By Rabbi Yael Splansky.
On Sunday morning we will celebrate Shavuot with The Book of Ruth. The chanted melody is so beautiful it is reserved for only three Biblical texts, only three days of the year.
Ruth is identified as the first convert to Judaism. There was no required course of study, no ritual of mikveh, no Beit Din to sign documents then. But there was for Ruth deep attachment, great acts of loyalty, and the indelible words she spoke to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn away from you. Wherever you go, I will go. Where you make a home, I will make a home. Your people will be my people. And your God, my God. Where you die, I will die. And there I will be buried.” (Ruth 1:16)
While Judaism has never been a prosthelatizing religion, there has always been a path for those who choose to join us. Our Sages picture the scene at the foot of Mount Sinai and imagine that the souls of every Jew – past, present, and future — were there to receive Torah. The souls of those who would one day enter into the covenant, not by birth, but by choice, were also there. This midrash teaches that converts were with us from the beginning and are needed to make us whole.
Gone are the days of turning people away three times. Gone are the days of suspicion or skepticism. Today there is understanding that no one takes the decision of religious conversion lightly. The path to Judaism is nuanced and varied. Most conversations take place in the confidence of a Rabbi’s study. The decision is so personal, most people don’t want to pressure or pry. Sometimes it is a complicated journey; sometimes it is an exciting time of intellectual or spiritual discovery; sometimes it is a simple homecoming. And sometimes people live a Jewish life for many years, before they feel ready to make it official.
The immersion into the calm mikvah waters seems the perfect ritual to mark the affirmation of faith and practice. There is dignity in the quiet under the water – a private moment at Sinai. In the silent weekday Amidah, in the section devoted to the Tzadikim, we pray that God’s compassion will come to “the righteous, including the pious, the elders, the scholars, and the just converts.” This is a daily expression of extra care for Jews-by-choice, but it is also done in silence.
Most celebrations in Jewish life are loud and communal. Where’s the fanfare? Where’s the warm welcome? It usually comes only in the embrace of the innermost circle of family and friends who gather outside the mikveh or around that first Shabbat table. For many, that’s as it should be. But I can’t help but wonder if the awe is misinterpreted as ambivalence. How might we express our collective gratitude? How can we offer a heartfelt, public welcome? By Jewish law we do not distinguish a Jew by choice from a Jew by birth. A Jew is a Jew. But are we missing an opportunity to celebrate and honour those who bring such strength to the Jewish People?
An Open Invitation
The Jewish Information Class (JIC) is the pre-requisite course for conversion. In order to enroll, one needs to be sponsored by a Rabbi who will support and guide the student along the way. If there is a Jewish partner, he or she also attends the class to show enthusiasm and support and to further develop his/her own Jewish expression. The JIC meets one evening each week for two semesters. Usually one course begins in September and ends in June while another begins in January and ends in December. An introduction to Jewish history, calendar, life cycle, beliefs and practice is team-taught by Reform Rabbis from across the city. An introduction to Hebrew is also part of the curriculum to enable participation in synagogue and home ritual.
If you are interested in learning more about Judaism in a supportive and stimulating environment, please be in touch with any of the Rabbis at Holy Blossom. We enjoy this part of our work very much and feel privileged to have your trust in walking you through the process. There are no timelines or expectations. Only an open invitation.
I have also come to admire those who choose to attach themselves to the Jewish People, those who choose Judaism for their children even if not for themselves, or not yet. This is one significant way the Reform movement distinguishes itself. We see that it is possible for a non-Jewish parent to help raise a Jewish child. So if you do not intend to become Jewish yourself, but want to know more about Judaism in order to help create a Jewish home and raise a Jewish child, the Jewish Information Class is also a great resource for you.
The Book of Ruth concludes with her future lineage. Ruth’s great grandson is none other than King David. According to tradition, it is from her line that the Messianic Age will dawn. The message is clear: there is infinite potential in the commitments we make – as individuals and as a people. At this season of collective covenant and personal commitment, I wish us all a Chag Sameach.
By Rabbi Yael Splansky.