By Yehoshua Friedman
This article is directed to the non-Jewish person who is thinking of converting and is trying to consider giving the Noahide option a fair chance. Those who are in a different situation, such as interested Jews or Christians, or committed Noahides, are welcome to eavesdrop.
Over the past twenty-odd years I have been a participant in several
variations on the following scenario: a non-Jew has been in contact with a
Jewish community, whether in
First it is necessary to evaluate how motivated the person is to convert and what the nature of the motivation really is. These are two completely different issues and should not be confused. A person can have a very strong motivation to convert in order to marry a Jewish person, to be a "good Israeli" and serve in the Israel Defense Forces, or even to serve as a Jewish-Christian fifth-columnist to bring Jews to belief in the Christian Messiah from the "inside". All of these motivations may be very strong, but they are wrong. Another category of problematical motivation is that of a person with an unstable personality who is looking for a magic solution to personal problems.
A less clear-cut case of confusion on the part of a prospective convert is the attitude of wanting to be connected with the truth and doing the will of G-d. After coming to the conclusion that the Torah as taught by the Jewish tradition is the truth and the right way to live, the person makes the jump to deciding that he or she must become Jewish.
What is the problem with this according to Jewish teachings? The accepted position in the Talmud "Sanhedrin" Chapter 11), later amplified by Maimonides in his major work the Mishneh Torah ("Laws of Kings" 8:11) is that the righteous of the nations have a portion in the world to come. This is dependent on fulfilling the Seven Laws of Noah as divine revelation. The conduct of a righteous life according to reason is not sufficient.
At first glance this sounds terribly discriminatory and unfair. But before you get heated up, think about it. If a person behaves immorally, he or she gets punished. If that person behaves morally but does not accept the basis of the world to come, that person is not punished, lives out a natural life and goes to "atheists' heaven", namely dissolution of body and soul, total obliteration, pretty much according to expectations. The non-believer's consolation is that his deeds and his children live after him or that it doesn't matter or whatever. He has failed to take Pascal up on his wager, and not having played, cannot expect to win. So for someone without the inclination to believe, as we say in the computer world, WYSIWYG, what you see is what you get. If that seems unfair, I'll listen to arguments.
As soon as one believes in revelation, that changes. What that means for adherents of other religions, we will have to discuss elsewhere. But the person we are discussing has accepted the revelation of Sinai and the reliability of the transmission of the tradition by the prophets, sages, and rabbis sufficiently to consider conversion to Judaism. The choice is between the life of very few restrictions, very few tools for spiritual development, and very little community as opposed to the known quantity of the Jewish lifestyle and community.
Furthermore the formula for who has a share in the world to come is that all
It isn't quite that simple, however. The Talmud ("Avoda Zara" 17b-18a) discusses the martyrdom of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon, one of many killed during the persecutions by the Romans after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the Bar-Kochba revolt (135 CE). Since the public teaching of Torah was forbidden by the Roman authorities, he was sentenced to death.
The persecutors chose a grisly and excruciating method of execution. He was wrapped in the Torah scroll from which he was teaching when they caught him and set on fire. In order to prolong the agony, they placed pieces of wool soaked in water around his chest. The Roman executioner, greatly impressed by the rabbi's noble endurance of suffering for the sake of an ideal, asked the rabbi a question. If he removed the wet wool, could he receive a share in the world to come? The rabbi agreed that he would and when asked to swear to it, did so. The soldier removed the padding, increased the flames, and jumped into the fire himself. A heavenly voice announced that the rabbi and the soldier received life in the world to come.
We see from here that if a non-Jewish person is wicked throughout his life but repents, perhaps with the necessity of great suffering and death, he may still receive a share in the afterlife. It does seem that the whole process in that case is not so simple in thought or easy in practice.
So far we have talked about the benefit to the individual. This is applicable to the person coming from the Christian context where people ask whether someone is "saved". There is, however, another way to look at the problem. Have we taken our old selfishness and merely transferred it from the material to the spiritual plane? Instead of amassing money, fame, wine, women and song, are we simply trying to pile up faith and good deeds instead? Have we become like the proverbial Boy Scout who helps the little old lady to cross the street when she doesn't want to go?
That old joke sheds light on our problem. The Boy Scout has become so preoccupied with the good deed (presumably in order to acquire merit badges) that he forgets a fundamental fact. Just as G-d created the world in order to have an outlet for His infinite love, we are all enjoined to live with others in mind.
Now back to our problem. A non-Jew who converts to Judaism becomes a member
of the community of
Here is a great opportunity to bring these teachings to the world and sanctify G-d's name over a McDonald's cheeseburger and milkshake, if your stomach can take it, even on a Saturday afternoon. Here is a way to show people out there in the world a way to live without turning into one of those Jews, something that most people are not ready to do.
Another side of the separation between Jews and non-Jews is that there is a definite hatred of Jews in the world that derives from their very chosenness. The rabbis make a play on words and say that at Sinai hatred (in Hebrew sinah) came into the world. Many, though not all, of a Noahide's old friends are going to be alienated by his/her becoming Jewish. If one were previously a believing Christian, that will happen, or already has, with former fellow-Christians even if one doesn't convert, simply by virtue of the Noahide having abandoned the Christian faith. Members of Noahide groups have reported a very hard time with Christians. Whether they were a little too in-your-face about it, I don't know. I assume that there were different people who behaved in various ways.
Let's now look at a third aspect of the problem. Let us say that a person is concerned with doing his or her best to bring G-d's truth into the world regardless of personal (even spiritual) benefit. How equipped is that person in terms of knowledge and spiritual faculties to properly carry out the task at hand? For this purpose we must briefly try to reach an understanding of the commandments of the Torah and how they affect the Jewish soul.
The mitzvot, the commandments of the Torah, are designed to improve the spiritual state of a human being. Part of the spiritual power brought to bear is based on the actual content of the act. For example, giving charity will counteract a person's innate tendency toward selfishness, dietary restrictions and fasts can limit one's tendency toward gluttony, and so on. In addition, the very fact of being commanded by the Almighty has a special character that contributes to spiritual growth.
Here we come to a point that is not intuitively apparent to the Western mind, whose concept of freedom is influenced by Christianity. If I perform a good act freely because I feel like it, is that better or worse than doing it because I'm told? Let's look at this question more closely.
If I do something grudgingly because someone makes me do it, that's good in the sense that the act gets done and trains me in the habit of doing it, but it's not as good as if I did the act willingly. On the other hand, if I follow the "if it feels good, do it" school of only doing things when I really feel like it, what happens when I don't feel like it? I don't do it. And what happens when I realize what a good thing it is that I'm doing, but I know that I can stop any time I want? I feel a certain lightness of burden, a feeling of freedom, that I'm really doing what I want, not the will of anyone else.
What is the ideal? The best way to be is to take on spiritual discipline as commanded while seeking to reach the state of making G-d's will become your will. Rabban Gamliel The Second, son of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, president of the Sanhedrin and descendent of King David, used to say: "Do G-d's will as you would do your own will, so that He may do your will as if it were His; subjugate your will to His will so that He may subjugate the will of others to your will." (Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] 2:4) Note the fringe benefits available.
Here is a special point for the Jewish reader as well. Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner of blessed and saintly memory, who passed away a few
years ago, was the head of the
Now let's apply these ideas to the personal dilemma of the potential convert. Are you able to feel the presence of the commanding power without all of the daily reminders? Will you in another several years after the novelty wears off? Indeed, will the addition of all the baggage of Jewish lifestyle help or hinder your own spiritual journey. It depends on how you evaluate your own self.
To really know, you would really have to try it, and, catch-22, you can't try the side of being really Jewish because that is a one-way road. Once you have become Jewish, you are as irrevocably Jewish as one who was born that way. It is no longer a choice. There is no sure answer. It requires some serious soul-searching and prayer.
Another side of this question to take into consideration is that the Jewish soul is qualitatively different from the non-Jewish soul in that it has more spiritual potential. One of the best places to see a discussion of this is in the Tanya, one of the central books of the Habad Hasidic movement. Also see the Kuzari of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi. Sometimes, alas, that potential is not realized, but it is still there to tap into. That Jewish soul is not a racial attribute; the convert acquires that additional soul upon conversion.
According to the Talmud the souls of all future converts were present at the giving of the Torah at Sinai. So that means that if you are convinced that you belong in the Jewish people after having considered the alternatives, then consider that undertaking this step will be accompanied by a certain measure of divine assistance.
[Yehoshua Friedman is the Director of Noah Institute / Root & Branch Association]