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
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
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
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.
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