Religious Life

Despite Pittsburgh – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Alexander Davis – November 9, 2018

Shalom Chaverim

Shortly after the attack on Tree of Life, I convened a beit din for a conversion candidate. This is one of the final steps in the conversion process. The candidate comes before a panel of rabbis and is asked questions to probe their desire and sincerity. In this case, the first question was obvious: “Given the news about Pittsburgh and the rise of anti-Semitism, do you still want to join the Jewish people?!”

This is not a new question. 1800 years ago, when the process of conversion was first being formulated, the Sages called for just such a question. Here is what the Talmud recommends we ask a conversion candidate:

What motivates your desire to convert? Don’t you know that at this time the Jewish people are anguished, suppressed, despised, and harassed, and hardships are frequently visited upon them? If he says: “I know, and although I am unworthy of joining the Jewish people and sharing in their sorrow, I nevertheless desire to do so,” then the court accepts him immediately. (Yevamot 47a)

It is remarkable how little has changed. We see in this passage a history of oppression against the Jewish people that stretches back millennia. We also see that despite that oppression, some nevertheless feel drawn and compelled to make a home among the Jewish people.  

Such was the case with our candidate. When I asked this question, she did not hesitate. The threat of anti-Semitism did not give her pause. In fact, she told us that she has already encountered people who expressed negative stereotypes about Jews. Rather than be deterred, she was excited and determined to make her commitment official. “I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to convert,” she said.

In an essay she wrote in preparation for the beit din, she described what she finds compelling about Judaism:

“Judaism is about the here and now. Making the world a better place today. Judaism is about learning, questioning, doing to get closer with G-d over time. Judaism is about Tikkun Olam and doing Mitzvot to heal and repair the world. G-d, ever-present in the world today, does not have a physical form or gender. G-d creates everyone equally.” 

Having another Jew committed to Torah and mitzvot was the best response to the attack on Tree of Life synagogue. It strengthens a Jewish people brought low in mourning. It adds another heart and set of hands working to achieve the Jewish vision of a world of justice and peace.

In our case, this candidate’s enthusiasm and motivation were inspiring. As we rendered our decision and concluded the beit din I told her, “As much as you feel blessed to join the Jewish people, we are the ones who are blessed to have you.”

Rabbi Alexander Davis