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 (http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/comment/107901/we-dont-marry-out-we-are-made) 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.

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