Dear Rabbi Fried,
Recently a non-Jewish friend asked me why someone would want to convert to Judaism. Although I could think of a lot of reasons, I’m not sure which one was the best. What would your answer be?
First I would ask, what is your motivation? If it is to try to find good reasons to reach out to Gentiles to convert, that runs contrary to Jewish custom, which is to dissuade Gentiles from converting. The Talmud and Midrash learn this from Naomi’s attempt to dissuade her daughter-in-law Ruth from converting to Judaism. Only when she saw that, despite her attempts, Ruth remained adamant in her desire to convert, did she accept her to go through the conversion process.
The reason for this is twofold. One is to ensure the dedication of the conversion candidate. If, despite repeated discouragement, the potential candidate is not dissuaded, this speaks a lot for their commitment to follow through and continue to observe the many requirements incumbent upon a Jew throughout their lives.
Secondly, this stems from the worldview of Judaism vis-à-vis the Gentile world. Unlike most religions which maintain that the only ticket to heaven is through conversion to their religion, Judaism affords a portion in the next world to Gentiles as well. As long as a Gentile observes the seven “Noahide Laws,” he will attain bliss in heaven (albeit not in the same “box seats” as the righteous Jews). Better to remain an observant Gentile, having to observe only seven laws, than risk becoming an un-righteous Jew, missing out on some of the 613 mitzvot!
Furthermore, Judaism, the Torah, was presented only to the Jews at Sinai to become the Chosen People, charged with the mission of being a light among the nations. We are to lead and inspire by example for the rest of the world to become cognizant of G-d’s Presence and all that entails. G-d’s plan and purpose was not to have the entire world Jewish, rather that there be a world of leaders and followers in His footsteps. (Or, as one rabbi put it, if the whole world was Jewish, who would buy retail?).
When, however, we ascertain that a Gentile is truly sincere in his or her desire to join the Jewish people, we inform them of the unique and intimate loving relationship that the Al-mighty has forged with “My son, My firstborn son, Israel” (Exodus 4:22).
We explain to the potential convert that when the Jewish people stood at Sinai, they were endowed with unique souls, fit to become receptacles for the intense spiritual energy of the Torah they were about to receive. When one converts, the moment of conversion becomes the convert’s own, private Sinai experience. At that moment, the Al-mighty is said to endow the convert with one of those unique souls that, present at Sinai, are awaiting their opportunity to join with a mortal person and enter the stage of history as a Jew. This affords the recipient the possibility of transcending the shackles of this world and connecting to a higher essence, living a life of complete holiness and purity.
There have been converts throughout Jewish history who have attained the highest level of scholarship and greatness. Take, for example, the renowned convert from Roman nobility, Unkelos Ha-Ger, whose commentary to the Torah has become part of Jewish law for Jews worldwide to study along with the weekly Torah portion. If one is sincere, the sky is the limit!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,