Look who's subverting the Torah

Judaism demands extra caution regarding the feelings and sensitivities of Jews by choice.

amar 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
amar 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
I'm a Jew by choice. It's the most important choice I ever made in my life, and perhaps the most important choice I will ever make. Almost eight years after my husband and I completed Orthodox conversions in Canada, every action in my life is defined by my Jewish identity and my desire to be on the front lines for Israel. I've been on numerous Jewish boards, including that of an Orthodox outreach organization, was named woman of the year by my local chapter of Emunah and have lectured about Jewish leadership across Canada. And whom do my Jewish-born friends call when they have questions about Jewish laws or tradition? The convert, of course. I've been to Israel 18 times since my first trip in May 2003, have led missions to Israel and taught Canadian and American university students how to defend Israel. I spend most of my vacations studying Hebrew in Jerusalem, and work for an Israeli organization that has defended Israel in parliaments and conferences around the world. According to Jewish law, I have all the obligations and privileges of any Jew born of a Jewish mother. But if Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar gets his way, when the time comes to make aliya I will be denied the basic right of equality to other Jews under the Law of Return. Rabbi Amar wants to change Israeli law so that only Jews born to a Jewish mother would be entitled to automatic citizenship. "[Converts] are able to come as citizens through other laws, and that is fine... of course they will be considered," he told Israel Radio. In other words, all Jews are equal, but some Jews are less equal than others. Beyond my personal outrage, I find it hypocritical that a rabbi in his position would try to subvert Torah law for his own political purposes. He is angry that both the conversion process and the Law of Return have been abused by a minority of converts. And it appears that he is also trying to use this proposed change to delegitimize Conservative and Reform conversions. These are certainly issues that need to be debated and resolved. But Judaism does not resolve a social and political problem by abandoning an intrinsic Torah directive, supported by extensive rabbinic law, that not only asserts the full rights and equality of converts, but actually demands extra caution regarding the feelings and sensitivities of Jews by choice. RABBI AMAR is in blatant violation of both the letter and the spirit of Judaism when he discriminates against converts. In numerous places, the Torah stipulates the legal equality between born Jews and Jews by choice in all laws: "There shall be one law both for you and for the convert that lives with you. This is a law forever for all generations, as you are, so shall the convert be before God. One Torah and one law shall be both for you and for the convert (Numbers 15). But the Torah goes beyond this legal equality and actually demands extra special concern and sensitivity in interpersonal relations, so that the convert does not feel like an outsider: "Do not taunt him [the convert]" (Leviticus 19), and "Do not burden the convert, as you know the soul [emotional state] of the convert, having been strangers in Egypt" (Exodus 23). God has special love for those who choose Judaism and demands that Jews by birth demonstrate that same degree of love: "For the Lord your God... does justice for the orphan and widow and loves the convert... You shall love the convert" (Deuteronomy 10). And again: "Love him (the convert) like oneself" (Leviticus 19). The rabbis understood this, and wrote: "Dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai is the convert. Had the Israelites not witnessed the lightning, thunder and quaking mountain, and had they not heard the sounds of the shofar, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the convert, who did not see or hear any of these things, surrendered to God and accepted the yoke of heaven. Can anyone be dearer to God than such a person?" (Midrash Tanhuma/Buber). Finally, the Torah singles out for special damnation those who do injustice to the convert: "Cursed is he who tilts the justice due the convert, orphan and widow" (Deuteronomy 27). IN ADDITION to directly violating the explicit directives of Jewish law, the chief rabbi's proposal is also shortsighted in failing to recognize the unique contribution that Jews by choice can make to Jewish and Israeli life. When I was on a young leadership mission to Moscow in May 2000, I was asked by the Jewish Agency to share my experiences as a Jew by choice with a group of Russian Jews who were preparing to make aliya. It was the first time they had met someone who knew how hard it was to learn Hebrew as an adult, who could talk about the fears and awkwardness and embarrassment of trying to fit in to a new culture and religion, and who could reassure them that it was worth every bit of their struggle to reclaim their Jewish identity. After I spoke, my fellow Canadians were in tears, and the Russians rushed to embrace me. Are all of those people living Jewish lives and raising Jewish children in Israel today? Maybe not. Did some of them take advantage of the conversion process and abuse the privilege of Israeli citizenship? Perhaps - and perhaps that's why Rabbi Amar is attempting to punish all converts with his sacrilegious proposal. But I know that I was able to help many of those Russians embrace their Jewish identities that day because I knew what it meant to make a conscious choice to become a Jew. The Torah codifies and champions something that Rabbi Amar has failed to grasp: my fundamental right as part of our nation to join my people under equal terms and settle in the Land of Israel. The future of Israel and the Jewish people depends on Jews who embrace Judaism and are proud to be Jews - whether by birth or by conscious decision. I have made my choice and God has recognized my choice. My right to the land is no less than Rabbi Amar's. God gave me that right. Rabbi Amar cannot take it away. The writer is associate director of Palestinian Media Watch. She lives in Ottawa, Canada.