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(An expansion upon my musing for Emor 5757)
Leviticus 24:22 There shall be one law for you, for both the proselyte and the native born, for I am Gd, Lrd of you [all].
Some years ago, I recall participating in a synagogue board meeting, reporting as chair of the nominating committee the names of some new candidates for the board. When I mentioned one name, I heard from the other side of the room "Did she convert?"
In view of the fact that the congregational by-laws required that one be Jewish (by birth or conversion) to be a board member, and that this person was sincerely unaware of the nominee's status I can understand the concern expressed. Nevertheless, it always pains me to hear someone identified as a convert. And it worried me a little. (As it happens, there were converts who were members of that synagogue's board at the time.)
Not long after that meeting, sometime said to me, in passing, "oh, I don't think we should ask her to do this, she's a convert." And this person was fully aware that my wife at the time was as well. It was an unthinking comment, not meant to insult or injure, but stemming from a deep seated prejudice that somehow, a "born Jew" is more worthy than a convert.
In many congregations I have been part of, nothing could be further from the reality. Converts often make up a large percentage (if not a majority) of those who attend services regularly and are active in many aspects of congregational life.
Since January, I've been teaching an Introduction to Judaism class sponsored by the regional office of the URJ. (Somehow seems a bit ironic that it was when I was no longer working at a URJ congregation that I was tapped for this particular role.) While these classes don't exist for and aren't solely focused upon conversion and converts, there are nevertheless a goodly number of people in the class considering conversion or already studying for it. And, as it happens, it was just this week that we were studying the topic of conversion to Judaism, and what it means to take on the "yoke of the Covenant."
Though the liberal streams of Judaism have attempted to make the conversion process at little easier and a little less frightening, conversion is still a serious thing, and I know few rabbis who see it differently and take it lightly. Some still practice the tradition of turning down a potential convert's request to study for conversion three times. Most still require or strongly suggest ritual immersion in the mikveh. What was really quite interesting was to read for the class excerpts from the 2001 CCAR Guidelines for Rabbis Working with Respective Converts. Though clearly different from the expectations of the Conservative movement, and from the traditional viewpoint, they're not as wishy-washy and simple as some critics of Reform Judaism might expect.
In class, I hear and listen to the thoughtful words of people wrestling with issues of faith. While all may have differing reasons for choosing to convert, every one of them recognizes the seriousness of that choice, and that it is something that once done, you cannot really undo. (I suppose that, in reality, a convert could become apostate. Still, we should always leave the door open for the apostate to return, to make t'shuva.)
The point I'm trying to make is that, while there may be relative levels of difficulty in becoming a convert to Judaism dependent on whether one follows traditional, Conservative, or Reform practice, it is never something taken lightly, and never something all that easy for the convert. While some converts may not be accepting the full yoke of the commandments as understood by traditional Judaism, they're still accepting everything that goes along with being Jewish--including the result of almost 2000 years of persecution. And while we live at a time when it seems we Jews don't have it so bad, let's not kid ourselves. The ugly specter of anti-Semitism is always present, and rearing its ugly head. The convert must struggle with this just like any other Jew.
It's not for me to judge. If someone presents themselves to me as a Jew (unless they present themselves as a "completed" or messianic Jew) that's enough. We're not supposed to ask (although there are times and places, the rabbis teach us, when we do need to check someone's bona fides.) Whether or not they are a convert, or through which denominational process they converted matters not one iota to me. They are a Jew, and, as the Torah teaches, there is one law for all of us, Jews and proselyte.
And, as the Torah often reminds us, the laws apply even to those who live within our community, to the ger toshav--a status that is finding renewed interest these days, as Judaism struggles with interfaith marriages, and gentile spouses that often seem to be the more dedicated and involved with their child's Jewish education than the Jewish spouse. We need to find a way to embrace this status and give it renewed meaning and life in our time. It's time we stopped just thinking of our "Shabbos goy" and include the ger toshav in our Shabbos "joy."
Having said all this, I readily admit that there are times I worry as to how far we can stretch the boundaries of the community. As I've said, I certainly draw the line at messianic Judaism. And I do sometimes have mixed feelings about the participation of a non-Jew in certain aspects of ritual. But if I wasn't troubled, if I weren't questioning, then I'd be worried more. After all, it is this very struggling and questioning that is at the heart of my understanding of what Judaism is.
We are all one in service to Gd. We must remember the words of Leviticus 24:22 and live by them not only in deed but in thought as well. This Shabbat, let us treat all who worship with us as equals and friends.
©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester (parts ©1997)
Some previous musings on this parasha
Emor 5763-Mishpat Ekhad
Emor 5758-Gd's Shabbat
Emor 5759-Lex Talionis
Emor 5760-Mum's the Word
Emor 5761-Eternal Effort
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