Conversion to Judaism is a profound thing. Stepping into the ritual waters has a ripple effect on everyone close to you, for better or worse.
My decision to convert was met with long blank stares masking mountains of internal dialogue. Many people inconsequentially convert to religions within Christianity, but for someone who was raised Christian to convert to Judaism is by definition a rejection. Rejecting that the Messiah has come can be interpreted as a dismissal of the morals and lessons you once lived, and in many cases a rejection of those who raised you. It can also be seen as a choice that was made that wasn’t entirely your own.
Biblically, Ruth is perhaps the most famous “Jew-by-choice.” Born a Moabite woman, Ruth didn’t convert through study, as I did; her conversion was accepted by the Israelites through her actions and their acceptance of her true heart. She understood Jewish principals and was committed to living a Jewish life.
One could speculate that Ruth converted to Judaism for Naomi. Ruth’s husband had died and the vulnerability of being alone could have driven her to want to connect with someone; something bigger than her pain. The Torah tells us that when Naomi challenged Ruth’s decision to accompany her to Israel Ruth physically clung to her, despite Naomi’s warnings that conversion to Judaism would not guarantee her a successful life.
One could also speculate that Ruth’s conversion was for Boaz; a powerful, noble man who had been kind to Ruth in her widowed state. His generosity enabled her to support herself and her mother-in-law. She believed in the laws of yibum which told her that the soul of her deceased husband would live on through her offspring, should she marry a Jewish man.
To that end, one could even speculate that Ruth ultimately converted to Judaism for her first husband. To avenge his soul, or to join him in death, “Where you die, I’ll die. Where you’re buried, I’ll be buried.”
Ruth is not a Jewish heroine because she converted; she is revered because of the way she lived her life. Ruth converted to Judaism for herself. She studied the Israelites way of life and let it fill every fiber of her being. Ruth’s job collecting charitable gleanings of the fields gave her a sense of purpose. She stood out amongst hundreds of women in the fields, not because she was a convert but because her observance of tsnius, a sincere reflection of her innate modesty, was so profoundly notable. She embraced the highest standards of her new life, a stark contrast to her Moabite upbringing, and created for herself a life of dignity. She bore and raised Jewish children whose children went on to be kings.
My conversion to Judaism caught people close to me off guard and even those who were supportive assumed I was motivated by marriage. I understand this. Since becoming a mother, I understand how hurt I would be if my child grew up to believe something so different from what I modeled and understood to be true. It would be easier to blame the change on someone else than to accept that my child made this decision on her own free will.
My husband introduced me to the Jewish faith. I first considered conversion because I wanted to embrace his heritage and raise children under a unified faith. I remember the exact point in our courtship that I vowed, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” and over the last 10 years that promise has led to an amazing partnership, to motherhood, and to the Jewish people. I was not blind to the pain conversion might cause my family and my decision did not come without sincere thought and searching to the depths of my soul. I questioned, struggled, cried, and mourned the loss of traditions I found joyful and nostalgic.
But the ultimate truth is that I did not convert to Judaism for anyone but myself.
You cannot convert to Judaism for another person, not for Naomi or Boaz and not for my amazing husband. There are too many trials you will fail and your skin would never be your own. I stepped into the mikvah after years of study, and I stepped out a more committed student. Six years later I am still learning, but I am also raising Jewish children in a Jewish home. A woman’s role in bringing children to Judaism is mighty and endless. I am preparing two tiny hearts to accept the Torah, laying a foundation with hopes that they will develop into a true ben Torah (man of Torah).
I converted to Judaism under the minimum expectations of the law, but what truly makes me Jewish is the life I have lived since doing so. Like Ruth, through my actions I’ve become integrated in the Jewish community and my soul is fully committed to the teachings of the Torah, “Your people are my people, your God is my God.” With every holiday and milestone, each Shabbat dinner and bedtime Shema, I am more connected to the people of Israel. People who meet me are often surprised that I am a convert, and I find it to be the most flattering of compliments.
Conversion is not denouncing everything you once were to embrace something you see as better or right. It is about being motivated through study and reflection to assess one’s accepted belief system transcending the parts we don’t identify with and being free to make decisions about who we are, based on what we inherently know about ourselves, rather than what we are told we should be.
Shavuot is a celebration of God giving the Torah to the people of Israel on Mt. Sinai. Ruth’s soul was present, and I believe mine was too.
Chag Shavuot Sameach!