Friday, January 21, 2011

Becoming a Jew by choice

By Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo

As we are confronted by a most serious increase of Jews who not only have left the fold but are actively involved in anti-Jewish sentiments, it is perhaps of great meaning to study an episode in the life of a non-Jew who decided to join the Jewish people at all costs.
Indeed, reading the story of Yisro (Jethro), (Moses' father in law and one of the earliest converts to Judaism), is a serious challenge not only to many anti-Jewish Jews but also for those who are actively involved in Jewish life but are lukewarm about Judaism and its message. For sensitive souls Yisro's story is not just a meaningful narrative but above all a painful confrontation with one's own Jewishness.

After many years of separation, Moses and Yisro meet again. Moses has just taken the Jews out of Egypt and miraculously led them across the Red Sea. Yisro, together with his daughter, Moses' wife Tzippora, and their children, were left behind when Moses took on this great and almost impossible task. But now that the exodus had been realized, it was possible for them to meet again. The text tells us that this meeting took place in the wilderness:

                "Yisro, the father in law of Moses came to Moses with his sons and wife to the wilderness where he was encamped…" (Exodus 18:5)
This piece of information seems to be superfluous since earlier on we were already informed that Moses and his people found themselves in the desert. Rashi, the foremost commentator, recognizing the problem explains that this is a reference to the tremendous sacrifice Yisro made when he decided to become a Jew:

                "He lived in the world of glory. Still his heart moved him to leave it all behind and to go to the wilderness and hear the words of the Torah" (ad loc)
Indeed tradition teaches us that Yisro was a man of great wealth. He had occupied the prestigious position of the high priest in Midian ( see Rashi on 18:1). He was also surrounded with servants, glory and abundance. The verse now informs us that he gave all this up to go to a "desert", a place that would no longer give him any of these honors. As a Jew he would become one of the many, no longer a man in his own right but just "the father in law of Moses". 

Tradition informs us also that Yisro had become an outcast. He had rejected all forms of religion and philosophies known in his days and had been banned and abandoned by the societies in which he lived. He had turned into a "lonely man of faith". His love for Jewish values and the Jewish people made everything else seem of secondary importance. Only this and nothing else moved him: To be part of the Jewish people and participate in their observances.
Yisro confronts us, for the first time after the exodus, with a new phenomenon: To be a Jew by choice. And by doing so he confronts all Jews with a major challenge: How to become a Jew by choice even when one have been born in the fold. How to feel the same "brenn" the burning need to live as a committed Jew as he did.

This is only possible when one is able to re-enact and experience Yisro's way to Judaism in one's own life. No doubt it must have been a long and difficult road — a heart rending challenge in which there were moments of ascent and descent before arriving at the top. To do so, Yisro must have made use of a ladder of observance. A step by step involvement with the world of religious observance and all other aspects of Jewish life. Like a baby which takes its first steps, he must have tried to engage the world of Halacha and its spirit. To feel its touch, to integrate it in his life and to feel absorbed by its spirit, like a man who swims in water and is touched at all points of his consciousness.

For many who are born in the fold, Yisro's desire to become Jewish should consequently be a major problem. First for those Jews who left the Jewish world and opted for an often comfortable secular life style. Questions such as why a non-Jew should be prepared to give everything up so as to become Jewish or what there is in Judaism that makes a non-Jew conclude that it surpasses everything else, should haunt each one of them.

But also for those who are "observant", Yisro's engagement with Judaism is a major challenge. Here the questions are somehow different. Am I as much in love with Judaism as Yisro was? Would I have opted for Judaism if I had not been born Jewish? Does this not mean that I may have to start all over again so as to grasp "real" Judaism? If Yisro started his road to Judaism step by step in order to fully grasp its beauty and truth, I may have to re-engage myself with every mitzvah, religious duty, as if I had never done it before. As such I have to become a "Jew by choice". Perhaps I should begin a process by which I take hold of every mitzvah which I am observing and transform it into something radically new as if I had never observed it before?

It is told of the great Jewish philosopher and "ba'al teshuva" Franz Rosenzweig that, in his earlier days, he was once asked whether he put on tefillin. "Not yet" was his answer. Although he may not have felt ready at the time to take on this great mitzvah he made it clear that he looked forward to the day when wearing tefillin would become a real religious experience. This does not mean that he should have been waiting till he was fully ready.

After all, it was Rosenzweig himself who taught that "it is in the deed that one hears the mitzvah". Only when one actually preforms a mitzvah can one hear and feel its profundity and not the other way round. But what it does mean is that when one "just" puts on tefillin, one has not yet really performed the mitzvah. Only when one comes to the mitzvah as a novice, like Yisro, can one experience its full power. Not out of tradition or habit but out of a genuine desire to fulfill the word of G-d.

This is the road which Yisro took and because he realized the enormous religious profundity of Judaism and every mitzvah he was prepared to give everything else up. As such he challenged each Jew.
It was the famous non-Jewish literary historian A.L. Rowse in "Historians I have Known," who at the end of his memoirs turned Yisro's decision on its head when he wrote: "If there is any honour in the world which I should like, it would be to be an honorary Jewish citizen. For him it stayed an unfulfilled dream. For many Jews it is a reality about which they would never dream.

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