Jewish Conversion - A historical perspective from Ruth to the kingdom of the Khazars.
Throughout history there have been men and women who joined the Jewish people through conversion. In Genesis, after Abraham was called by God to journey to the land of Canaan, we read: "Abraham went forth as the Lord had commanded him. Abraham took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot ... and the persons that they had acquired in Haran". According to rabbinic interpretation, the "persons they had acquired" represented the first converts to Judaism and all converts, when they acquire their Hebrew name, are known as ben (son of) or bat (daughter of) Abraham.
The most famous example of a biblical convert is Ruth who, we are told, was the great-grandmother of King David. Since tradition says that the Messiah will come from the line of David, then the Messiah too will be descended from a convert to Judaism.
In the Talmudic period several well-known rabbis and scholars were themselves converts, or descended from converts, and there have also been interesting examples of group conversion to Judaism, like the entire kingdom of the Khazars in the eighth century.
Talmudic Rabbi Eliezar ben Pedat said that the exile of Jews from Israel, the most terrible event in ancient Jewish history, had but one positive outcome, that “the holy one, praised be he, exiled Israel, among the nations for the purpose of gaining converts” (Pesachim 87B).
However during the majority of the last two thousand years, (as soon as the Roman Empire became Christian) Jewish conversion became punishable by death. Only for these historical reasons has Judaism adopted the policy of discouraging converts.
Perhaps if it had been possible to be more open to Jewish conversion, some of the great tragedies of the Jewish people such as the Inquisition and pogroms, and even the Holocaust may have never happened, because Jews would not be such a vulnerable minority.
Only now, in modern times have people begun to choose Jewish conversion, and replenish the ranks of the Jewish people that were lost in such tragedies. Among hundreds of thousands more each year are such celebrity converts as Tom Arnold, Connie Chung, Isla Fisher, Mary Hart, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
But please remember, when you have completed the process of Jewish conversion, you become a Jew with all responsibilities, just like the rest of us. You will not be a convert and part of that history, but a Jew and part of ours.
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an outreach effort of Adat Achim Synagogue.