When I’m a Jew by Choice

Don’t kill the messenger.

The term “Jew by Choice” generally refers to one who converts to Judaism from another faith. The word “convert” tends to emphasize the change while “Jew by Choice” makes it clear the person is a Jew and shows s/he elected it. Anecdotally, people often note how Jews by choice are often more passionate than their coreligionists who have been born into it. One very actively decides to be and to do Jewish versus those for whom it’s just this thing s/he’s always had.

While working at Hillel, one student taught me the concept of the choosing people, in contrast to the “chosen people”, as the Jews are often called. The idea is that instead of taking the seemingly arrogant position of being divinely chosen, however defined, the Jews choose various roles and responsibilities.

This weekend marks the holiday of Shavuot, a holiday that among other things, celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai to the Israelites, seven weeks after their exodus from Egypt.

My boss, the executive director of Hazon, observes the the significance of the act of giving in relation to the Torah.:

And it’s the time of the giving of the Torah – and not, in its name, the receiving of the Torah because, in a sense, a person can give a gift, but only the recipient can decide if s/he wants to receive it. Thus each year, as it were, the Torah is given – and we each get to decide whether and how we receive it.

Clearly stated, Jews choose to receive the Torah every year. At least some do. We have free will and frankly most often it’s probably easier not to choose to accept a slew of rules and guidelines for living. Accepting Torah could be just as easily be seen as a tremendous burden as it could a gift and a blessing.

As I write this on Shavuot evening, in the seat of a moving car, following a Shabbat I did not–nor do I ever– traditionally halakhically observe. I had a wedding to goto. For all the holidays I’m willing to forego, and for all the events for which I’m willing to miss holiday observance, there really wasn’t a conflict.

The annual choice to accept the Torah highlights the year-round decision making to actively lead a Jewish life. In America’s cafeteria-style religious life, we pick and choose what we want to do and how we want to participate. (I generally think this is a wonderful thing.)

Shavuot reminds me of the moments that I’m a Jew by Choice. Even the times when Judaism is old hat, I’m making an active decision to participate. I don’t say this to take away from the unique journeys that Jews by Choice go through, I just find the words to be the simplest and most accurate. My daily and ongoing choices are very much in the front of my mind, especially in the moments when I opt out. I’m always a little closer to the point of being confident in my decisions. The act of writing this piece causes me to question whether or not I’m so confident and why I feel the need to explain myself to an audience that never asked, but I think that’s healthy, too.

I know that I’ve made the right choice, just as I choose to accept the gift of Torah¹ on Shavuot and to lead a Jewish life the rest of the year.

On a lighter note, my favorite line in this terrible embarrassing song is “I spent Shavuos in East St. Louis” and against my better judgement, I’m going to share it with you.

¹Without getting into it, I should note that my acceptance of Torah is much like a birthday gift from grandma. I graciously accept, but some stuff might not fit, some stuff I’ll never use or never wear, but generally appreciate the gesture and I’m grateful for new stuff.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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