Converting is a huge sacrifice, which God values greatly—and so should we. But as is well known there is a halachah that a non-Jew who converted as a minor can recant his decision upon reaching majority. In that case, he reverts to being a non-Jew. How sad that he lost out on such a special distinction due to some passing whim!
There was a case where a family converted together; mother, father and children. When one son heard that he was allowed to opt out of Yiddishkeit, he honestly said that he wanted to let go of his conversion. “If I am obligated to be a Jew that is one thing, since God wants me to fulfill the mitzvos. But if I am able to be a non-Jew, why should I take on the obligation to do all the mitzvos? How can I know that I will fulfill them as I should? Isn’t it better for me to go the easier but more sure way?”
But when he expressed this wish, the dayan he spoke to wasn’t sure what to do. “I am not sure whether when an entire family converts one who was a minor at the time can opt out. This is a machlokes Rishonim and I am not certain how we rule.”
When this question reached the Chasam Sofer, zt”l, he ruled decisively. “We hold like the Rishonim who rule that a convert whose entire family converted with him cannot opt out of his Jewishness.”
Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Convert’s Choice”
I’ve been thinking a lot about religious observance recently. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and wondering if I’d ever get up the nerve to actually blog about it.
So here goes.
It’s fairly common knowledge within the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots communities that the status of non-Jews and their possible obligation to Jewish religious observance is a matter of some concern. Mark Kinzer’s book Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People is something of a blueprint of one end of the spectrum of Messianic Judaism that advocates for parallel but wholly separate conduits of Jews occupying Messianic Judaism and Gentiles occupying traditional Christianity. In theory, both groups relate to One God and to Jesus (Yeshua) as the Jewish Messiah, but their recommended approaches to religious practice are totally different, and the two groups rarely if ever, interact.
On the other side of the spectrum is the One Law group which states that there are no distinctions or differences between Jews and non-Jews in the Messianic movement. Except for a matter of DNA, Jews are no different from Gentiles in their obligation to the 613 commandments that define the modern understanding of the Torah. This brings up the uncomfortable reality that all Christians everywhere have the same obligation to the Torah, whether they realize it or not. The One Law position must come to the conclusion (though I’ve never heard them state it as such) that the vast majority of the Christian church is continually in sin because they don’t refrain from eating trief and work and play on Saturday.
The educational ministry First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) has proposed a sort of “middle ground” in this arena with the idea of something called “divine invitation.” FFOZ has produced a number of books and other, similar materials presenting information from Jewish literary sources suggesting that historically, Gentiles were not always completely forbidden from certain Jewish observances. I won’t attempt to list the details here since they are too numerous, but the basic idea is that, while non-Jews are not obligated to fulfill the Torah mitzvot in the manner of Jews, they are, in many cases, permitted to do so.
This would no doubt fly in the face of more traditional Jewish viewpoints and certainly Orthodox Judaism would be in almost complete disagreement. Nevertheless, within the Messianic context, you will find many non-Jewish people voluntarily taking on board some of the Torah mitzvot as they feel led to do so, but with the understanding that refraining from any of the mitzvot does not constitute a sin on the part of a non-Jewish Christian.
Divine invitation is an opportunity for non-Jews in the movement who have become accustomed to keeping certain of the mitzvot to continue to do so without necessarily crossing the distinction barrier between Gentile and Jew and thus preserving Jewish distinction in Messianic Judaism.
But there’s a flip side to the coin. Divine invitation allows non-Jews in the movement or at least associated with the movement to not observe the mitzvot…at all…ever.
It’s been well over a month since I attended FFOZ’s Shavuot conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin. For several days, I was allowed to worship in what seemed to be the ideal Messianic Jewish religious environment. The Gentiles still outnumbered the Jews by quite a bit, but the model for worship was definitely that of the synagogue, though great accommodations were made for non-Hebrew speakers and readers.
There were a lot of non-Jews worshiping in the Jewish manner, though in that environment, they were not obligated to do so. We non-Jews were not obligated to eat the fine kosher food that was provided. We were not obligated to daven shacharit. We were not obligated to don tzitzit. And yet most of the non-Jewish worshipers did so and no one seemed to mind.
But what if we didn’t? I mean, if we’re not obligated and let’s say, we don’t feel led, so what if we didn’t worship in even a remotely Jewish manner? I suppose nothing bad would happen. But is there an expectation that even if we don’t have to keep the mitzvot, that we should, particularly if we are choosing to worship with Jews who are worshiping God as Jews in a (Messianic) Jewish synagogue?
It would be an interesting experiment in that environment to have a non-Jew observe absolutely none of the mitzvot, just to see what it would be like to decline a “divine invitation.” I suppose it would be like going to your high school senior prom and then continually refusing invitations to dance. What would be the point?
The point I suppose, is that the “prom” is where you feel you belong, where your friends and maybe your family are, and yet you feel you aren’t called to dance their dance because you believe you don’t really belong to that group of dancers.
OK, it’s a crummy metaphor, but you get the idea.
Of course, most of the time, I don’t worship with anybody. In fact, I don’t worship in a community at all. This avoids the whole problem of how I should worship, identity confusion, and the whole shooting match, but there’s a problem. I live with Jewish people. Do I do what they do?
Well, sort of.
Here’s the scary part.
The Jewish people I live with aren’t particularly observant.
There, I said it.
It’s true. At this point, my wife and daughter don’t even light the candles on Erev Shabbat. For a long time, I was the only one doing it, but it seemed absurd that I continue since I’m the only non-Jew in the house and a male and I’m the one lighting the candles. I kept asking my wife on Friday as sundown approached, “Do you want to light the Shabbos candles?” Her response was always something like, “You can if you want to.”
Like I said, it got kind of absurd. No one seemed to care if I lit the candles or not. So I stopped.
My wife hasn’t gone so far as to serve up pork chops for dinner and in fact, she’s rather studious about making sure we all continue to eat “kosher style” (see Leviticus 11), but our kitchen isn’t kosher and, strictly speaking, my wife doesn’t understand why I don’t choose to eat trief, since the kosher obligation doesn’t apply to me.
We also (gasp) work on the Shabbat. This part really bothers me, but there’s not a lot I can do about it. My daughter’s and my wife’s employers require that they work highly variable hours including the weekends, and they often work late Friday nights and on Saturday. The missus has made no bones about saying she would like me to keep my writing and editing schedules up on the weekends, though I’m able to refrain from household chores on Shabbos for the most part, deferring them to Sunday. I can’t remember the last time she went to shul, except perhaps to cook for some special occasions.
Yes, I do know that my Jewish family members are obligated to the Torah, though none of them are observant at the moment.
I suppose that makes me a bad husband and father for not compelling them to do so.
But I can’t really compel them to do anything. I have tried being supportive, but my children are all of adult age and my wife is of course, my wife, so she takes responsibility for her Jewishness and again, it seems rather absurd for a non-Jew and particularly a Christian to be telling her the business of being Jewish.
So having tried that and seeing that it didn’t work out so well, I stopped.
(I suppose at this point I should add that my wife subscribes to and reads the same (more or less) Chabad.org newsletters and tutorials that I do, which means her “morning meditations” are substantially similar to my own. I should also say that she anticipates leaving her current “slave job” at some point in the reasonably near but not clearly defined future, so what she does with her “free” Sabbaths after that is up in the air…but I can hope.)
The whole “divine invitation” and Christian identity thing means that I am not obligated to a Jewish lifestyle. I’m sure most Jews out there are relieved to hear that I’m not living like a Jew. But depending on your view of Jewishness and Jewish obligations to God, some of you may be distressed that my Jewish family members are not observant. Heck, there are members of the local Reform shul who are more observant than my family.
I can imagine that many Jews would blame me for all of this. After all, my wife and I are intermarried. Intermarriage is usually seen as the gateway for a Jew to leave Judaism and assimilate into Gentile secular culture or even into Christianity. While I can assure you that my wife has no attraction to Christianity on any level and I don’t believe she has become secularized, she doesn’t display a strong religious Jewish lifestyle.
More’s the pity.
(I’ll add here that my wife does keep up on events at the local synagogues and does have definite opinions about people at the Reform shul with a “questionable” Jewish background positioning themselves to lead services and teach [and that would never happen at the Chabad]. She’s “OK” with non-Jews and even Christians attending synagogue as long as they don’t talk about their faith, but she draws the line at “Messianics” or those who were formerly associated with the movement assuming any formal synagogue role.)
I have been trying to encourage my son David to return to the synagogue. His wife has recently rekindled her interest in attending church but I don’t think David would go with her on a regular basis. His basic internal template for religion is still Jewish and he remembers fondly some of his “debates” with the local Reform Rabbi. Actually, just last Sunday, my wife said she’d love it is David would visit the Chabad here in town, so she has her hopes as well.
The “religious identity” of my family continues to be in flux. I’m not even sure how much more my wife can tolerate my Christianity, so where I’ll end up in the months and years ahead is uncertain. I’d like my Jewish family to return to Judaism as an observant lifestyle. I hope they don’t see me as a barrier. I’m really anything but. In fact, in a recent conversation about conversion with my wife, (hence the quote at the beginning of this “meditation”) she said it would be ridiculous for a Gentile to try to convert to Judaism in Boise, (although a good friend of hers converted within the past year) since the convert wouldn’t have a strong Jewish community in which to live. So I don’t think my wife wants me to be “Torah observant” in any way, shape, or form. But what about her?
It would seem that for the sake of peace in the home, I must decline my “invitation,” and as a Christian, I would not only make a poor model of Jewish observance for my Jewish family, but I would actually be an annoyance if I tried. Thus, I cannot encourage them by my example since my example would be completely unwelcome.
I suppose if I were a Jewish husband and father, it might be different, but that’s not an option. Maybe the fears of Judaism are authentic fears and intermarriage is the path to slow death for the Jewish people. Even though it is not my intent, I certainly seem to be killing the Judaism in my home.
Across the long span of history, an untold number of Jews have suffered and died to preserve who they are as Jews. Given that realization, I wish I understood what was going on in my own home. But then, in this particular case, I don’t have a say. I only have to wait and pray that God, who has never abandoned His people Israel before, won’t abandon those who live in my household now.
My wife and children are Jewish. I want and even need them to live like Jews. May the God of mercy grant this for them and for the sake of Israel.