Interesting times: The Ruth measure

I'm writing you this note because I know that someone converting to Judaism is put through the emotional wringer.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Dear Anne, I'm writing you this note because I know that someone converting to Judaism is put through the emotional wringer. Some of this is inevitable, since it is no simple matter to change something that you were born and grew up with and at some level has been part of your identity. But on top of this natural difficulty we Jews tend to heap something that is much harder to deal with: the burden of differing definitions of who is a Jew, and therefore of doubts over whether a given conversion is "good enough." Let's separate two completely different issues: the core meaning and reality of becoming a Jew where it counts, in your heart and life; and, secondly, who will and who might not "accept" you, and what difference, if any, that makes. It is easy to get caught up in the latter without fully understanding the former, which should come first. The first thing to understand is that Judaism is so structurally different from other religions that even using the word "religion" can be misleading. A religion is generally a creed, something you believe. Christians believe in Jesus, Muslims in Muhammad, and Buddhists in Buddha. But Jews don't "believe in" Moses or Abraham in the same way. We believe in God, but so do Christians and Muslims, so that does not distinguish Judaism. What makes Judaism different is that we are a people, descended from a family, who follow a path - what Halacha, the word for Jewish law, means - on a specific mission. Becoming a Jew means joining, literally, a family. There are no laws of conversion in the Bible because there was no biblical concept of conversion. People became Jews in exactly the way one becomes part of a family today: by either being born or marrying into it. This means that you, by marrying a Jew and throwing your lot in with the Jewish people, are following in the footsteps of Ruth, who became a Jew by saying to her mother-in-law, Naomi, "Where you go I will go... your people will be my people, and your God, my God." Far from being suspect, marrying into Judaism is the classic and, in some ways, most authentic way of becoming Jewish. Rabbinic Judaism, which did ultimately derive laws for conversion so that even someone who is not marrying a Jew can become one, came to see Ruth as the paradigmatic convert, from whom King David and the messiah are descended. This does not mean that marrying a Jew is itself tantamount to conversion. Ruth did more. She consciously became a member of - what really was then - the tribe. In addition to joining the Jewish tribe-people, there was no question that Ruth would adopt Jewish practices and that her children would be born and raised as Jews. WHICH BRINGS us to what is even more significant than your marrying a Jew and going through a conversion process; that you have committed to sending the children that, God willing, you will raise to a Jewish day school. This means that it is more likely that your grandchildren will be Jewish than those of a born-Jewish couple who have not created a distinctively Jewish home and given their children a Jewish education. And what is a more meaningful measure of Jewishness than whether or not your grandchildren are Jewish? It is not fair to Christianity, and would partially misrepresent Judaism, to claim that the former is only about personal salvation while the latter is not. Both are ultimately systems aiming to make a better world. But it is no coincidence that there are two billion Christians and less than 15 million Jews. Christianity's main appeal is as a path to personal salvation based on faith. The main Jewish appeal is joining a way of life and a people whose purpose is to change the world. The combination of our minuscule size and our disproportionately ambitious, largely forgotten and widely unpopular purpose is what makes Jewish grandchildren (for those blessed with the ability to have children) the real measure of Jewishness - whether by birth or by choice. We don't have children only to deny Hitler a posthumous victory. If anything, we are granting Hitler a victory when we define our purpose as simply surviving our enemies, rather than advancing the cause that is the source of that enmity - spreading ethical monotheism to the entire world. I AM envious that your job now, as part of the conversion process, is to study Judaism with a freshness and intensity that I, a born Jew, may never experience. It pains me that some people - many of whom might be less serious Jews than you are likely to become, even if they consider themselves Orthodox - would measure your Jewishness only by the denomination of the rabbi you are studying with rather than by the Ruth measure: life, peoplehood, and children. Like many Jews by choice, you may well seek to "upgrade" your conversion down the road by getting an Orthodox stamp of approval. It is certainly worth understanding the considerations that could affect the status of you and your children in the eyes of some. You have full reason to resent the fact that Jews cannot even agree on the rules for membership. You should realize, however, that current negative attitudes toward conversion reflect only one line within Jewish thought and history, and that line strays far from the authentic Jewish ideal. Authenticity is on your side because anti-conversionary attitudes arose only after centuries of persecution succeeded in beating the pro-conversionary ideal out of us, and we began pretending we were turning lemons into lemonade. Ironically, the same hostility to conversion, born of our survival instincts during the long, dark centuries of exile, now clearly threatens survival in the face of the modern challenges of assimilation. But I don't want to let the critics distract you from the beauty and grandeur of what you are doing. Better to read Nancy Yos, who beautifully captured her own odyssey in "On Joining the Jews" (Commentary, March 2004): "I have found after all the books, cogitation, and self-absorption, a people without whom life would be intolerable," she concludes. "Perhaps that is faith." Welcome, Anne, to the Jewish people.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11

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