Nish’ma– Leaders by Choice
“From one perspective, a ger [convert] is closer to becoming a tzaddik than a person born Jewish. If a ger continues serving God with the same self-sacrifice he exhibited during the geirus [conversion] process, he will ascend to untold heights. Perhaps this is one reason why gerim are mentioned before those born Jewish in the Al HaTzadikim blessing in the Amidah.”
— Rabbi Micha Golshevsky,
Bnei Avraham Ahuvecha
When someone chooses to acknowledge and embrace a latent Jewish neshama within, one begins to live a life of complete consciousness, just as a tzaddik is compelled practically without choice to live with absolute mindfulness and intention, or kavannah. There is just one person mentioned in the Bible who is referred to as a tzaddik: Noah, who we understand “walked with God.” (Bereshit 6:9) Noah wasn’t given a say in the matter; as a tzaddik, he was going to innately make the right choices every time. Avraham, on the other hand, is a ger tzedek, a righteous convert, who is told by God to “walk before Me.” (Bereshit 17:1)
Both a convert and a tzaddik are in a position of holding the will of God as their personal standard, because they have chosen such a standard — whether innately or because of a fire that burns within — and they thus choose to live lives of intention in pursuit of unknowable heights. As such, both gerim and tzaddikim are faced with a great struggle on a fixed trajectory, making the notion from Pirkei Avot, lefum tzara agra (according to the suffering, so is the reward) all the more potent.
In biblical times, the term “ger” did not mean a convert, but rather a stranger; for example, someone from another country. God told Abraham that his “offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs.” (Genesis 15:13) Several mitzvot refer to the treatment of gerim: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Leviticus 19:33-34) A stranger enjoyed special protection in Israel because the Israelites knew what it meant to be a stranger.
The respect toward strangers in biblical times informs the respect toward converts that Rabbi Micha Golshevsky and Chaviva Gordon-Bennett express. Both touch beautifully on this sentiment, as found in Psalms: “For like all my forebears, I am an alien (ger) resident with You.” (Psalms 39:13)
I am a German and I am not Jewish, but I am the head of a Jewish program. I am aware of the history that deeply divides us — and brings us together. I would never claim to be part of the Jewish family, but I am very thankful that I am often given the feeling that I am included. I am a ger (stranger) who is not a ger (convert), but yet feels
welcome. — Dagmar Pruin
According to the Talmud, the souls of all Jews — past, present and future — were present at Mount Sinai. (Shavuot 39a) Whether a revelatory moment or a call to study Torah throughout the generations, Sinai informs our view of Jews by choice. I actively choose the term “Jew by choice” because it does not stress outsiderness, as “ger” does. Rather, it makes clear that we are Jews first — neither better nor worse than other Jews. Yet many born Jews are resistant or unwittingly fearful of completely welcoming those who join us through conversion, intermarriage, and adoption. The abiding notion of exile, formed in Egyptian bondage more than three millennia ago and reinforced by centuries of persecution, remains part of our psyche today.
If there is a way in which converts are different from born Jews, it is their lack of that fearful lens onto the world. The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert, precisely to shed this fearful outlook. The mikvah, containing 40 se’ahs of rainwater, is a place of transformation and rebirth. When converts immerse in the mikvah, they are touched by that desert generation who led us into the Promised Land. Converts, unburdened by collective tragedy, have the potential to change the collective mindset of the Jewish people. We should embrace the wisdom of our ancestors and those among us who bring fresh dedication and affirmation to the future of Judaism.
—Diane Kaufmann Tobin
To say that a ger is “closer to becoming a tzaddik” than someone born Jewish is to simplify a complex concept; for there is no indication of how much closer a ger is to achieving “untold heights.” The only true measure of a person’s closeness to becoming a tzaddik is the intentionality with which that person lives by the 613 mitzvot. Thus any Jew who lives a life of true intentionality in this way would be “close” to becoming a tzaddik, though it is unknown how close.
Converts make a conscious decision to become Jewish and, in so doing, they choose every day to live by Jewish laws, practices, and traditions. From the first day of my Birthright Israel trip (January 4, 2000) to the day of my Orthodox conversion ten years later (November 28, 2010), I have chosen to pursue being Jewish: I made this choice every day for a total of 3,978 days. People born Jewish are not presented with a choice about being Jewish, and so they may find less frequent opportunities to seriously reexamine their commitment to the mitzvot. — Rachel Cohen Gerrol