Why Convert?

I have a question about converts. After witnessing countless acts of anti-Semitism and persecution against the Jews, why would anybody want to be a part of that? While I can see where they'd be sympathetic toward Jews and inspired by their perseverance and survival, I do not see why anyone would willfully say, "Hook me up with this religion so that people might wanna kill me, too!"

Maybe I cannot fully understand the mind of a person turned onto Judaism, but it doesn't seem logical to want to be a part of a religion that is constantly being attacked, even in today's "modern" world.

I love being Jewish, but I want to know why people would want to join.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You have good intuition. The Code of Jewish Law says that when someone approaches a rabbi expressing interest in conversion, the rabbi should initially discourage them with warnings about the threat of anti-Semitism.

Those who do end up converting, however, do so because they believe in the Torah and want to be part of the Jewish legacy - whatever the cost might be.

Over the past 4,000 years, whether during the Inquisition, Crusades, pogroms or Holocaust, Jews have endured the torments of exile, torture and ovens - yet continued to remain loyal to the Jewish people. Abraham himself was thrown into a fiery furnace. That gave strength to others to follow, and in more recent times, Soviet refuseniks like Natan Sharansky and Yosef Mendelovich willingly underwent years of psychological and physical torture for the sake of being Jewish.

I'd like to suggest that you ask yourself the same question: Why is it worth it to identify as a Jew? Of course, a Jew is always a Jew - regardless of whether they reject their heritage, ignore it, or practice another religion. But theoretically - why not just change your name and assimilate away?

To the Western ear, "sacrificing for a belief" sounds like a drastic action. Is there logic and reason to what our ancestors did? And where did they find the strength to lay down their lives for Jewish beliefs?

The answer is that even stronger than the human will to survive, is the drive for meaning in life, and to make a difference in the world. It is amazing but true. We see that a mother will send her beloved son off to war - with the very real risk of his getting killed - because she believes in the justice of the cause.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg says: Everyone should find a cause so meaningful that they'd forfeit their life for it. Because if you don't know what you are willing to die for, then you haven't begun to live. If you don't have meaning in your life, even with all the physical enjoyments, beautiful vacations and even a wonderful family, you will feel that something is missing.

This is the secret of Jewish heroism. This is why so many Jews throughout history have sacrificed their lives for what they believe. Because when you go ahead and LIVE for that cause, it is with unparalleled power and pleasure.

So what is the "Jewish cause?"

Values that the civilized world takes for granted - monotheism, love your neighbor, peace on earth, justice for all, universal education, all men are created equal, the preciousness of life - are foundations of Judaism. So though we were exiled, oppressed, beaten and gassed, in the process we defined the moral makeup of humanity. This is an enormous impact and we accomplished it under the most adverse conditions.

Adherence to these ideals was only possible by a tenacious commitment to mitzvah observance. For instance, in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, the Chanukah celebration went on, at great risk to their lives. From the meager food portions, bits of fat were saved up. Others pulled threads from their tattered garments and twisted them into a makeshift wick. A candle-holder was fashioned out of raw potato. And even dreidels for the children were carved out of a precious wooden shoe.

Without that unwavering adherence to mitzvot, the Jewish people could never have made such an impact. As Rabbi Yisrael Spira (the Bluzhever Rebbe) told his fellow inmates in Bergen Belsen: "By kindling this Chanukah candle we are symbolically identifying ourselves with the Jewish people everywhere. Our long history records many bloody horrors our people have endured and survived. We may be certain that no matter what may befall us as individuals, the Jews as a people will - with the help of God - outlive their cruel foes and emerge triumphant in the end."

When faced with conversion or death, we knew we had to fight to keep the Jewish message alive.

A famous rabbi once revealed to me the secret of his greatness. He said: "When I was 18, I made a decision to undergo a thorough process of self-examination. I took all of Jewish thought and practice, and emptied myself of it - metaphorically. I did not stop observing the mitzvot. But intellectually, I put everything on the table so I could look at it. I looked at Shabbat, for example, and asked myself: What is this? How do I relate to it? What aspects do I appreciate, and which aspects don't I understand?"

The rabbi continued: "I needed to grow up and become my own person. I repeated this process with all realms of Torah. It took years. But now my convictions are strong and unshakable. I know who I am, and more importantly, why."

Every convert is forced to ask: What is the value of observing Shabbat, eating Kosher, giving tzedakah, refraining from gossip, and saying the "Shema" every day?

"Why be Jewish?" Whether potential convert, or born Jew, it's an essential question to ask.

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