kotel - Daniel Bar-On - September 19, 2010
The Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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The validity of "Jews by Choice" is constantly under assault, as they encounter challenges to their Jewish status and legitimacy daily. This happens regardless of their level of commitment and observance, and as a result, many people who are enthusiastic about God and Torah decide not to go through the lengthy and often arduous process of converting because many segments of the Jewish community will not recognize them as full-fledged Jews.

A great deal of anti-convert sentiments within Jewish communities are due to a misunderstanding of normative or “traditional” Jewish values. For much of history, Jews have avoided proselytizing, and in fact tradition mandates that potential converts are to initially be dissuaded. There is even a widely repeated notion that a rabbi must reject a potential convert at least three times before ultimately agreeing to guide them toward conversion.

Our ancestors had legitimate reason to be reticent about accepting converts. In medieval Europe, a Jewish community might have been subject to murderous attacks for converting a Christian to Judaism. However, the legacy left by these approaches is mistaken, encouraging the belief that Jews by Birth should regard converts – even after they have become Jewish – with suspicion.

Major Jewish figures like Yehuda Halevi and founding rabbi of Habad Shneur Zalman of Liadi argued that no amount of study, no level of commitment and no ritual can change a non-Jew’s possession of a lesser, non-Jewish, soul. This thinking has prevailed to this day, with many Jews considering it their duty to interrogate Gentiles seeking to become Jewish to ensure the purity of their intentions.

But here is the truth: A Jew by Choice is just as Jewish as any Jew by Birth. For over two millennia, this has been the normative position of the Jewish tradition toward those brave and blessed souls who have chosen to become part of the Jewish people.

It is a position that has its pedigree in Talmudic law (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47), and, according to many scholars, likely predates the Mishna itself.

Although the sincerity of any potential convert must be ascertained prior to bringing them into the Jewish fold, once they emerge from the mikveh (the ritual bath), they are a Jew in every way.

When a convert becomes Jewish, it is irrevocable. The Talmud, Maimonides, Jacob ben Asher, and Joseph Caro (to name but a few) all agree that conversion means a complete shedding of non-Jew status; a Jew by Choice is as fully Jewish as any Jew by Birth.

In fact, the Torah obligates the Jewish people not to oppress those who bind themselves to them. Using the same Hebrew word, "ger", that is traditionally used to refer to Jews by Choice, Exodus instructs, “You shall not wrong a 'ger' or oppress him.” And again in Leviticus we read, “When a 'ger' resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The 'ger' who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.”

The medieval French commentator Rashi teaches that these verses forbid the Jewish people from questioning the validity of Jews by Choice, for this hurts them, and a God of love and justice demands they be afforded the dignity we would expect for ourselves.

One who questions the integrity of a Jew by Choice, no matter what they may claim, is not speaking in the name of the Jewish tradition, and is certainly not speaking in the name of God. As the Midrash teaches, “When a person wants to become part of the Jewish people, we must receive him or her with open hands so as to bring that person under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Leviticus Rabbah 2:9).

This is the dominant voice of our tradition, and it is more applicable now than ever as an unprecedented number of people are attempting to become a part of the Jewish people. Jews by Choice bring so much energy and vibrancy to Jewish communities, and they must be welcomed with open arms.

That is the Jewish tradition’s view, and that is God’s demand.

Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple, a congregation near Philadelphia affiliated with Conservative/Masorti Judaism, and a recent graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.