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The scene is the anteroom of the mikvah, the ritual bath, where my colleagues and I take men and women to formally convert to Judaism as they immerse themselves in the waters.
In that anteroom, my colleagues and I form a beit din, a rabbinical court, and ask the prospective convert a number of questions about his or her decision to convert to Judaism. While many of my colleagues ask questions about the convert's allegiances to his or her religion of birth, I am particularly interested in the following question, which I always ask: "What is the most difficult challenge you think you will face in becoming a Jew?"
After months of study and psychological preparation, as well as assessments of the losses they will face and the excitement of finding new meanings, community, and journeys, the converts offer different answers. But a common thread running through their responses is the anxiety that they will never be accepted in the Jewish community. They voice a fear of being written off by other Jews. They imagine never being taken seriously. Many worry that they will make mistakes as they move forward in their Jewish observance. Some articulate concerns that their opinions about Jewish life will be suspect and their loyalties questioned.
Choosing to become a Jew is a journey, not unlike immigration to another country. It is filled with celebration and loss, excitement and anxiety, and it is a complicated and weighty matter.
As we read the book of Ruth, the sages link this book to the holiday because of its agricultural themes, but also because Ruth was the consummate proselyte. As Ruth says to her mother-in-law, Naomi, "Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God." The sages consider this to be Ruth's conversion to Judaism. And as Ruth accepted the covenant of our people, our celebration of Shavuot reenacts our acceptance of the Torah, through which we, the Jewish community, become like Ruth--willing acceptors of the Torah.
The Haftarah is from the book of Habakkuk, because, as Rashi points out, "it speaks of the giving of the Torah: 'God comes from Teman' [the south, i.e. Sinai]"(Habakkuk 3:3). Further, as we read in Habakkuk 3:2, "O Lord! I have learned of Your renown; I am awed, O Lord, by Your deeds, Renew them in these years....." Habakkuk reminds us of our need to annually reawaken our awe for God's deeds and to renew our covenant with God.
We also remember that the Torah was given in the desert, a place unpossessed and open to all, so that all could hear the call to the service of God, and all who wished could enter God's covenant. Torah, to this day, remains available to all who wish to enter into God's covenant. And many, like Ruth, have chosen to cast their lot with us.
In Tanhuma Buber, Lech Lecha 6, 32a, it is written: "Dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mt. Sinai is the convert. Had the Israelites not witnessed the lightening, thunder, quaking mountain, and sounding trumpets, they would not have accepted Torah. But the convert, who did not see or hear any of these things, came and surrendered himself to God and took the yoke of heaven upon himself. Can anyone be dearer to God than such a person?"
As many of us stand next to one another in synagogue, we might even be standing next to someone who has recently chosen to enter the covenant and has chosen Judaism.
As we renew our commitment to Torah, let us also renew our commitment to the proselyte in our midst, loving him or her with the humanity and joy in which Naomi loved and accepted Ruth.
The article was distributed by The Jewish Resource Center of UJA-Federation of New York.