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Torah Commentary
Vayeilech (September 22, 2012)

Benjamin J. Zeidman, Assistant Rabbi

THESE ARE NOT the words of our Torah portion this week, but rather the words of the haftarah that goes with it:

Thus says the Eternal One: ‘Maintain justice and do what is right, for My salvation is close at hand, and revealed shall be My vindication.’ […] Never more let the foreigner who has joined the Eternal say, ‘The Eternal will keep me apart from God’s people.’ […] ‘As for the foreigners who join themselves to the Eternal in love and service, who keep the Sabbath lest it be profaned, and hold fast to My covenant: I will bring them to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. [I will accept] the burnt offerings and sacrifices they offer on My altar: for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’ (Isaiah 56:1-7)

All too often I hear from those who have become Jews (even many years ago) that there are those who don’t treat them quite as Jews. Never do I hear this about a rabbi or a learned individual. When told that an individual has not always been Jewish, there are those whose response is: “Oh, so you’re not really Jewish, not really.” Whether made verbally or even in their minds, these sentiments are not only rude, but they also are completely incorrect.

Conversion has long been a touchy subject in Judaism — not because we don’t welcome them but because in times past the act of accepting a new Jew from a different religion has brought the wrath of the government down upon the community. No longer an issue for us, we put those who are interested in becoming Jewish through a much more difficult and complicated process than our ancestors ever did. According to the law, if someone sincerely comes to us desiring to be a Jew, even after being warned about how difficult it is and the anti-Semitism we face, they are accepted immediately. They become Jewish with minimal instruction (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei-ah).

Today, most conversion students attend class after class, studying with a rabbi for a year or more. They attend more services in a year than do many of us born Jewish have attended in 10. They have more Jewish knowledge than many (who stopped attending Religious School after becoming b’nei mitzvah), and they have shown time and again their dedication to their people. Isaiah, written perhaps 2,500 years ago, already was saying that those who enter the covenant as adults are just as much a part of the community as anyone else. The medieval Jewish law agrees with him, and so do our Reform Jewish ethical sensibilities.

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