A Jewish understanding of conversion

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster considers Jewish approaches to conversion and how new believers are welcomed into the fold. 

On the second day of Pesach we start counting the Omer, which lasts for 49 days until the next major biblical festival of Shavuot (Pentacost).

The Omer reminds us of steps or stages on the way from the Exodus out of Egypt and through the Reed Sea, followed by the journey in the desert up until the Torah is received at Sinai.

But given the miracle of the founding of the State of Israel, marked immediately in May 1948 by ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the Old City of Jerusalem (engaged in fighting for their very lives) in a religious service of resurrection and renewal, similar in their view to the recent Exodus festival of Pesach, this audacious act, taking place in an underground synagogue, set in motion a number of further annual celebrations which are now marked annually during this period.

First, of course, we remind ourselves of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), which this year takes place on 28 April 28. A great deal of learning and study takes place leading up to and on this date, during which we remind ourselves of the extermination of two thirds of the Jews of Europe.

Then on 4 and 5 May, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and other victims of terrorism morphs effortlessly into Israel Independence Day, to mark the date mentioned above when Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, announced the creation of the State of Israel, which, despite all the odds, has survived for 74 years.

But then there is still nearly a month until the next big festival of Shavuot, when we celebrate not only the giving of the Torah on Sinai, but also the book of Ruth, which we are also beginning to study at present.

More of that nearer the time – and it is interesting to note in passing that this year the peak festival of Shavuot coincides with the Queen's Platinum Jubilee. No doubt, also more of that in June.

It is strangely eery to be counting the Omer for 49 days while being aware of Europe fighting a war once again, while glorious imperial music, written especially by British composers for previous great royal and patriotic events, hits the airwaves.

Does Handel count as an English composer? I hope so. Living in this country, Handel wrote so many oratorios celebrating biblical stories, including those of King Solomon and Queen Esther, not to mention the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Zadok the Priest, both based on the biblical books of Samuel and Kings. But there are many other great English composers also writing in this vein – in no particular order: Thomas Tallis, Henry Purcell, William Walton, Hubert Parry, Arthur Bliss, Malcolm Arnold, Eric Coates, Vaughn Williams and the great Edward Elgar, who is particularly loved in Israel for his cello concerto performed at the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 during the Six Day War, by Jacqueline du Pre and husband Daniel Barenboim.

This year, for the first time during Covid conditions, I went out for the Seder and was even asked to read a passage from the Pesach Haggadah. The passage I was asked to read is taken from Genesis 15, and is known in English as 'the covenant of the pieces' passage. This is the covenant made between G-d and Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, who was the first to recognize that there is only one G-d and that conversion isn't about being coercive but about influencing our neighbours via personal example.

Recently, having listened to and read headlines making the running in the media, I couldn't help comparing the Jewish attitude to conversion to that of other very powerful religions, which take a different approach.

In the last few days we have been studying what to say to someone who wants to convert to Judaism. The Talmud states the following, which has become the paradigm approach to would-be converts to Judaism:

'Don't you know that the Jewish people at the present time are anguished, suppressed, despised and harassed, and hardships are visited upon them?'

If the would be-convert responds: 'I know, and although I am unworthy (of joining the Jewish people and sharing in their sorrow, I nevertheless desire to do so'), then they are accepted immediately.'

Embedded here is a presumption of unending oppression, which is expected to continue, and that therefore it is curious, to say the least, for anyone to want to yoke their fate to that of the Jewish people.

And the court carries on to inform the would-be convert of some of the lenient mizvot (commandments) and some of the stringent mitzvot: the onus to leave gleanings for the poor in the corner of one's field, for instance.

The court wants to ensure that the potential convert is truly aware of how difficult things really are, laying out the specific religious strictures borne by Jews and the consequences for transgressing them.

Only after this does the court finally describe some of the benefits of being Jewish.

They say to the would-be convert: 'Be aware that the World to Come is made only for the righteous, and if you observe the mitzvot you will merit it. Also be aware that the Jewish people at the present time are unable to receive their full reward in this world.'

In other words, there are some good things about being Jewish, at least eventually. And if you are able to abide a bit of delayed gratification, there's a payoff in the end, but probably not in this world.

So what are we to make of this less than enthusiastic embrace of people who want to join the Jewish fold?

A religion of pessimism? Probably not. More like a religion of seeing things how they actually are in the world as it really is, and of therefore not wishing to inflict Jewish suffering on other people.

But here's the thing! Despite all of the above, there has in fact been an enormous influx of converts into my own Shul, and I think this phenomenon must be being duplicated all over the world. What the reason is, I have no idea, but I think one of the main reasons may be the non-coercive nature of relations between Jews and their neighbours, and even towards those neighbours who show a keen interest in the Jewish religion for good or for bad.

Some may think that this is a mature way of going about things in life and that forcible conversions or even self-righteous evangelization, exemplified in the present day for instance by religious leaders stating as fact that they know the mind of G-d, certainly may make a statement at the time, but such an example usually turns out to be harmful in the long run, both to others and to the religion itself.

For nobody knows the mind of G-d and all we can do is our best.

So, as we ascend to the small hill called Sinai (not in fact at all high or prepossessing), let us continually bear in mind the longest reign that this country has ever known, headed by a monarch who has herself led by example and whose upcoming Platinum Jubilee coincides with the peak Jewish festival of Shavuot, the festival of conversion, the festival of second chances, the festival of new beginnings for all.