While we don’t push non-Jewish spouses in intermarriages to convert to Judaism, converts often have an extraordinary perspective on Judaism. Where born Jews have the culture first and then learn the religion, converts find the religion first and then learn the culture. This outsider’s perspective on Jewish identity can lead to amazing insights into Judaism; they are capable of shining a bright light on Judaism’s forgotten virtues as well as its hidden flaws.
Gail Nord Ginsburg, a former pastor at an evangelical mega-congregation, wrote a brilliant piece for the World Jewish Digest last month called “Why Choose Judaism?” (login required) She is a rare kind of convert: one who was immersed and deeply engaged in a different religious tradition before choosing Judaism. As such, she can offer a comparative analysis of Judaism that few others can.
Her piece is simultaneously a tribute to Judaism and a critique of the way it is lived and practiced in modern-day America.
Between the ideal Judaism I encountered in my studies and the reality as I found it lived today, I discovered a vast and disturbing gulf. This observation comes not only from my experience, but also through the stories that many Jews-by-choice have shared with me. And I have no doubt that many of the challenges faced by converts are factors driving born Jews away from involvement in their religious tradition.
In Judaism I continue to discover many things that are great and positive … and others that aren’t so great at all. I have distilled these down to seven key factors. I hope that my outsider/insider perspective will be illuminating to lifelong Jews, especially those who are in leadership positions, as well as encouraging to those who have chosen or are interested in choosing Judaism.
She first points to the value of the Jewish conception of God: “the vision of God as radically one and possessing attributes of kindness, justice, compassion, graciousness, patience, faithfulness and forgiveness… The idea of a unifying, creative and sustaining force behind and within reality is coherent with the discoveries of science.” She says, “Islam and Christianity are growing, as is Orthodox Judaism, because they place God first. Non-orthodox Judaism must follow suit.”
She then speaks about Judaism’s amazing ethical system, saying, “The Torah and Talmud offer an amazingly accurate assessment of human moral weakness,” while acknowledging that “The laws need to be reinterpreted according to the times.”
She insightfully brings her experience as a Christian pastor to bear when she speaks about Jewish worship:
Judaism’s ancient worship traditions, enhanced by the beauty of the Hebrew language (which my graduate school Hebrew professor called “the language of heaven”), have the potential to be moving, deeply spiritual and inspiring. But over time, the accretion of tradition has left services interminably long and boring to all but the most devout.
Rapidly growing Christian congregations feature short, engaging, participatory services. The sermons are focused on God but always with an eye toward providing real help for individuals trying to make their lives better. There is no justification for any worship service that lasts longer than one-and-a-half hours. I can’t imagine that God wants us to be bored to death on a weekly basis. Services are generally not spiritually moving, and they tend to ignore God and focus on secular topics such as Israel, politics, communal affairs and the like. Siddurim should include transliteration; page numbers should be announced; and everything should be made clear enough that a visitor would be able to participate and feel comfortable.
She continues with this theme with her section on “Welcoming the stranger”:
Judaism calls for special protection and courtesy extended toward the stranger…
Growing Christian congregations place an emphasis on making their services accessible to first-timers and ensuring that everyone feels at home. There is a positive, even celebratory, attitude toward outsiders who join the ranks… I have heard too many horror stories (and experienced a bit of this myself) of Jewish families treating the non-Jewish partner, or even the converted spouse, with unkindness and derision. Who in his right mind would want to belong to a religious tradition where people shun and mistreat others?
After speaking briefly about the appeal of spiritual Judaism, she gives “Remembering our purpose” as the sixth point. This is the whole “light unto the nations” thing, the idea that Jews can bring justice and holiness to the world outside the Jewish community. Regardless of your feelings on this idea, Ginsburg does a good job of explaining the appeal of this idea:
The Children of Israel were called into a covenantal relationship with God and given the Torah so that we could be a “light unto the nations,” according to the prophet Isaiah. What a beautiful idea! We have a lot to offer the world. We have an amazing ethical tradition, one that is sorely needed in the world today. We honor working for justice, loving truth and serving God’s good creation.
Her final point is on the emphasis Judaism places on living a holy life:
This is one place where we clearly have an advantage over the Christians. While other religious traditions focus on the life to come, or downplay the significance of everyday existence in favor of disembodied spirituality, Judaism places us squarely in the moment. The question always before us is halachik—how do I walk in the path of holiness in this moment? I love observing kashrut because every time I eat I think about God. We are given brachot to say in a wonderful variety of circumstances, from seeing a rainbow to putting on new clothes for the first time to eating a meal. In this way all of life is imbued with a sense of deep meaning and connection with God. Our tradition is family-oriented; in fact, it is centered on the home. Our holidays bring us together year after year, and hopefully serve to reconnect us not only with our family and friends but with our tradition of holiness.
In less than 2,000 words, Ginsburg pulls of an incredible feat: she simultaneously makes a persuasive argument for Judaism for secular and unaffiliated Jews and people considering conversion while also offering a critique of Jewish life that has great value to leaders immersed in Judaism. Her insight is illuminating for both the novice and the expert.
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