In this pre-Shavuot posting I want to share the bedrock of what I understand conversion to entail.
It’s Shavuot time, I thought it might be helpful to share a thought or two.
Ruth, of course, is the ultimate conversion candidate and the core verse of the book is the ultimate declaration of what it means to seek to convert;
‘Do not entreat me to leave you, or to keep from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; Where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if even death parts me from you.’
The Rabbis learn, from this story, that a convert should be turned back three times before being accepted, corresponding to the three times Naomi attempts to get Ruth to give up on her decision to join the people of Israel. The threefold piece that drives the conversion programme at New London is different. We are looking to see candidates cross three thresholds in terms of their commitment to Judaism.
The first is a threshold of knowledge. We look for knowledge for two reasons, one is that converts are looking to become part of a people with much history, many glorious and strange norms and traditions and a convert who doesn’t understand these folkways a convert will always be an outsider, not the insider you might profess to wish to be. In part we are looking for the sorts of knowledge that can be looked up in a book – what are the names of the five books of the Torah, what is Kol Nidrei, what is Mishnah? But in part we are looking for the sort of knowledge that comes from being in a room with other Jews (and Jews in preparation) talking, discussing, debating. Jewish knowledge is not a collection of factoids, it is a discursive breathing tradition. We are looking for you to have enough of a sense of Jewish knowledge to become a participant in a continuing journey connecting back to Sinai and forward to generations to come.
The second is a threshold of observance. Judaism, unlike other monotheistic religions, is not based exclusively on faith. In other words believing in the things a faithful Jew believes in does not make a non-Jew a Jew. A non-Jew becomes a Jew by entering a covenant based on an acceptance of the obligation to observe commandments – Mitzvot. We expect converts not to be eating non-kosher meat (not only pig and shell-fish, but non-kosher beef and chicken too) – and if you are a Jewish partner reading this we expect you to support your partner by joining them in this culinary journey. We expect you to have a relationship with the ebb and flow of Jewish time, the Shabbat in particular, Festivals also. If you are in the conversion programme you should be booking the Jewish Festivals as ‘time off’ being a worker ant, as ‘time on’ being a free human soul, being with other Jews and being part of a Jewish community, particularly in Synagogue. It might be that these expectations are above the level of practice of many other Jews, so be it. We have in mind a threshold which can allow a convert to become a player in the future of the Jewish people and that takes a commitment to and familiarity with the classic rhythms of Jewish life. This is a Masorti conversion; ethics and sociability are both important parts of Judaism, but we are looking for a commitment to practice because this is what we believe is the key marker of Jewish identity, for born Jew and Jew-by-choice alike.
The third is a threshold of spiritual connection. We want converts to feel Jewish, to feel that same sense of connection Ruth felt. The blessing shared with converts at the Bet Din includes the phrase ‘thrown in their lot with the people of the God of Abraham’ – I love the phrase. Conversion takes a leap; a leap of faith and a leap into a world that, by definition, will feel foreign from the outside.
Aside from the story of Ruth, Shavuot is marked by the willingness of the Israelites to receive Torah. Like a convert the Israelites stood at the foothills of Sinai and said ‘we will do and we will understand’ (Ex 24:7). The Rabbis understand the order – doing before understanding – to signify the Israelites weren’t sure what they were taking on, but committed to being Jews anyway, such was their delight about entering this covenant. It is certainly the case that Jewish understanding only comes on the far side of Jewish action; true spiritual connection only comes on the back of Jewish knowledge and Jewish action. And that, perhaps most of all, is why we stress knowledge and action so clearly.