Jethro was one of the very first converts to Judaism. I have been studying with my rabbis the concept of conversion and wanted to share a thought or two on the topic.
Many religions actively try to bring in new recruits. And, in the fervour of doing so, I believe it’s not always easy to distinguish between sincere desire to help another versus personal desire for vindication and validation; a kind of theological safety in numbers.
But Judaism has a very different perspective, and it is a very delicate balance. By nature, Judaism is a challenging religion, requiring adherence to six hundred and thirteen commandments, as well as rabbinical enactments and customs that have arisen over three thousand years. It’s a lot for someone to take on. But, added to that, Jews have suffered anti-Semitism, sometimes in extreme forms throughout our history. So, on the one hand, one wonders why a grounded person, in their right mind, would want to convert? But, on the other hand, we do understand. We would not be following the way of life ourselves if we did not believe it pointed to truth, meaning, values, wisdom, spirituality and, above all, service.
This tension is manifest in the philosophy and process of conversion. On the one hand, we want to welcome and embrace sincere converts who we feel can last the course and become contributing members of an idealistic community. On the other hand, we want to discourage those who have ulterior motives – such as a relationship, or those who might have become enamoured with an ideal that they will struggle to live up to once reality hits.
As I said, Judaism sees itself as a life of service. That service takes the form of living by a set of values; always looking to follow a moral compass. And, in doing so, setting a standard that might inspire others. It is a responsibility. We embrace anyone who is willing to join us in that goal. But we do not want to accept converts who are not interested in the essence of a demanding way of life.
The balance between welcoming and turning away is agonizingly difficult to find. And responsibility for the process of conversion is not undertaken lightly by any rabbi, as a result. The principle is one of ‘draw close with the right hand, whilst pushing away with the left’. Unfortunately, because of the delicacy of such a balance, I do sometimes find that it is the left hand which is drawing close and the right pushing away. That is a shame for those who are genuinely eager to embrace Judaism.
As with anything in life, things that matter are usually subtle and nuanced; shades of grey rather than black and white. It means that we only ever have the resource of our own moment-to-moment wisdom to rely on in making choices. And, as always, I am deeply grateful for the blessing of this resource, without which none of us would be able to live the lives of meaning and service to which we all ultimately aspire.
Parsha in a Nutshell
Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, joins the Jewish people in the desert, advises Moses on the best way to serve and judge the people – by appointing a hierarchy of intermediaries – and then returns home to Midian. Moses is humble enough to listen to his father in law and the Jewish People benefit greatly from his sound advice.
The main theme, however, of this Torah portion is the Ten Commandments. Whilst most depictions of the tablets show them with rounded tops, the Talmud says that they were actually cubical with the words running right through, from one side to the other, so you could see the words on both sides. This requires two very specific miracles in order to work. I’ll leave it for the scientists among you to figure that one (or rather those two!) out.