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Keruv Shabbat 1997: In Appreciation Of Jews By Choice

by Harold M. Schulweis

We have to know who we are and we have to know what we believe. We have to believe what we pray and we have to understand what we pray. To begin with, we want to look at a prayer that is recited three times a day and it is found in the Amidah, the central series of benedictions that are recited daily. On page 233, at the bottom of the page, we find the thirteenth benediction. A prayer that the tender mercies of God be stirred toward the righteous and the pious, toward scholars and toward the garay ha-tzedek, the righteous proselytes. The prayer for Jews by choice who are regarded as a blessing.

Again, during the Hallel prayer (page 112) which speaks of (Hebrew here) those that revere the Lord. The commentaries agree that this refers to the Jews by choice, to righteous proselytes.

We have to understand the greatness of our tradition. Consider if you will why the rabbis chose the Book of Ruth to be studied and read on the festival of Shavuoth, the festival of revelation. Did the rabbis not understand who Ruth was? Ruth was a born Moabite and the Bible in Deuteronomy 23:4 states: "An Amorite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord, even unto the tenth generation shall none enter into the assembly of the Lord forever." The rabbis celebrated Ruth who in accordance with the Bible not only entered into the assembly of the Lord but became the great-grandmother of King David from whom the Messiah would come.

This is no accident and no trivial matter. Judaism defines a Jew not on the basis of blood or race or ethnicity or tribe. Judaism accepts with love the ger, the proselyte, on the basis of their free choice, their decision to enter into the covenant with God and with people.

A Jew is not a Jew by virtue of genes, chromosomes, or blood type. A Jew is a Jew by heart, mind and soul. This is the glory of Judaism. This is its genuine universalism and this must not be lost.

We Jews have experienced prejudice at various times. During the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century and anti-Semitic clerics in the Church were opposed to the conversion of Jews because it violated what was called limpieza di sangre – the purity of blood. This meant that Jews carried in their blood centuries of heresy and therefore, their conversion would contaminate the Church.

Anti-Semitism throughout our history argued in various forms that Jews cannot be accepted neither as citizens of a society or as equals. Charles Maurras distinguished between pays legal and pays reel,  i.e. legal citizen and real citizen. Jews could be legal citizens but they could really be "real" citizens for that is a matter of blood.

In our own times great scholars of literature such as Lionel Trilling, Ludwig Lewisohn were not allowed to teach in American colleges and universities not because they did not have all of the academic credentials but because they were Jews. How could a Jew teach Hemingway, Faulkner, or T.S. Eliot?

This kind of racism, biologism, prejudice and bias has to be struggled against and unfortunately it has crept into the minds and hearts of Jews as well. I am mortified and petrified as I hear Jews tell me "A Jew remains and a Gentile remains a Gentile. Therefore, you cannot convert someone who is not born into the Jewish tribe." I am petrified because that is a corruption of Judaism and mortified because it tramples on the moral sensibility and meaning of Judaism itself.

We Jews entering the twenty-first century have to recover the biblical and rabbinic self-understanding of Judaism. We have to recover the promise, the challenge and the oath of our founding father, Abraham, himself the first convert to Judaism. He understood the call "I will make of you a great people and I will bless you and I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. And I will bless those that bless you and him that curses you I shall curse. And in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed."

We have to recover the brilliance and ethics of Maimonides, who wrote a remarkable response to a letter he received from Ovadiah, a proselyte to Judaism. Ovadiah explains that his teacher had humiliated him and told him that he, as a proselyte cannot recite the prayer "Our God and the God of our fathers" because his ancestors were not Jews. Listen to the response of Maimonides:   "You should pray 'Our God and God of our fathers' for in no respect is there a difference between us and you. Do not think little of your origin. If we trace our descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, your descent is from Him by whose word the world was created."

It is the Talmud itself that understands that the word ger,  “stranger,” refers to proselytes. The Talmud emphasizes that there is one verse that repeats itself thirty-six times in the Bible and it refers to loving the stranger and knowing the heart of the stranger "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt". The commentaries point out that while you are to honor your father and mother, you are to love the stranger.

We have to restore the magnificent insight and sensitivity of our tradition toward the proselyte. I quote to you from the mystical writings of the Zohar (Shach lecha 167b): "When a convert converts, the soul flies from the palace and comes under the wings of the Shechina. The Shechina kisses her, since she is the child of the souls of the righteous, and sends her into the body of the convert and dwells therein." The Shechina dwells in the soul of the convert.

We have a challenge, a task and a promise. As we enter into the twenty-first century there is no Roman Empire that punishes conversion to Judaism with the confiscation of property or death itself. We are not living in the third or fourth century. We are living in a free and open society in which people are searching for all kinds of faiths and philosophies and religions. And we have something to say to the world and to those seekers. I do not believe that we have done what we been meant to do. I hear the prophet Ezekiel (34:4) and his prophecy speaks to me:  "The sick you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, you did not bring back those who were driven neither have you sought that which was lost...My flock was scattered on all the face of the earth and none did search or seek after them."

In the fall, we will offer four public lectures on the uniqueness of Judaism for all who seek knowledge of our faith and culture. Non-Jews and Jews who would taste from the spiritual, moral, and cultural waters of four thousand years of Jewish civilization.

In the spring, we will offer a series of lectures for those who consider becoming Jews by Choice. What is distinctive about this program is that its faculty will consist of rabbis from all schools of religious thought. The point is that Judaism is not any one denomination. God did not create denominations. Therefore, our students and candidates will be exposed to rabbis with differing views but with one abiding conviction -- that we are one. I am proud to announce that as of this date, four distinguished spiritual leaders will be addressing the community at large and our transdenominational classes toward conversion. These include Rabbi Abner Weiss of Congregation Beth Jacob, who will articulate the facets of Orthodox Judaism; Rabbi Daniel Gordis, Dean of the University of Judaism's Rabbinic Seminary representing Conservative Judaism; Rabbi Steven Jacobs, articulating the approaches of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Arnold Rachlis who will represent Reconstructionist Judaism; and a representative of Chabad, Rabbi Joshua Gordon. Those who will take the course will then have an opportunity to choose the Beth Din or Rabbinical Council through whom they wish to enter Jewish life.

I need your help. I need you to help gather the fringes of the tallit we hold together in one hand. We need not lamenters but mentors, men and women who are willing with me and the other rabbis to befriend the seeking strangers in our midst, both Jews and non-Jews who seek the wisdom, warmth and ethics of the Jewish faith. We need mentors not to go door to door, but to open their doors for l’ dor va dor.

We need a cadre of men and women to befriend the seekers to set with them in the synagogue, to invite them to lectures and services, to invite them to a Sabbath in their homes or to a Seder on Passover. To this end we will be offering seminars for the mentors so that they will themselves learn how to answer. You will find on the back page in your supplementary an application to join us in this mitzvah of embracing non-Jews and Jews who are searching for depth and identification with Judaism and Jewish people.

Tonight we embrace with enthusiasm and love the courageous men and women who have entered our lives, who have become flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood, part of our mishpochah.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Back to Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis' SERMONS 



About Us > Clergy > Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis (z"l) > Sermons

About Us > Clergy > Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis (z"l) > Sermons

Tuesday, February 15, 2011
The urgent challenge for religion is to provide religious groups with the resources needed to resist immoral authority. Judaism is morally obligated to instill the sanctity of conscience that may balance the culture of obedience with the culture of moral disobedience. Rosh Hashanah 2008

After "The Passion"
Friday, February 11, 2011
Rabbi Schulweis discusses Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ." March 13, 2004

Farrakhan and Jews
Friday, February 11, 2011
Tikkun olam(repair the world): Don't let a Farrakhan stop you.

Jewish Spiritual Leaders Series: Franz Rosenzweig
Friday, February 11, 2011
A reenactment presentation of Jewish scholar Franz Rosenzweig, renown theologian. November 10, 2000

Keruv Shabbat 1997: In Appreciation of Jews by Choice
Friday, February 11, 2011
As the historical reasons for discouraging conversion no longer exist, a new outreach program at Valley Beth Shalom is created.

Keruv, Conversion and the Unchurched
Friday, February 11, 2011
Outreach Lecture 1, 1997: Introduction, God Did Not Create Religion, Judaism As A Religious Civilization, Pluralism, The Uniqueness Of The Jewish Prophet.

Leprosy of Words
Friday, February 11, 2011
The seriousness of slander in the Jewish tradition.

Master and Slave Morality
Friday, February 11, 2011
How the Jews began liberation theology.

Moses: A Portrait of Spiritual Audacity
Friday, February 11, 2011
A prophet empowered like no other. A religious hero, exemplifying human-divine interdependence.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik
Thursday, February 10, 2011
An exposition of the best in modern Orthodox thinking with the underlying modern philosophical conflicts between emotion and reason, faith and science. Selichot, 1993.

A Response to the Assassins of Rabin
Wednesday, February 09, 2011
The pain and truth surrounding the assassination––the killing of a human being by a Jew who must have studied the writings about the holiness of life and "tselem elohim," the image of God––contradicts what halacha teaches about right and wrong, the character of an individual, and the avoidance of schisms in Judaism.

Salvador Dali's Moses Statue
Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Salvador Dali shows Moses to be a divided man in all his humanity--always in between. God and Moses have a kinship in the common effort to lead the people to their spiritual potentiality.

Social Darwinism & Jewish Political Life
Wednesday, February 09, 2011
A strong call for political action to form a non partisan Jewish Coalition based on Jewish principles of morality, and to oppose social Darwinism which allows the weak and least favored to go under. Rosh Hashana, 1995.

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