Doing Jewish: More than Faith
© 2011 Debbie Burton
D'var Torah for Parshat Mishpatim, 24th of Sh'vat, 5771
Although this parshah is called "Mishpatim", "laws" [lit.,"judgements"], and lists lots of mitzvot, I want to focus not on the laws but on two verses found toward the end of the parshah. These verses are very similar and reminded me of a personal experience. Note that it is always considered significant when an idea is repeated in Torah.
The first is the second part of (Exodus) Chapter 24, verse 3:
וַיַּעַן כָּל-הָעָם קוֹל אֶחָד, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה, נַעֲשֶׂה.
The Etz Hayim Chumash translates this as: "and all the people answered with one voice saying, 'All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!'"
Then just a few verses later, the second half of verse 7 is very similar:
וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.
Etz Hayim translates this as: "And they said
'All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!'"
When I read the above translation, I was thinking "Wait, I didn't see anything in the Hebrew that says "faithfully". In fact, the last two words literally mean "we will do and we will obey" and Etz Hayim has an extended footnote to explain the addition of "faithfully" in its translation. However, I want to discuss the literal meaning of the "doing" part in both verses, particularly in the way in which they reflect the additional requirements of Judaism to go beyond simple faith.
These two verses reminded me of the first two paragraphs of the "Declaration of Faith" that I was asked to read aloud and then sign when I came before the Beit Din for my conversion:
I hereby declare my desire to accept the principles of the Jewish religion, to follow its practices and ceremonies, and to become a member of the Jewish people. I do this of my own free will, with an understanding of the significance of the tenets and practices of Judaism, and full realization of the commitment I herewith assume.
I pray that my present conviction may guide me through life, that I may be worthy of the sacred tradition and fellowship which I now join. As I am thankful for the privileges thus bestowed upon me, I pray that I may always remain conscious of the duties which are mine as a member of the House of Israel.
This is in essence a much more flowery and wordy version of the verses of the Torah I noted.
The three rabbis of the Beit Din also signed the "Declaration of Faith" as evidence that they had heard my testimony and saw me sign it. And so, one might think that it was my conversion document, but it is not. I still needed to complete the final step in conversion: immersion in a mikveh. It was after my immersion that I was given conversion documents, one in English and one in Hebrew that both said that same thing, and which were signed by the three rabbis. The physical act of immersion was a required part of conversion: a necessary "Doing" part.
I would like to contrast conversion to Judaism with conversion to Christianity or Islam. However, I need to disclose that I don't really know that much about Christianity even though I grew up in a home that celebrated Christmas and Easter. But my home was basically secular. My mother took me and my sisters to a Presbyterian church for only one year, when I was eight and my sisters were five and two. In that year, I learned two things: first, unlike the rest of the kids in my Sunday school class, I had not been baptized. The other thing was that they kept saying that it was important to "let Jesus into your heart". I figured that I might as well try it out, so I gave what I suppose was a half-hearted effort ... and it didn't work. Now I look back at that and laugh: Of course it didn't work ... I was supposed to be Jewish! [Ah! hindsight]
So my (uneducated) impression of Christianity is that the key part of conversion is that the person states "I believe" and, with that profession of belief, they become a Christian. Some denominations also have baptism but I don't think that it is an absolutely necessary component of conversion. Similarly, I read about a man who converted to Islam by coming before an Imam and declaring his beliefs. So it seems that for those other religions, you just have to confirm your belief and you're a convert.
In contrast, it typically takes about a year, and sometimes a few years, of study even before coming before a Beit Din for conversion to Judaism. Because it is so different from other religions, this is sometimes misunderstood by potential converts to Judaism as somehow artificially putting up barriers to conversion. But the time for study is needed because there is so much to learn about what you need to do as a Jew. That time really is needed to learn some Hebrew and the basic prayers, how to celebrate all the holidays, and all the rules for living a Jewish life such as how to observe Kashrut and Shabbat. There are so many holidays and most rabbis want to have potential converts learn about and experience each of them as they occur in a full year cycle.
And then there is circumcision for men and immersion for all converts. Those physical components of conversion are absolutely required by traditional Judaism. In fact, the Sages argue about the status of a person who did some, but not all of the acts of conversion. What if a man declared his intentions to convert and was circumcised, but then something happened before he had immersed? Is he considered a Jew or not, and under which circumstances? It is a real problem because without the immersion, he hasn't completed the conversion process.
My next example is from the Reform Movement, despite the fact that this minyan is definitely not Reform. This was made clear when, a couple of weeks ago, it was suggested that we sing Debbie Friedman's "Mi Sheberach" song as a tribute to her. No one knew all the words. The example concerns another group of people who are not unequivocally Jewish by birthright: these are the people who have one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent. Although many people talk about how Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal Jews, most people are not familiar with the official ruling.
From the "Report of the Committee on Patrilineal Descent of the Central Conference of American Rabbis" adopted on March 15, 1983:
The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.
Depending on circumstances, mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation). For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi.
Notice that the gender of the Jewish parent is not specified because this ruling applies whether the Jewish parent is the mother or the father. Reform Judaism is very egalitarian. I have a friend with a son and a daughter, who
is almost exactly a year younger than her brother. Because my friend was concerned about whether an elderly relative would be able to live to see the daughter's bat mitzvah, she asked her rabbi if they could have a joint bnei mitzvah when her son was 13 and her daughter was 12, the traditional age for girls to be considered a Jewish adult. The rabbi said that they could not do that because Reform Judaism considered the age of bat mitzvah
to be 13 for girls, just the same as the bar mitzvah age for boys. The surprising outcome of the application of egalitarianism to children with only one Jewish parent is that, in contrast to traditional Judaism, the Reform movement does not automatically consider a child with a Jewish mother, but non-Jewish father, to be Jewish, at least officially.
The ruling means that children with only one Jewish parent are not simply Jewish by birthright, but must do "public and formal acts" in order to claim their Jewish status. In fact, I suspect that these days children and adults with one Jewish parent are often simply accepted as Jews in Reform shuls regardless of whether they were brought up Jewish and did specific acts. But the requirement shows that even though the Reform movement requires fewer ritual acts in other aspects of Jewish life, it still feels that "doing Jewish" is needed, at least for people with unclear ancestry, in order to be Jewish.
Even people who have two Jewish parents and are without a doubt Halachically Jewish, sometimes feel that actions are needed to be "really Jewish." Some people make "bar mitzvah" into a verb and will say "I was never bar mitzvahed". This is typically said by a man who did not have a Jewish education as a child and whose family might not have been affiliated with a synagogue, so that he was not involved in Judaism while growing up. Now in fact, a Jewish boy does not need to do anything other than reach his 13th Hebrew birthday to "become a bar mitzvah". At that point, he can count in a minyan and receive an aliyah to the Torah, regardless of whether reaching that age was publicly celebrated.
A man who says he "was not bar mitzvahed" is not talking about not having had a big party when he was 13 years old. He may be referring to the fact that he didn't learn the skills of leading services or chanting from the Torah. But usually I think he is expressing the feeling of incompleteness from having not had the chance to publicly acknowledge his acceptance of being a part of the Jewish people.
I used to feel that I "missed out" by not being Jewish as a child. And then I realized that because I was a girl and I would have been of bat mitzvah age in the mid-1970's, even if I had been Jewish, I might not have celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah. Even if I had, it would have been significantly less than what the boys did. In my husband's Conservative shul, girls were permitted to read, but not chant, the Haftarah portion and it had to be done outside of the sanctuary. I think this is the reason that I hear about many more adult bat mitzvah celebrations than bar mitzvah celebrations since in the past so many girls were not given the same opportunities as their brothers. So I'm not really that far "behind" other Jewish women my age (and besides I have time in the future to do all these things).
I look at all of those columns on the minyan "Skills List" table as a challenge [in Debbie's congregation, the members do every thing, so they maintain a list of who can do what]. First I was able to get a check in the "Torah reading" column, next I was able to check off the "D'var Torah" column (both of which I did at this service). I'm practicing to read Haftarah for the first time this spring. If that goes well then I'll add that column too. Finally, I'll have to tackle skills of leading services. One of things I love best about finally having converted after so many years of participating, but not being Jewish, is that I am able to play an active role in services. It gives me immense satisfaction because it is really "doing Jewish" as a full member of my community.
Which brings us back to why we are all here right now davening together in shul. It's because we are Jews and this is what Jews do on Shabbat.
Debbie's Note: I gave a version of this D'var Torah on this past Shabbat, the 24th of Sh'vat, to my "tiny" lay-led minyan. I spoke without notes: I had only a copy of the Declaration of Faith and a printout of the section of the CCAR resolution, and I looked up the verses in the Chumash. I had thought about what I wanted to say but otherwise I spoke directly to my minyan friends in a more conversational style than this written version. I kept the wording of the D'var as if I were speaking to my minyan because otherwise I'd have to think up a whole new concluding line.