Albert Einstein, who was a committed Jew, is once reported to have said, “I wish that I was not born a Jew, so that I could have the privilege of choosing Judaism (as a convert).”
Yesterday, I had the privilege to sit on a beit din (rabbinic tribunal) with Rabbi Craig Lewis (Mitzpah Congregation, Chattanooga, TN) and Rabbi Alex Shuval-Weiner (Beth Tikvah) for a husband and wife who were converting to Judaism.
Their journey to the mikveh began more than a decade ago, and involved years of study, serious soul-searching about what they believed, and what they were looking for out of life. For religion, ultimately, is something that is intensely personal.
The biblical model of folks who seek conversion to Judaism is our matriarch, Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite, yet with a sense of faith and loyalty, she followed her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, out of famine-struck Moab back to Israel. Unsure about what type of welcome they would receive, and what type of life they could expect, Naomi lovingly gave Ruth permission to seek her own fortune, rather than tie her fate with so many unknowns. To which, Ruth famously replied: “…Where you will go, I will go; where you will lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people; and your God shall be my God” (Ruth 1:16). It’s a deeply beautiful intention that speaks of profound relationship, trust, and commitment.
Our tradition is quick to point out that Ruth becomes the direct ancestor for King David (c. 1000 BCE, considered the greatest Jewish king). Tradition also holds that from King David’s line (and thus from Ruth, who converted to Judaism) will come our Messiah. When tradition lauds Ruth’s decision to convert to Judaism and the quality of her character, her lineage to King David and the Messiah-to-come is used as a proof of both her righteousness, and that she (and others who convert) are welcome and essential to our potential as a Jewish people.
Sometimes people convert to Judaism because they, like Ruth, have attached their fate and loyalty to a particular Jewish individual or family; and sometimes they convert because they feel a sense of ‘calling’ that seems to beckon them throughout their days. But I’ll tell you, to hear their stories, and to see their sense of purpose and commitment for the Jewish people, is nothing short of inspiring.
Perhaps that is what Albert Einstein meant when he wished for the chance to ‘choose Judaism.’ He wanted to be able to actualize the esteemed choice that converts to Judaism make when they tie their lives to us: To walk with us through history, from the vistas and the valleys; To lodge with us, even when things are unsettled; To worship with us, through good times and challenges.
Just being in their presence, I am revived. I am inspired.
How about you?