I had the honor, this week, of serving on several batei din (plural of beit din, rabbinical court,) examining and talking with candidates for conversion. In each case, after a good conversation and agreement among the members of the beit din, we proceeded to the mikveh for tevilah, immersion. These are the age-old rituals at the close of the process of gerut, conversion, and I am always moved when I am a participant.
The adults I heard this week have spent months and years in study, living Jewish lives, learning about mitzvot. What may have become routine to me is still precious to them, and I am grateful for the opportunity to see Judaism again through beginners’ eyes. They remind me of my own path to Judaism (indeed, I became a Jew 23 years ago in that same mikveh) and they sharpen my appreciation for the joys of a life of Torah.
I notice what is different, too. In 1996, there was a presidential election, with Senator Robert Dole running against incumbent President Bill Clinton. In 1996 the Oslo Accords were in effect, and expectations for peace in Israel were very high. In 1996 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States were upsetting but infrequent. In 1996, if a Jew made reference to “Pittsburgh” I assumed they were speaking of the Pittsburgh Platform, the first official statement of belief and practice from the Reform Movement. In 1996, no one was questioning either my loyalty to the United States or my relationship to Israel. We live in a different world now.
What I know for sure is that Torah itself doesn’t change. Hillel’s lesson, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person – Go and study!” still holds. I am still commanded to love God and to love the stranger. I have spent much of the past 25 years studying Torah, and I still have much to learn. The “sea of Talmud” – really, “sea of Jewish learning” – is wide and deep.
The Jewish People have endured for thousands of years and we’ve seen it all: war, revolt, defeat, destruction, persecution, and even genocide. As a community, we have survived all that, although the individual losses are each excruciating and do not become easier over time. As I listened to the splashing of the mikveh water, as candidate after candidate became a new Jew, I reflected that this, too continues over thousands of years. We are renewed: renewed by each new baby emerging from the womb, and by each new Jew stepping up out of the ritual bath. We are renewed as rabbis lead the ancient blessings. We are renewed with each returning Shabbat.
That’s what I shall pray for, this Shabbat: let us be renewed. Let us pray, as our ancestor prayed in a much worse year, after the destruction of Jerusalem:
Help us turn to You, and we shall return. Renew our lives as in days of old!Lamentations 5:21