated with even more respect, care, and concern, than born Jews.

More importantly, we must work to unify all halachic** conversion procedures worldwide.  Some advancements have been made in the area already.  A convert in North America who goes to an RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) rabbinical court for the end of the conversion process will be recognized as a Jew by the Israeli Rabbinate.  It's a good start.

However, there are many sincere souls who seek to join our ranks.  Some of them have never heard of the RCA.  They obtain a conversion from another rabbinical court, and are blindsided when they want to be recognized as a Jew by the Israeli Rabbinate.

There are several ideas being considered in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), and in the Rabbinate, to unify the conversion system.

While it is beyond the scope of this blog to endorse any specific plan, we do hope and pray that unity will prevail.

On a personal level; remember that every time you go out of your way to help a convert, you simultaneously fulfill TWO positive commands!  "Love your neighbor" (Lev. 19:18) AND "Love the convert" (Deut. 10:19)

Thanks to our Twitter friend,  @mascety, for suggesting this topic.

*A kohen cannot marry a female convert, and a mamzer can marry a female convert, but in all other aspects of Jewish law, a convert has the same status as a born Jew

**"halachic" means "conforming to halacha - Jewish law" 

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