Jews by Which Means?

Image: A mikveh – ritual bath for immersion.

In discussions about conversion to Judaism, I’ve read various terms to denote people who have been Jewish all their lives, and people who became Jews as adults. There is considerable disagreement about English terminology for the latter: some of them object to “convert,” and some dislike the euphemism “Jew by Choice.” The Hebrew term is “Ger Tzedek,” or for a woman, “Giyoret Tzedek,” meaning “Righteous Resident.”

For those who have been Jewish all their lives, I generally hear “Born Jew” or simply “Jew.” Conversion is the exception, historically, and as any person who became Jewish as an adult can attest, there are prejudices against them in the modern Jewish community.

Lately I’ve been studying BT Yevamot 46a, a major source in the Talmud about the process of giyur [conversion.] One fascinating part of the discussion involves an implied explanation for our process of conversion: it is intended to be identical to a process the Israelites went through in the book of Exodus, before receiving the Torah at Sinai. It starts:

The Sages taught in a baraita: With regard to a convert who was circumcised but did not immerse, Rabbi Eliezer says that this is a convert, as so we found with our forefathers following the exodus from Egypt that they were circumcised but were not immersed. With regard to one who immersed but was not circumcised, Rabbi Yehoshua says that this is a convert, as so we found with our foremothers that they immersed but were not circumcised.

BT Yevamot 46a

In the verses that follow, the sages reason that many of the Israelites had stopped circumcising their children during the years in Egypt, but that all had to be circumcised before they had the ritual meal of Passover. Then they found verses to support the idea that all of the men and women immersed in living water before they received the Torah at Sinai. Their children would inherit their Jewishness (though children with penises still needed brit milah [ritual circumcision] at eight days.) They did not need immersion in a mikveh to be Jews.

So perhaps instead of saying “Born Jews” or “Jews by Birth” perhaps it is more accurate to say “Jews by Inheritance.”

Why does this matter? I think it is an important distinction, particularly with the racist nonsense circulating about “Jewish blood” and “Jewish DNA.” Judaism is not a biological thing: it is a precious possession, a valuable inheritance, or something that a ger tzedek has striven and made sacrifices to obtain.

Once the rituals are complete, and the conditions are met, there is no distinction between the person who inherited his Judaism, and the one who strove for it:

Once he has immersed and emerged, he is like a Jew in every sense.

BT Yevamot 47b

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