Pedestrians cross a street next to the light rail trams in Jerusalem in May.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Toward the end of Parashat Shlach there is a short list of instructions relating to sacrifices in the Temple, and at the end there is an interesting proclamation regarding the status of the “ger,” a convert – a person who was not born Jewish but chose to join the Jewish nation, versus an “ezrach,” a citizen – the term used by the Torah to describe a person who was born into the Jewish nation. This proclamation carries great ideological significance that should be examined closely.
“Every native born shall do it in this manner…If a proselyte resides with you…as you make it, so shall he make it. One rule applies to the assembly, for yourselves and for the proselyte who resides [with you]; one rule applies throughout your generations just as [it is] for you, so [it is] for the proselyte, before the Lord. There shall be one law and one ordinance for you and the proselyte who resides [with you].” (Numbers 15, 13-16)
These verses reemphasize the status of the ger, a status equal to every other Jew, with the emphasis on “as it is for you so it is for the proselyte before the Lord.” When man stands before God, he stands exposed, without cover. There is no effect of socio-economic class. Standing before God erases man-made divisions that distinguish people. Before God, all are equal.
As a result, “There shall be one law and one ordinance for you and the proselyte who resides [with you].” God’s demands of man are not geared to the elite of society, nor are they meant for the weaker and less established layers of society. The same laws apply to everyone, whether someone was born Jewish or chose to join the Jewish nation.
This principle leads us to examine the unusual concept of conversion to Judaism. Nations are usually defined by their ethnic origin, language, shared culture, and geographical area. Therefore, joining a nation is not a matter of ritual or obligation. It happens as someone gradually becomes assimilated into the nation, sometimes over the course of several generations.
Conversely, the Jewish nation, with its common ethnic origins dating back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, accepts people with a clearly determined ritual, centered on taking on the Jewish faith and obligations to accept Jewish norms, meaning the Torah’s commandments.
What is the meaning behind this distinction? One can ask this differently: If there were to be so many “gerim” that they become the majority of the Jewish nation, would it still be the same nation? Indeed, the ger does not go through a process of assimilation. Rather, he or she joins the Jewish people in a single ceremony. What then defines the Jewish people as a “nation”?
The answer to this is that ethnic origin is not the central fact that defines the Jewish nation. Judaism is not a race. Judaism is an idea, a message, or more accurately, a covenant between man and God. Way back in history, more than 3,000 years ago, a group of people who were mostly – not solely – descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and entered into a covenant with God. This covenant was based on mutual responsibility and full partnership in “tikkun olam,” repairing the world.
A person who is not born Jewish can join the Jewish nation if he or she declares their commitment to that same covenant. Race is irrelevant. People can have any ethnic origin and the culture in which they are raised is equally irrelevant. The only thing that matters is: Do they accept Jewish ideals? Are they willing to accept the Jewish worldview and its implications? Are they willing to take on the role of partnering with God in repairing the world? Do they accept and fulfill the commandments of the Torah that stem from this?
The idea of a conversion that does not include acceptance of Jewish faith and the commandments that faith entails is a contradiction in terms. If the Jewish nation were defined as all other nations – according to ethnic origin, language, culture, and geography – one could not join it in a single ceremony; and if the Jewish nation is defined, uniquely, by this covenant, Jewish ideas, and its historic role – one can join it in a single ceremony. But the ceremony would have to entail joining this covenant, this idea, and taking on this role. Any path that tries to cut corners is therefore invalid. The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.