Converts and Judaism

Shavuot is the festival most relevent to converts to Judaism, as the Book of Ruth indicates. She is the most famous convert, and indeed is the ancestor of King David and, by extension, the Messiah. In truth, all Jews "converted" on Shavuot by accepting the Torah.

So many religions proselytize, and actively seek out converts. Some do it at the edge of the sword. What does Judaism think?

Easy. We love converts, and do not encourage them to do so. A convert is very holy, having freely decided to accept 613 commandments. They did not have to in order to gain entry to The World To Come. Any human being living in accordance with the rules of morality finds great favor in God's eyes. This spiritual person could have become a "Noachide", an observer of the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah. Yet they chose full-blown Judaism. Inspiring.

In the quality versus qualntity argument, Judaism chooses quality. Once in history did Jews actually force the conversion of a people. Back in the days of John Hyrcanus, more than 2000 years ago, Judea offered the Edomites the choice of conversion or exile. Many chose exile, and many chose conversion. Among the descendants of those converts was Herod, the monumental - and bloody - king of Judea.

Was it the right thing to do? Who knows. On the one hand, Hyrcanus immediately neutralized the security threat posed by the Edomite enclaves in Judea's side. Maybe Israel should offer the same deal to the Palestinians! And in the long term, most of those conversions seem to have stuck.

On the other hand, it is an affront to Judaism's belief in the value of all nations to force conversion. We do not regard "Lions converts", ie, converts from fear or coercion, highly.

That really is the bottom line, but not to be taken to the extreme. Some wish to eliminate conversion altogether, and others restrict it where it is really needed.

I believe that in cases of some Jewish lineage, or doubtful lineage, conversion should be ACTIVELY encouraged. In cases where the conversion is for marriage, it should not be encouraged. If the marriage is already in place, then it can be encouraged.

Why? Because conversion for marriage is often insincere. It is done to alleviate the guilt of the families. If, however, the couple is already married, the reason for the conversion is no longer to please the families, but to reconcile the home. That is more sincere, and I belive the rabbis should examine these cases with a favorable inclination.

We need not fear conversion. In many situations today, a new, welcoming approach is called for.

But there is one type of proselytizing we MUST do. We must encourage ALL humans to live by the 7 Noahide laws of basic morality. That may be done even by force. After all, the purpose of the Jewish people in the world is "to fix the world under God's Kingdom."

Lot and the most important character trait

There are three main stories involving Lot. The first is when his shepherds argued with Abraham's, resulting in Lot moving down to the lush, but sinful, city of Sodom. The second is when Abraham rescued Lot and the Sodomites from four mighty kings that had captured them. This was a brilliant military victory where Abraham, with just a few hundred soldiers, defeated four powerful armies.

The most significant story, however, is how Lot was rescued on the eve of Sodom's destruction. When we think of an individual being saved from a cataclysm, we think of Noah. It must be that Lot had a certain virtue that raised him to that same level. What was it?

The Torah tells us that Lot was saved after God remembered Abraham. The Ramban suggests that Lot did not possess sufficient merit to be saved by himself, so the merit of Abraham was needed to save him. Abraham had extended much effort to rescue Lot from those kings. Perhaps God was doing Abraham a favor, so he should not feel that all his effort was in vain.

Rashi, however, quotes the rabbis who explained that Lot had actually done a great deed for Abraham. When Abraham had first arrived in the holy land, a famine drove him, his wife, and his nephew down to Egypt. Abraham feared that the Egyptians would kill him to take his beautiful wife, so he requested that she tell them that Abraham was her brother, not her husband. In this fashion, even if Sara should be taken away, Abraham's life would be spared.

The Rabbi say that Lot knew this plot and allowed it to go forward, not revealing the truth to the Egyptians. It was this merit that saved him from the destruction of Sodom. Some ask, however, why this act was so meritorious? After all, what would Lot gain by telling the Egyptians that Sara was Abraham's wife? An answer is given that, at that time, before the birth of Isaac and Ishmael, Lot was Abraham's heir. Had Abraham been killed, Lot would come into a large inheritance. Nonetheless, he put his own self-interest aside and protected his uncle.

This will be a key an understanding just why Lot was rescued, and why his stories have much to teach us. The most important character trait is here. Let us delve further.

A fourth story involves Lot's daughters and this same trait. After Sodom was destroyed, Lot and his daughters fled to a cave. The daughters were convinced that, once again, humanity had been destroyed and they were the sole hope for the future. The older daughter suggested that they get their father drunk and then become pregnant by him. So it was that they became the progenitors of the nations of Ammon and Moab. The question is, was this a good deed that they did or not?

There seems to be a divide among the rabbis on this question. They are critical of the immodesty of the older daughter, and critical of Lot who may have been aware of what was happening. Others, however, see Divine Providence in their actions, and praise them for their deeds. On what does the argument rest?

The Torah says that the daughters feared that "there is no man to come to us as the way of all the world." Some rabbis interpret this to mean that they believe that the world of been destroyed, just as in the days of Noah. Others, again, are more critical and say that these daughters knew that there were humans elsewhere, but feared that none of them were worthy to be their husbands. They just weren't as good as their father, so...

Let's follow the first assumption, that they really believed the world had been destroyed. And let us contrast that with the experience of Noah and his sons after the flood. After the flood, Noah, perhaps suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, becomes drunk inside his tent. His son, Ham, sees him in his nakedness and does something. What did he do? One opinion is that he raped his father. The other is that he sterilized him. In either case the action he took would not lead to having children.

In the case of Lot, the story is reversed. The daughters get the father drunk specifically in order to have children! What is the difference between the two cases? Perhaps the most important character trait a person can possess: Responsibility. The success of the human experiment depends upon the victory of Responsibility over Selfishness.

Lot was an average person. As a matter of fact, his choice to dwell in Sodom indicates that he was a below average person on the moral scale. But he had one overriding character trait which gave him tremendous merit. His sense of Responsibility showed itself time and again. Responsibility means being concerned about, and ready to act upon, the needs of others, of society, of the world. Lot put his selfishness aside in order to protect his uncle Abraham.

What's more, Lot refused to turn away strangers from his home, even though the welcoming of such guests was considered a terrible crime in Sodomite society. When the mob descended upon his house after he had welcomed two guests, he protected his guests at all costs. He was even willing to put his two daughters at the mob's mercy to do so. (Some question how Lot was ready to do such a terrible thing. Perhaps he learned it, according to his own understanding, from Abraham's willingness to endanger Sara's chastity to preserve his own life at Egypt. Perhaps he understood that rape is the lesser evil, and life must take precedence. Whether he was right or wrong is the subject of a different discussion.)

The same can be said about Lot's daughters. They felt an overriding responsibility to continue the human race, despite how distasteful the method available to them was. They looked at what happened between Ham and Noah and decided to do the opposite. They provided the wine, they ensured that the children would be born.

And, as a result of these unions, who was born? The nation of Moab, the nation that gave us Ruth the convert. Ruth took responsibility for her mother-in-law Naomi, and as a result, the line that gave us King David and will ultimately bring us the Messiah came into being.

Yes, Responsibility is the character trait that will save the world. Selfishness, the trademark of Sodom, is what destroys the world. The Jewish nation has always felt a tremendous responsibility to improve the lot of humanity. We, as individuals, must be proud of that character trait and strengthen it in ourselves for the benefit of all.

Synagogue versus cathedral

At first glance, the purpose of the Tabernacle and the wonder of the High Priest and his magnificent dress would seem to be to inspire people. It is certainly true that human beings are affected by things that are aesthetically pleasing. We create a positive association for that which looks good and sounds beautiful. Good-looking people are deemed more trustworthy and likable, even though there is no objective reason for it.

And so it is important for our Jewish communal institutions to create that good impression. And, yet, the purpose of the garments of the High Priest go way beyond simply making a good impression.

The centerpiece of his eight garment uniform was the Breastplate. In it, were 12 stones representing the 12 tribes of Israel. They were known as the "Urim Vetumim." This means that they "lit up and perfected." Indeed, these stones had a supernatural power to them. In the times of the first Temple, the King, when faced with major decisions of state, could consult the Urim Vetumin to gain Divine guidance. All of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were on those stones, and upon being asked, the letters indicating the correct answer would light up miraculously.

This event would only happen when the High Priest wore the Breastplate. Only the combination of this holy individual with the holy adornment could bring that direct Divine communication.

Not every High Priest was worthy of it. Throughout the entire period of the Second Temple, the stones either were not present or did not function. The Talmud has uncomplimentary things to say about many of the High Priest in that period of time. Some of them were elitist, some refused to accept the principles of the Oral Law. The spiritual level of the High Priest seems to be critical to the functioning of the Urim Vetumin.

The commentaries all ask how it was possible for a High Priest in Second Temple times to fulfill his duties if there were no Urim Vetumim. The rule is that a High Priest who officiates without all of the required garments is liable to death at the hands of heaven! A couple of answers are offered. One is that the Breastplate was, indeed, there, just that the stones were not. Others disagree, and claim that the breastplate without the stones is as if it's nonexistent. Rather, they claim that the stones were there as well, but they no longer had the magical function.

This law of "mechusar begadim," or lacking required garments is explained by the commentaries in a striking way. The man who has been the High Priest but attempts to perform the Temple service without the garments is not, at that time, the High Priest. It is as if he is not even a Cohen, simply a regular individual who inserted themselves into the Temple ritual. About such a person the Torah says, "and the stranger that comes close (to perform the Service) shall die."

In other words, the clothing makes the man, or, in this case, the High Priest.

The Sefer Hachinuch, a later medieval scholar, provides a novel understanding of the role of these garments. Every single garment the High Priest wore had to cover his entire person. There was to be no significant flesh showing. In this way, the High Priest would see the symbols of holiness upon his entire person. In other words, the garments were not to impress and inspire the people coming into the Tabernacle, but rather to reminds the High Priest himself of his unlimited potential for holiness.

This is an inspiring concept. A human being who is in full perception of the innate holiness within himself is capable of becoming a conduit for direct communication from God. He wears upon his person, numerous times, the Divine Name. Such is the potential of the human being, created in the image of God.

What is even more inspiring is the fact that the first High Priest was Aaron. Why so? Because Aaron was a very human being. He had imperfections in his past, specifically the fact that he somehow facilitated the episode of the Golden Calf. Instead of being a disqualifier, perhaps that is the true reason he was the perfect person to be the first dedicated High Priest.

What is the role of the High Priest, anyway? To bring atonement and forgiveness to the people. There is no such thing as a completely perfect individual, but if there were, he would not be appropriate for this exalted position. He could not relate to the rest of the people who come to the Temple seeking redemption and cleansing. Nobody would feel any affinity for him, and thus his influence would not be effective.

Thus, we can resolve our doubt about the role of the Tabernacle and the splendiferous garments of the High Priest. They are not for the glory of God, but to show all of us the glory of God that resides in our own souls. The synagogue is not a cathedral where the faithful are made to feel very small, but rather it is a Tabernacle where the faithful reminded of just how great and holy they are.

The Temple and the synagogue are not places we go to discharge duties to God and then go home to our lives. They are places we go to stock up on spiritual self-esteem in order to bring that holiness with us out into the world and back into our homes. When we see a man, flawed as we are, who covers himself in holiness and reaches the level where God speaks through the Breastplate upon his person, we see what we are capable of achieving. And when the man treats us with love and honor, we are motivated to achieve that holiness.

Creation and the Land of Israel

Indeed, the great commentator Ramban is puzzled by Rabbi Isaac's question. Why does the Torah begin with creation? Obviously, because belief in God is the creator of the universe is at the center of everything! I would expect the Torah to begin with it! To this, the Ramban replies that the Torah could have included a simple phrase, perhaps in the first of the 10 Commandments. "I am the Lord thy God who created the heavens and the earth." That would do it. Instead, we have the entire creation story, including Adam and Eve, the tree of knowledge, Cain and Abel and more. They are there to teach us a powerful lesson, and it is that which Rabbi Isaac is presenting.

As we read the stories of Adam, Cain and Abel, and so forth, there is a common thread. The people in the story commit a sin and are exiled from where they were as a result. Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden, Cain, after he slays his brother, must wander around the world. What we are being taught is that there is a spiritual content to the physical land. The land of Israel, especially, simply cannot tolerate sinners upon it. Hence, the seven nations of Canaan who practiced human sacrifice and other abominations, could not be abided by the holy land. In their place, came the nation of Israel, with its commitment to God's Torah and morality.

Thus, we are being taught that our actions and moral stature have consequences.

But I might still ask why, then, the Torah doesn't have a problem-free rendition of the Genesis story? Why go into details about the six days of creation? After all, science has demonstrated convincingly that the earth is far older than just 6000 years, and that each stage described in the creation epic lasted far longer than a simple day. If the Torah would have simply said, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," and left it at that, there would be no conflict between science and the Bible. Why give me 31 verses that give an impression at odds with scientific discovery?

There are different ways of resolving this seeming contradiction. Some claim that the world was, indeed, created in six days and that those six days were, indeed, about 6000 years ago. They say, however, that God created the world as if it were in midlife. Dinosaur fossils and astronomical echoes of the Big Bang (13.7 billion years ago) are simply there to give the impression that the world is older. I don't like this approach, because it implies that God intentionally tried to mislead mankind. The idea that God created dinosaur fossils of dinosaurs that never actually existed seems, to me, ridiculous.

Some interpret the six days of creation as referring to epochs, rather than 24 hour days. The sum total of those epochs might indeed be 13.7 billion years. I am okay with that. But there is another explanation that excites me.

Dr. Gerald Schroeder, the author of Genesis and the Big Bang, demonstrates how 6 24-hour days can equal 13.7 billion years. It all depends on where you are measuring the time. His premise is that the universe is stretching, and that time is a physical property that gets stretched along with it. Similar to a sheet of rubber with lines drawn every centimeter. Stretch it out, and those lines get farther and farther apart. The universe has been expanding at a rate of 900 billion times per day. As it expands, the relative passage of time changes dramatically. Imagine someone at the location of the Big Bang who sends out a pulse of light every second. For them, a second is a second, a 24 hour day feels like a 24 hour day, and 5 1/2 of them feel like 5 1/2 days.

Now, imagine someone on earth, which is billions of light-years away, receives the pulse of light. The next pulse will not arrive one second later. It can't because space has been stretched out so far. Instead, it will probably arrive millions of years later. The equation is: 900 billionĂ—5 1/2 days (the amount of time from the beginning of creation until the creation of Adam) divided by 365 days a year equals 13.6 billion years! In other words, if we measure the first 5 1/2 days of creation at the origin of the Big Bang, from God's perspective, as it were, it equals 13.6 billion earth years. Only when Adam is created does the location of the clock shift to Earth.

The Big Bang theory posits that the universe existed as energy in a minuscule speck. Energy takes no space, so even a speck may be an exaggeration. That speck exploded and began to form matter, and the universe began to stretch and an increasing rate. Dr. Schroeder accepts the Big Bang theory and has shown us how the timing described in the Bible can be in complete agreement with the paleontology and astronomy that indicate the world is quite old.

What is amazing is that this Big Bang theory is not just from the mid-20th century, but was stated 750 years ago. The great Ramban, in his commentary on Genesis, describes exactly the same process. Everything was in a small speck that had no substance to it, and then God caused all matter to be generated from this one speck.

Perhaps the 31 verses of the creation story are put into the Torah so we should realize that science cannot throw us any curveballs. Taken together with the Ramban's explanation of Rashi and Rabbi Isaac we gain a new level of understanding. While science hasn't shown this yet, there is a spiritual component in creation that requires harmonized living by human beings. "The world stands upon three things: Torah, service, and acts of kindness," teach our sages. Perhaps they are doing more than just giving us good advice, perhaps they are describing this as yet unmeasured spiritual element in creation. We, who have the Torah, no this intrinsically. The more we harmonize our lives with the spiritual essence of the land, the more we will grow and blossom.