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I don’t accept converts

Many years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I still had more hair on my head than on my pillow, I met a Jewish professor in Canberra who proudly told me that he doesn’t accept converts.





He explained that he is proudly Jewish and we are an elite nation and, as far as he is concerned, a Jew comes from a Jewish mother and that’s it; there are no other options. I looked at him blankly. “Seriously,” he said, quite seriously, “I don’t accept converts. They’re not Jewish.” Finally finding my voice, I said, “Then you’re not Jewish either.”

He looked at me with the type of anger one usually reserves for taxi drivers. Ready to duck, I repeated myself: “If converts aren’t Jewish, then neither are you.” He looked as if he was about to explode and said: “How do you work that out?” (Actually he said a lot more, but this article might be read by children…)

“Well”, I explained patiently, “the entire Jewish people converted at Mount Sinai. So, you, me and every Jew alive today, we are all descended from converts.”

“What about Abraham? Wasn’t he Jewish?”

“Abraham actually proves my point. Abraham’s parents weren’t Jewish and he found the One G-d in a world of idolatry. So, he became the first Jew and the first convert. But he wasn’t a Jew in the sense that we are – he kept the Torah voluntarily.

“Those of his descendants who followed in his spiritual footsteps, remained Jew-ish. Those who didn’t, like Yishmael, could leave. And those outsiders who joined him, became Jew-ish.

“At Mount Sinai, our great-great-… grandparents went through a process of conversion. The entire Jewish people accepted the Torah. From that moment, joining the Jewish people required a supervised process, and leaving the Jewish people was impossible.”

I may have mentioned to him that the Jewish people today are like the Hotel California… “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

“Thank you, wise rabbi,” he said. At least that’s the way I chose to remember it.

The Midrash teaches that Adam and Eve knew the Torah, handed it down to future generations, and those who wanted to do so, studied it and lived by it.

But there was a boundary between the physical and the spiritual. Those who learned Torah before it was officially given at Mount Sinai could only comprehend it according to his/her intelligence and spiritual ability.

When G-d officially gave us the Torah, the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds was broken (the deeper meaning of Moses ascending Mount Sinai and G-d coming down there to meet him). When used to serve G-d, a physical object could become holy and a Jew could comprehend Torah without limitations.

And so today, when we learn Torah, or do a mitzvah, each Jew connects to the infinite Essence of G-d; whether the person is the child of a Jewish mother, or someone who bravely decided to join.

Every Shavuot, G-d does what He did on the first one: He gives us the Torah. And every Shavuot, we hopefully accept it, with simcha, to change, inspire and uplift us.


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In the brave steps of Abraham



In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.

The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.

While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.

Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.

At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.

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My kind of hero



The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.

That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.

Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.

Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!

Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.

There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.

Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.

His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.

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Learning to fall teaches us to fly



“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”

Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.

This Rashi is problematic:

Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?

Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.

But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?

Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.

One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.

Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!

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