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Lech Lecha

04/06/2015 07:07:00 AM


Lech Lecha
Genesis 12:1 - 17:27
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

"You know me, rabbi. You know how important the synagogue is to me, how much I enjoy services, you see me at your Torah classes. You know what kind of Jew I am: I am the only one at the family Seder table who can read the Hebrew side of the Hagaddah, but they won't accept me because I wasn't born Jewish!"

Every rabbi has heard these painful testimonies.

"After my conversion, the Christians in my office congratulated me on this special moment. They wanted to hear all about the ritual and about my new faith. The Jews, on the other hand, made sarcastic remarks -- someone wondered aloud if they'd given me a Bloomingdale's charge card at the Mikva as the symbol of my Jewishness."

Sociologically, it can be explained. Judaism is a unique composite of religion and ethnicity. One can convert into a religion by adopting its beliefs and practices. One cannot convert into an ethnicity. Ethnicity is family, it is blood. Try as one may, one cannot become Italian or Irish. Ethnicity is expressed in a complex and subtle culture of shared memories, language and symbols. Facing an ethnic culture, the outsider can at best become the equivalent of a daughter-in-law or son-in-law: invited to sit at the family table even though one may never get our family jokes or share our intimate memories. You can come to the table, but you'll never really feel at home. In an American Jewish community, where ethnic identity far outweighs spirituality, the convert faces a difficult dilemma -- how to ever feel at home as a Jew.

This is compounded by the Jewish experience of two thousand years of oppression and exile. In response to castigation and humiliation, Jews erected a powerful internal barrier between Us and Them. The defense against ghetto walls was an internal wall. But now that we are secure in a free democracy the internal walls remain, held up by old fears and prejudice. Even when Jews assimilate, losing all vestiges of faith and culture, the last thing to go are the internal walls. They don't attend synagogue, own a Bible, or celebrate a Seder, but they won't hesitate to tell her that she's not really Jewish.

Have we forgotten that the Jewish experience began with a radical act of decision, with a conversion?

"The Lord said to Abram, `Go forth from your land, from you birthplace, from your father's house to the land that I will show you... and you will be a blessing." (Genesis 12: 1-2)

The convert's journey follows the same radical route of Abram and Sarai -- cutting oneself off from the familiar and the safe, from all that provides identity in this world -- home and family, culture and memory -- to pursue a promise. We call them ben or bat Avraham v'Sarah -- the child of Abraham and Sarah. The children of Abraham and Sarah live among us!

An alternative interpretation reads God's command Lech lecha as "Go into yourself!" Abram's journey is not geographic but spiritual. Those who have chosen Judaism are living witnesses to the spiritual journey of Judaism. They are a blessing to us for they teach us that the essence of the Jew is not in ethnic affectations -- bagels and Yiddish quips -- but in the deepest spiritual search for meaning and joy in life, in Covenant with God.

Eight hundred years ago, Maimonides heard the same painful cry. A convert named Ovadia was barred from praying with the congregation because some questioned how he could offer prayers to the "God of our ancestors". With all his rhetorical power Rambam responded:

"Anyone who becomes a convert is a pupil of our father Abraham and all of them are members of his household. You may say, 'God of our ancestors' for Abraham is your father...and there is no difference between us and you. Toward father and mother we are commanded to show honor and reverence, toward prophets to obey them, but toward converts we are commanded to have great love in our hearts...God in His glory loves the convert."


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


Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780