A Law of Return For Judaism©

A Law of Return For Judaism©
Rabbi David Baum
Parashat BaMidbar, 5777/2017

About a decade ago, one of my classmates, a dear friend, asked us to compile a list of questions that will be most relevant for Jews in the 21st Century and beyond. There were many questions that came up – but let me ask you, what do you think are the most pressing questions for Jews in the 21st century?

The answer we collectively agreed upon was: Who will be counted as a Jew?

It comes down to a base question – who is counted among the Members of the Tribe, and who is not counted. In the past, the answer was easy – who is a Jew? But today, the answer is a little more complicated. I think its complicated because of the law of return – who gets to go to Israel.

Law of return, or ḥok ha-shvūt, which was expanded in 1970 from its original form in 1950 states, "The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an oleh under the Nationality Law... are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew." Those who convert to Judaism through the rabbis of the Reform and Conservative movements outside of the land of Israel, and Orthodox rabbis inside and outside, are also included.

But should there be a law of return for Judaism? I want to address this today, but before that, I want to put things into context.

As we come to this new book of BaMidbar, we are confronted with this issue head on - who is counted. The Rabbis did not call this book In the Wilderness, rather, Sefer HaPikudim – the Book of the Census. Throughout the book, we will read a number of census, so many that it will become commonplace for us.

So who is counted in our parashah?

When God commands Moses to do so at the beginning of Parshat Bamidbar, only male Israelites over the age of 20 who are able to bear arms are considered. In the text, Moses is told to tally up kol adat b’nei yisrael, literally “the whole community of the Children of Israel.” But do able-bodied males over 20 years old represent the whole community? While adat is often translated as “community,” it can also refer to an “assembly, band, company, or faction,” hence only one segment of the larger population. We see that the term can be expanded - it’s not just men over 20.

Over this book, we'll be counting and counting the Bnai Israel. The question is, what was the count at Mount Sinai, who was counted?

I will never forget an encounter I had at a conference when I was younger. A guy came up to me and started talking to me like he knew me. He asked me about the Jewish community of Plantation, he called me by my name, and other things. It was an awkward moment because I'm thinking, “I've never met this guy in my life!” Finally, I got the courage to ask, how do you know these details about my life – I swear we've never met before? He answers, “first off, I read your name tag, but second, we have met before...at Sinai.

This guy knew something I didn't know: there are many sources in our tradition which state it was not just the souls of the slaves from Egypt who were at the revelation at Sinai, but all Jewish souls, past, present and future.

I want to fast forward to tell you the story of one of my classmates, Rabbi Juan Meija. I know, the name may sound a bit 'not so Jewish'. He wasn't a rabbi back then of course, but we learned together at the Conservative Yeshiva, and one night, I had the courage to ask him, we were at Sinai together? In other words, Juan Meija is not such a Jewish name – so....

And then, he told me his story (although he told me his story in person, I am providing an excerpt from a news article: http://jewishjournal.com/culture/lifestyle/131773/

Mejia told his story of growing up in a middle-class Catholic home in Bogota, Colombia — his father a physician, his mother an artist — and of his education at a school run by Benedictine monks.

At a Christmas family gathering when Mejia was 15, his tipsy uncle told jokes about racial and ethnic stereotypes. It was all fun and games … until the uncle mocked Jews. That’s when Mejia’s grandfather became very upset.

Mejia didn’t understand the reaction; he pressed his grandfather, who finally admitted: “My grandfather was Jewish.” The old man recalled how, when he was a child, he saw his grandfather and other family members put “towels” over their heads and pray.

No one had ever told me we had Jewish roots,” Mejia said. “That discovery — coupled with the fact that I really didn’t believe in most of the things I was supposed to believe in — made me realize I wasn’t really Catholic.”

After Mejia graduated from the Benedictine school, his mother passed away. “That sent me into a religious and emotional crisis,” he said.

Mejia postponed college for a year, grabbed a backpack and set out to see the world. Call it fate or premonition, the first place he stayed for any length of time — three months — was Israel.

In Colombia, I never had Jewish friends,” Mejia said, “so being in Israel, being among Jews for the first time, made a deep impact. I fell in love with the country — the food, the landscape, the language; did I mention the food?” He laughed, patting his stomach. “I used to be thin … then I became Jewish.”

But when Mejia visited the kotel — the Western Wall — instead of having a life-changing mystical experience, he had “a mystical hangover.”

For 300 years, my family had kept up Jewish traditions,” Mejia said, “but in the last few generations, they’d dropped the ball. I felt there was a big hole in my soul because I should have been Jewish but wasn’t. It was very upsetting.”

All these signs pointed him toward Judaism – when he went to Germany for a trip, a Hassid stopped him in the street and asked, you look Jewish, can you help us make a 10th?

It was during this time when he made the decision to begin the process of formal conversion, but what's interesting is that he 'felt' Jewish already.

Now, he has devoted his life to converting South Americans who are either descendants of those who were forced to convert to Catholicism or seekers who are looking for the wisdom of Judaism.

I've spoken to many Jews by Choice and I've asked them, when did you feel Jewish? Reish Lakish, the famous Talmudic scholar famously said, “Ger She'Nitgayer K'Katan She Nolad” - A convert is a like a baby reborn. So I asked them, did you feel Jewish that moment of coming out of the mikvah reborn? The answer was always – no. For some, it was the first piece of Jewish text they learned. For others, it was the first Shabbat experience with Jews.

But I noticed something – there was a part of their soul that was Jewish. They weren't reborn, but suddenly, they did become children regarding Judaism. They weren't obligated for the mitzvoth yet, but they felt that they were part of our collective journey. Judaism isn't boring or taken for granted. They look at God, Torah and our community with awe and wonder, like a child looks at the world.

There is a lot of debate in the Jewish community of the role of those seeking Judaism – do we openly say to seekers, we want you to be part of our journey? Do we accept people who look differently than we do and bring with them different baggage from other cultures? Are converts equal to born Jews? The answer is, yes, yes, yes.

And this is my answer to the seekers who come to me – I don't turn them away three times like the Talmud says. Rather, I give them three yes's. And I do this because of the richness that seekers have brought to us.

And there's another famous story I want to share, about Moses and Sinai:

When Moshe went up to the Heavens [at Mt. Sinai], he found God sitting and fastening crownlets to the letters of the Torah. He asked: Master of the universe, who is delaying you [in this way the giving of the Torah]? God responded: There will be a man who will live many generations from now whose name is Akiva son of Joseph, and he will derive heaps of laws from every jot and tittle. Moshe said: Master of the universe, show him to me! God replied: Turn around. Moshe went and sat behind the eighth row of students [in Akiva’s Beit Midrash]. He did not understand what was being said. Moshe felt faint. But when the discussion reached a certain point, Rabbi Akiva’s students asked: ‘Rabbi, what is the source of the authority of these teachings?’ Rabbi Akiva replied: Halacha L’Moshe miSinai, This is
law given to Moshe at Sinai.’ And then, Moses was at ease.

Rabbi Akiva, who started learning at the age of 40, was a descendent of Jews by Choice, and some of the most famous rabbis of the Talmud, like Avtalyon and Shmaya, were Jews by Choice. Rabbi Akiva could see things that Moshe could not see – if we take this idea to heart, perhaps we can open our eyes to see that those who grew up differently than us can help us glean lessons from our Torah that we could not possibly see without them.

My message to us in the 21st Century is that Torah was not meant to be hoarded to ourselves, but shared with the world. It was meant to be a tool to bring others close, not just Jews, but seekers who may not have the license yet, but who are on the road to beginning our collective journey.

May we all stand together in just a couple of days to receive Torah once again, Jewish souls of the past, present and future.


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