Conversion – a dirty word?

Mention the word conversion and it can be a conversation stopper. Just hearing the word for most of us makes us feel as if we are the targets of that conversion, after all, down the bloody ages of our history we have experienced enough ‘encouragement’ to convert. Who needs it, who wants it? In any case, aren’t we all happy as we are and follow our western liberal tolerant line of live and let live? Yet such a reaction merely reveals our defensive and jaundiced view of the world and our calling and place within it. Conversion is a good word, because we are meant to be the people, the nation that reaches out TO other nations and peoples to convert and come and join us! This was after all our national task and responsibility, to be a light to the nations; what we have is good, positive and can help. What we have we are meant to share and not keep hold of.

It is good to see that some in the community are raising the profile of these issues. Ben Rich in the Jewish Chronicle 24.5.13 ( boldly lifted his head over the parapet and stated what we actually all know to be true: the pattern of conversion laid out by the Moabite woman Ruth stands as a reminder of what our true place is in this world. Despite the attempts by her mother-in-law to dissuade Ruth from returning to Israel with her, something of that light had had a profound impact upon her and she insisted on joining the family. Her faith carried her into the family, the people of G-d and so she became part of the national narrative that is Israel, the Jewish people.

Of course, by today’s standards she would never be allowed in. She hadn’t done this programme, or that course, hadn’t learnt about this or that, let alone the speed of the conversion. How many of today’s rabbis would recognise the conversion undergone by Ruth? Few I suspect. Yet surely all our anguished hand-wringing about Ruth’s conversion merely reveals to us, or should reveal, that we are missing something. Ruth never learnt ABOUT Judaism, the Jewish people, our history or destiny in Avraham, she EXPERIENCED it and it convinced her that that was the truth, the ultimate reality, the spiritual key that unlocks the image of G-d in us all. As uncomfortable as it is, it was her faith in G-d, His ability to follow through on His promises and covenants -something she had seen for herself despite personal tragedy- that convinced her.

Jewish conversion is about faith, not learning. We can pump prospective converts full with head knowledge yet leave them unchanged internally, in the heart, Jewish according to the certificate but gentile still. Ritual does not change someone that radically, education fails to change the human heart. Conversion is not to a religion but to G-d, it is a fundamental change of master and not just an intellectual re-tread.

In fact, the Torah makes it clear exactly WHAT is needed in Devarim 10:16 ‘circumcise the foreskin of your heart’. Our very nature, the core of our beings, our human essence, our hearts have to be changed, dedicated to Him and not ourselves and our natural evil inclinations. And in response to the next obvious question of how, Moshe replies in Devarim 30:6 that ‘the Lord your G-d will circumcise your heart’. This level of heart surgery can only be done by G-d Himself. He will change us, He will convert, He will ensure that not only those joining us are changed and dedicated to Him, but also that we in the family too can be radically touched by faith and have hearts circumcised unto HIM alone.

This is the doorway of conversion ,and it is the way Ruth the Moabitess walked into the nation and our history. By her faith she sands as a reminder to all who would follow after the one true G-d, the G-d of Israel.

I don’t desire sacrifice…

For 2000 years we have survived outside the Land; if our Father Avraham was a wandering Aramean then we have been a wandering people too. I say ‘survived’ because outside is not our home; at home we live, outside we survive. And our survival has been orchestrated in no small manner by our instinctive clinging to Torah and our traditions, wherever we have been driven we took our scrolls and books with us. Easy to conclude then that it is Torah that is the focus of our people, Torah that forms us and gives us community cohesion and vision; Torah IS Judaism. Yet the obvious may still deceive.

Just as a child being given an ‘airfix’ construction kit would be chided for venerating the instructions instead of using them to actually build what the directions command, have we missed the point with our Gift of Torah? Have we reached a position where we are exalting the Gift, the revelation rather than what the ‘instructions’ are all about? For it is the Torah itself that commands us to build a Mishkan, a moveable tent of sacrifice. We are commanded to construct something that takes a central position not just in the camp of the Israelites but in Jerusalem and in Jewish thinking and theology. Torah forces us to divert our gaze away from itself to the purpose of the commandments at all: sacrifice.

Why should the Mishkan and later Temple with all the sacrifices at its heart be so central to Judaism? Because fundamentally Judaism recognises that sin has corrupted the relationship between G-d and man. Sin cannot be just removed, a G-d of justice as our G-d is will always demand a price for rebellious and wilful disobedience. Just as punishment fits the crime, so sacrifice fits the sin.

Yet we read in 1 Samuel 15 ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’ and from Hosea 6 ‘for I desire faithfulness and not sacrifice’. We are commanded to bring sacrifice for our sins, yet what HaShem truly seeks is a people who will actually be obedient. A people who will not need sacrifice.

We build something that should not exist and should not be needed because there is not one who has not sinned. And a powerful circular display of our dire spiritual condition and penchant or inclination to sin is revealed in the internal logic of Torah itself: we are commanded to bring sacrifices for sin, so a sinless person would not need to do this. However, to not sacrifice would be to sin because it breaks a command to sacrifice! The conclusion is clear: no one is free of sin. Even the most observant amongst us will conclude that despite doing everything ‘by the book’ they are still sinners. Having ticked the ‘list of Mitzvot’ to the end, we are still found wanting.

G-d does not desire sacrifice, but we need it. His mercy and love continues forever, and ultimately He provides a sacrifice equal to our sins. Mercy and justice demand sacrifice; Judaism is about restoring the relationship with HaShem from which we have all fallen.

All who call on the Name of HaShem will be saved.

All is not well. Of course we all know that, from the inside of the Jewish community at least. Publicly we may not want to admit it, but even a brief glance through the pages of the Jewish Chronicle (the UK’s Jewish newspaper) or any other Jewish newspaper will reveal that there are tensions, insecurity and a sense of malaise that Judaism shouldn’t be as it is, or at least as it seems to be. Anecdotally we have all spoken with men and women departing from the traditional Jewish fold who are quick to say ‘I do believe in G-d, but not like ‘that” (the ‘that’ being whatever form of Judaism they have departed or are just departing from).

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, speaking from within the Orthodox community has been highlighting the challenges and problems facing us in her own writings. In one place she writes this:

‘Hashem is hiding’

The current low spiritual state of the Jewish People has caused G-d to hide His face from them, says Rebbetzin Jungreis, who says this concealment is meant to provoke the Jewish People to search for Him.

“In parshas Vayelech… Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu that in the future, there will come a generation who will forget Hashem, and terrible sufferings will come upon them. And finally they will say ‘you know why this is happening? Ein Eloka, G-d is not with us. G-d is not in our midst.’ And then it says … ” I will continue to hide My face.” Dichotomous. If we admit that G-d is not with us, then why is G-d hiding? … That puts the onus of responsibility upon G-d – it’s Your fault. You are not with us. We have to say ‘We are not with Hashem! We are not with our Torah! We are not with our Mitzvot! We are responsible.”‘Taken from:

She is right. Yet some will continue to deceive themselves that everything is fine and ignore both her appeals for change and the voices of many others (including this blogger); this is how Judaism has been for centuries and we do not need change, nor do we need renewal. Some in the face of such calls will try ever harder to conform to our traditions and ways of the Fathers, work ever harder to reach out to our Jewish communities and individuals seeking to draw them closer to the Mitzvot. To be fair, Rebbetzin Jungreis is surely aiming her in-house criticism towards those of us who are not observant in the way she thinks we should be, yet I believe that this call deserves a much deeper analysis. Even within the ranks of the ‘observant’, are we really meeting HaShem’s righteous requirements? Even King Shlomo had to admit that ‘there is not one who has not sinned’ (1 Kings 8:46). Rav Shaul so many years later would have to admit the same thing when he said ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of G-d’. That these comments should come from the mouths of the ‘observant’ of their day (and they were), illustrates actually the depths of the call to return to HaShem that Rebbetzin is hinting at, and what we so clearly need. Let no man claim to be righteous before G-d, but seek His face for mercy and forgiveness, as the Prophet said ‘all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved’. Judaism does not need a return to tradition or Mitzvot to have any future, it needs a return to HaShem, then all the rest will follow on from that.