Conversion Day

A journey of a thousand steps ends up somewhere. Isn’t that what the proverb says?

Ours has ended up in Tampa, Florida, on this day of our conversion ceremony. A Dutch-German pastor’s kid (my wife) and a former agnostic, turned Christian, turned Messianic with no real ethnic or religious heritage (me) along with their children (most raised their whole life in increasing degrees of Jewish sanctity) enter the waters and emerge as members of the tribe.

Contemporary ideas of what Jewishness means have a thousand false trails. Some think it is a religion, but have trouble reconciling the fact that many irreligious people are famous as Jews (Freud, Marx, Einstein, and we could name thousands more). Some think it is an ethnicity, but how do we explain the many intermarriages and famous conversions of history? Caleb the Kenizzite (the Kenizzites were an Edomite clan) is one of the most prominent Jews in the Torah, but was not born a Jew at all. Moses’ wives, numbers one and two, were neither of them Jews by birth.

The first part of what it means to be a Jew is defined in Torah quite simply: to be born into the chosen tribe (which was later divided into more tribes). From Abraham the tribe was further defined through Isaac and then through Jacob. Jews are descendants of Jacob. To be Jewish is to be born.

But why, then, should people be able to enter into the family of Israel via conversion? It happens in Torah without a clear rationale. A mixed multitude follows Israel out of Egypt. There is no mention of them later. One very real possibility is that they were absorbed into the people of God. It happens by choice and by grace.

We don’t know the story of Caleb’s incorporation into the tribe of Judah. We simply know that he was always known as the Kenizzite, even after he inherited a portion of land in Judah.

We know a bit more about the levels of Gentile approach to Judaism in the Second Temple period. Many came near without closing the distance completely, the God-fearers who rejected idols, took on some or all of Torah, and who became very near to the Jewish people — supporting the local synagogue and joining in the culture. Others became proselytes. In the New Testament, in Acts 6:5, there is Nicolaus the Proselyte one of the leaders in the Jerusalem Yeshua-movement. In a prominent place in rabbinic tradition there is Sh’maya and Avtalion, the teachers of Hillel and themselves the heads of the early proto-rabbinic movement. Onkelos, the famous translator of Torah into Aramaic, was a convert.

My family has encountered a number of different levels of resistance to what we are doing. A few religious Jews have remarked that Messianic Jewish conversion is invalid. A Hebrew Christian leader said, “Derek, you’ll never be a Jew.” Christians who hear my story tend to keep their thoughts to themselves. I’d imagine some think the idea is crazy while others are open to transformations they may or may not understand.

One sad and unusual source of resistance comes from various streams of Messianic Judaism. In some of these streams, all Gentiles are part of Israel through faith in Yeshua. So conversion is offensive, implying that other Messianic Gentiles need a process and a ceremony to be legitimate. In others, conversion is something invented by the rabbis and all things rabbinic are suspect. This position is self-contradicting, since these very same Messianics practice many rabbinic innovations knowingly or unknowingly. There are varied reasons some make a biblical case against conversion. Many cite 1 Corinthians 7. Yet somehow, they did not cite 1 Corinthians 7 when they decided to change their status from single to married. The text only seems to condemn those who make choices deemed unnecessary, but whatever Paul meant about remaining single is unimportant.

It’s all fine to us. We’re not doing this to please everyone or really anyone. We’re doing it in the eyes of God and in rejoicing with our community of Messianic Jews in the Hashivenu stream.

People ask us why? Why do we want to be Jews?

There are many false assumptions.

Some think we’re doing it to be extra holy, to get that super-stamp of divine favor, the mythical double blessing (Jewish and a follower of Jesus too). Some think I am doing it merely as a bona fide for my career as a rabbi (and I made a statement that a rabbi ought to be Jewish, and took heat from a number of bloggers who said this was my primary reason). Some might even think we’re doing it because somehow we don’t see Gentile relationship to God as equally vital and powerful.

None of these are true and, for the record, the nearness of God to those of the nations who draw near to him is every bit as real and joyous as God’s nearness to children of Israel. The election of Israel was always intended to draw God’s children from the nations into nearness with him.

We’re doing it because Jacob’s people have become our people. Where Israel goes, we will go. Where Israel lodges we will lodge.Where Israel is persecuted, we will be persecuted. Where Israel is buried, there we will be buried too, so do not ask us to turn aside or stop following. May the Lord do so to us and more if even death parts us from Israel.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Gentiles, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Conversion Day

  1. tiqun says:

    מזל טוב congratulations, and all the best wishes from me to you and your whole family! welcome to the family!

  2. robyn says:

    Beautiful. Tell us more! :)

  3. rightrudder says:

    When I read this it is funny to me that people will choose this as some sort of battle line. Is it because they don’t feel adequate in their own belief? I have sat in too many pews where it was taught that their faith was the only true faith. Not only being Christian, but being a Protestant. Not only being Protestant, but being their denomination. Not only being their denomination, but being their in their church. Or even a small click within the church.

    We fight too many battles to claim victories that Jesus won.

    Here is a funny story from Hawkensville, Ga. My friends were going to a local church. There was discontent within a small group of people in the church that wanted a minister out. They had swayed a minority of the deacons to their point of view. Then those deacons called a meeting at some odd hour in the night and on an inconvenient day (around Thanksgiving), knowing that only the members of their click would show and others wouldn’t. They voted that minister out. Someone even showed up outside that click and was rebuked for their opinion. My friends didn’t get the significance of this until I explain to that this was just about the exact same way that Jesus was tried.

    It is funny in a similar way how people try to put Derek on trial for this. And how much are they like the sadducees that were constantly testing Yeshua.

  4. My heart felt congratulations on becoming Jewish!

    I had a friend who had slightly neo-nazi sympathies, who used to jibe me by saying, “What are you doing? Saving up to be Jewish?” My response was usually something like “I wish!”

    Part of me still wishes. If the time ever comes, you might find me at your front door.

  5. rebyosh says:

    Mazel Tov! Welcome to the tribe!

  6. judahgabriel says:

    Congratulations on completing the long journey, Derek. May your family be blessed.

  7. amiel4messiah says:

    Mazal Tov Derek. What wonderful news. Welcome to the family :-)

  8. Congrats, Derek… Mazal Tov on another re-birth and welcome to the Tribe!

    What’s your new Hebrew name?

  9. Jeruz says:

    If you don’t mind me asking or if the questions are personal, obviously feel free not to respond, I am just interested, as I am not sure I understand…

    1) Why did you go through ritual conversion?

    2) What did or will it accomplish?

    3) Do you feel any different?

    Thanks bro! and Mazal Tov on your decision and convictions in faith!

  10. toma4moshiach says:

    Mazal Tov Derek!
    You have a beautiful and inspiring story every step of the way. I’m so glad you followed your heart in this manner despite all the slings and arrows you have had to endure from not only former peers, the orthodoxy and those are so intolerant of your position. I believe you will bring new insight into the movement from your entire experiences growing in Messiah until the immersion in the Mikvah . Bless you all — Toma

  11. Ovadia says:

    Mazal bueno.
    How long did the process take?

  12. Thanks to everyone. I have limited internet time on vacation since my *^%#$@%^ hotel has lousy internet, so lousy I usually cannot get online. I have to go to an internet cafe nearby. Sigh. Calmness. Peace.

    But, on a much more positive note, the ceremony was wonderful and a bit of an ordeal (not only the men’s part if you know what I mean, but also the rather muddy rocky section of Tampa Bay we had to take ourselves and the kids way out into to get into deep enough water for immersion). But the ordeal part of all this has been great, testing our commitment. I have horror stories about our family van, the amount of money I spent getting it ready for this trip, and the transmission problems that led to three mechanics on the way down here and having to drive less than 60 mph.

    Ordeal = commitment = family memories forever = we are doing fine

    And, yes, the day after, I do feel different.

    Derek

  13. Jeruz #9:

    You asked: 1) Why did you go through ritual conversion? 2) What did or will it accomplish? 3) Do you feel any different?

    My answers:
    1) That’s what the post is about and I’m saying I went through this because my family feels called to belong to the Jewish people and we have been welcomed into the Jewish people by our many friends and rabbis. If you will reread the post (I’m not criticizing you, but clarity is important here), I explained the reasons that are not true which people will sometimes assume for our decision.
    2) We now are part of the Jewish people. That is what we wanted to accomplish.
    3) You better believe I feel different.

    Derek

    • Jeruz says:

      derek4messiah :
      Jeruz #9:
      You asked: 1) Why did you go through ritual conversion? 2) What did or will it accomplish? 3) Do you feel any different?
      My answers:
      1) That’s what the post is about and I’m saying I went through this because my family feels called to belong to the Jewish people and we have been welcomed into the Jewish people by our many friends and rabbis. If you will reread the post (I’m not criticizing you, but clarity is important here), I explained the reasons that are not true which people will sometimes assume for our decision.

      LOL, sorry bro, guess I am a little dense, you did give your reasons… blessings to you, for following your convictions…

      2) We now are part of the Jewish people. That is what we wanted to accomplish.

      Did you not feel like you were part of them before? Also, this should probably be more specific, because you are part of a sect of Jewish people, one that believes in Messiah, and not greater Judaism which doesn’t even accept native Jews who hold their faith in Messiah… Who knows though, maybe one day greater Judaism will accept, you will be one step ahead of the game! :)

      3) You better believe I feel different.
      Derek

      Please keep us up to date on how this conversion is effecting your life! I am very interested…

      Thanks for the response.

  14. Ovadia:

    I would guess for a person who is new to Judaism, the process would take 2 years or so, if they hurried it along.

    I would guess for a longtime Messianic Gentile who has been part of an MJRC synagogue for a long time and is well-known by the leadership, a year or less.

    For me, it took 2 years mostly due to my procrastination on certain formal parts of the process.

    Anyone interested can find the MJRC website at ourrabbis.org. You have to be part of the network of synagogues to apply for conversion. But the standards of the MJRC are very sane and reasonable and would be a good guide for all Messianic Jews and also non-Jews desiring to belong.

    Derek

  15. Mazal mazal! Welcome to the tribe!!

  16. judeoxian says:

    Congratulations Derek. I’m glad that you and your family have found joy in your calling.

    There is one body, but many parts. We don’t all have the same calling, we just need to be obedient to the calling we receive. I rejoice that you have taken hold of yours and pray that God would bless you, even as he did in the midst of the little trials you encountered on the way to FL.

  17. oldsaltdd says:

    Mazel Tov, Derek! You and your beautiful family are an inspiration and encouragement.

    Erev Tov,
    David Hambleton, USN – Ret.
    http://www.oldsaltweb.com

  18. jennbrooke says:

    Mazel Tov, Derek! You may get some flack from people who don’t understand, but I get it, and I commend you for doing what you feel God was calling you to, regardless of what other people might say or think.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog. We’re in the process of confirming whether or not my husband has Jewish ancestry (we think there’s a connection through Kaifeng), and so, as you can imagine, we’ve been exploring what that would look like for us as people who already have faith in Yeshua. It’s also lead to a lot…a LOT…of spiritual searching on things we’ve just taken for granted for years. Sabbath on Sunday. Supercessionist thought. Easter and Christmas as pagan festivals in Christian clothing. Unfortunately, I don’t think conversion would be possible for us, because there are no Messianic synagogues in our area, and the ones that are closest (about 2 hours away) don’t practice conversion (yet).

    Congratulations again, and I look forward to continuing to read about your faith and family!

    Brooke Chao

  19. christian4moses says:

    Congratulations Derek!:)

    The thing I would be interested to hear is what will change in your life after your conversion? In terms of observance will you increase it alot?

  20. christian4moses:

    For the most part, increased observance was part of the process before conversion was final.

    Some aspects, such as laying tefillin, needed waiting for after. Currently, MJ has no clear boundaries in some other matters (like non-Jews reciting Torah blessings or the Alenu) and so we practiced these already (though an argument could be made that we need to produce alternate sayings for non-Jews in some of these prayers).

    I have ramped up my observance to the requirements of the MJRC over the last year or two (ourrabbis.org). The biggest change would be laying tefillin. If I am in an Orthodox minyan, I will have to decide whether to refrain or whether to lay the tefillin. Hmm, I wonder if anyone has thoughts on this (since they would not recognize my conversion).

    Derek

    • Ovadia says:

      Derek,

      One of my friends is a Conservative convert who regularly davens with an Orthodox minyan. He wears tefillin, but they know that he’s not an Orthodox convert (so they won’t inadvertently count him). Orthodox people, in my experience, don’t tend to get offended when non-Orthodox converts we tefillin and won’t ask them to turn on the lights on Shabbat, but I’ve heard different things from people in other communities.

  21. christian4moses says:

    Good to hear.

    I also think that some blessings are problematic when recited by a non-Jew and personally think it would be better to refrain or adapt them.

    As for laying tefilin in a minyan I think its good that you give that some thoughts as besides the fact that you cannot be part of the minyan it would probably be very offensive if they saw, what is to them, a non-Jew laying tefilin.

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  24. amiel4messiah says:

    Derek. I have a Portugese friend of Sephardi ancestry (which he can’t prove) who has been attending an Orthodox Synagogue in London for years. He can’t go through a conversion because he is married to an Indian girl who is not interested in converting. Most people in the shul know that he didn’t ‘officially’ convert but have accepted him as one of their own and he is regularly included in the Minyan. Most Orthodox (in the UK) are traditional but not religious and are very pragmatic on these kind of issues. I would be very surprised if you had any serious problems in the US. Besides, you and your family are Jews and while I appreciate your sensitivity to your non-Messianic Jewish friends, you should not have to apologise for being what you are – 100% Kosher! As far as I am aware, it is a sin to remind a convert of his or her status. Be proud of who you are and don’t apologise for being a Jewish (Messianic) convert – in the not too distant future, Messianic Jews will be in the majority anyway :-)

    • “Most Orthodox (in the UK) are traditional but not religious and are very pragmatic on these kind of issues. ”

      What kind of Orthodox are those, “traditional but not religious”? I have not seen that in the U.S. Sounds like these are secular Jews or those who had Orthodox parents and who have affinity for Orthodox Judaism vs some other type, and who like to visit Orthodox synagogues – hardly a standard of devout Jews to go by.

      Most Orthodox would not count Reform and Conservative converts as part of minyan. However, I agree that it’s the spiritual dimension that matters here – if Derek believes that his conversion made him a 100% Kosher Jew, than davening in Orthodox Shul as a Jew as part of the minyan shouldn’t present serious moral dilemmas before G-d.

  25. amiel4messiah says:

    Gene: I don’t claim to be an expert on levels of observance within the UK Orthodox Community, although I have read widely on the subject over the years. We have an Orthodox shul in Bournemouth and it is a well-known secret that a very large proportion of the congregation park their car within walking distance on Shabbat in order to still be able to walk to shul. I have plenty of Orthodox friends who confess to me freely that they attend the Orthodox shul because of its superior burial benefits or because of friends there, not because of their commitment to Torah observance. I know this is anecdotal Gene and, as I said, I am no expert. Only yesterday I read a fascinating article about the Jews in the South of France. There, the Sephardi community is culturally Orthodox. I don’t have the space to go into detail, but the gist of the article is that people associate with Orthodox because there are no progressive alternatives in France (unlike the US). The same is true in the UK – only about 20% of Jews attend progressive synagogues and the United Synagogue remains the dominant grouping. Therefore, people’s pragmatism on levels of observance makes sense to me.

    • Thanks Amiel, in light of what you’re describing, this makes sense and I see this as well. Although I wouldn’t describe these Jews as “Orthodox” – rather, as Jews who prefer attending Orthodox shuls.

  26. Hi Derek,
    I realize I’m posting a year later, so this may not even be read, but I’ve decided to make an effort nonetheless. First off, my apologies for commenting on something so personal to you, although we have never met – it is not my intention to intrude. I don’t wish to overstep bounds. I am indeed a follower of Yeshua – i.e., I believe Yeshua is our Messiah, God in the flesh, died once for all the sins of mankind, and is the first fruits of the resurrection, the Second – perfected – Adam, and that without Him we can do nothing. He is – as He asserts in the gospel of John – the Way, the Truth and the Life. Just for the record.

    I was scanning the web for some other related info and was redirected here from an article on the relationship between Messianic Judaism and contemporary (mainstream Rabbinic) Judaism.
    I must say I am surprised by many of the comments left here, and by your reasons given for going through a “conversion process.”
    Again, I hope you will find no vitriol in my words, they are not intended to be aggressive.
    But I felt completely compelled to write that there is simply no biblical basis for what you, or the organization that I must assume discipled you and your family on this, seem to be relating here as a “conversion” to “Judaism.”
    It is unclear from your account, but perhaps you believe you have biblical precedent for gentiles converting to Judaism rather than being baptized into the death and resurrection of Yeshua by followers of The Way, although you make no reference to any. Or, perhaps you are coming out of a faith tradition that did not embrace Messiah Yeshua in the first place, and somehow placing faith in Him and His completed sacrifice for you means to you that you have 1) “converted” and 2) that this conversion is to a form of “Judaism,” rather than a new wineskin. But that was not stated here either. Rather, it seems to be implied from your story that you and your family were already followers of Yeshua? But you do not state that here clearly, so I do not know for sure.
    If what you are saying, however, is that you and your family had previously placed your faith in Him, and that you may have even been baptized in some form or another previous to this “conversion” to “Judaism” process you allude to, then, based on what you described above, there is simply no justifiable (i.e. biblical) basis for asserting that there is some form of “Judaism” being practiced during the 1st century, post-resurrection of Yeshua, that He commanded we convert to.
    In fact, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul argues vehemently against Judaizers, who were teaching precisely this, and Paul opposes Peter “to his face” for related issues. The question of circumcision even becomes the paradigmatic rubric, under which any and all such assertions in favor of “conversion” requirements would now fall under the new covenant. I’m sure you know that Paul instructs gentiles to “remain as [they] are” in the context of just such a discussion on what to do with gentile believers in Yeshua, or that Peter and the first council at Antioch arrived at the conclusion to support the “grafting in” of gentiles with no such “conversion” requirements. This idea of conversion is a religious category that Yeshua came to shatter. We do not “convert” from one religion to another as if there is something we can do in our own strength. Instead, we are “raised to new life” after experiencing the risen Meshiach exactly as Rav Shaul did on the road to Damascus. Any Rabbi, Pastor, organization or person who comes preaching another gospel or discipleship other than this one is leading astray.
    Here’s my main point: A central reason you state for allowing yourself to be convinced you need to go through a process and convert to something you have been taught is a Judaism is that you would then feel more a part of the Jewish people. A poster above asks a good question in this regard (did you not feel a part of them before?). And this is the absolute core of the matter: our identification with the Jewish people does not come from any systematized conversion process; it comes through Yeshua himself, and Yeshua alone. He is our identity. There is none other. He is the only reason we are sons and daughters of Abraham and therefore one with the Jewish people. Moreover (and equally as vital!), is the crucial fact that God’s desire all along was to teach His people to “be a light to the gentiles.” When you fall into the trap of believing you are “converting” to a Judaism, rather than finding your complete identity in Yeshua as a gentile follower of Him and Him alone, you rob Israel of an essential element in her sanctification process: She must realize that she is to graft in goyim by demonstrating GOD’s GRACE, not by her own concept of righteousness. This is so key. We are not to disciple people to believe that Israel does not need to learn the concept Paul spoke of – it is by grace you are saved through faith, not by works – so that no one can boast. We do not boast in an identity we won through a conversion process we underwent. We boast in the person of Yeshua, how He was utterly broken for us, and in a gift His life gave us that we cannot purchase or add to.
    In sum: Yeshua is the perfect Jewish God-Man. It is this perfect Jew who will present us to the Father. If that is not enough for us, then we have not fully grasped salvation.
    In other words, at the risk of alienating you and perhaps others who may feel my aim is to rob them of their warm fuzzies, you have in point of fact not come a single solitary step closer to being grafted into the Jewish people by undergoing the ordeal you’ve undergone. In fact, what you allowed yourself to fall into and are even advocating, is truly an enormous distraction from the glory of our Messiah, who was crushed completely on our behalf – yes, also for us gentiles – a truth God’s chosen people must not only embrace, but embody. What have God’s chosen people gained in the very real spiritual sense by “converting” you? What – exactly – is the “light” that they should be to the gentiles, if this is where we ultimately arrive?

    Just as a final remark, one poster above suggested that if someone disagrees, it is because they simply “don’t understand.” In interest of space I’ll refrain from addressing the underlying hubris there.

    I also realize that posts such as the one I am writing carry a tone of their own that can be misread as arrogant, or self-righteous. I’m taking a risk therefore in commenting with a dissenting view. I hope you do not find any of my observations or comments unbiblical, or un-Christlike.
    Yours in Yeshua – Paul

  27. Paul (israeltribes12alive):

    Your comment is too long. And what is your purpose? Are you trying to convince me my theology is wrong and yours is right? If you care about me and want to dialogue, hang out here at Musings for a while and read. Find out who I am. Maybe you are wrong about who I am and the reasons I do what I do. If you are merely casually and for the first time engaging in dialogue about the conversion issue (and bandying about words like hubris), then you should examine your motives and your knowledge in leaving long comments.

    Derek Leman

  28. I see your point. My comment was too long, and preachy. Not my intention.

    My comment/question is really just a repeat of one above. That person asked about your feeling on being more a part of the people of Israel post-process:
    “Did you not feel like you were part of them before?” (Jeruz, April 20, 2010 3:44pm)

    I’m wondering about this, too, as this thing of gentiles being made not to feel a part of the people of Israel, unless they would agree to go through certain processes, was treated as a serious issue by the early church/Paul. Paul opposed Peter ‘to his face’ over a related incident. The Council at Antioch agreed that God seemed to be “grafting in” gentiles void of process, and that He had a larger purpose in that.

    Authoritatively, it was addressed by the prophet Isaiah:
    “Let not the foreigner say, Who has attached himself to the Lord,
    The Lord will keep me apart from His people‘ …” (Is. 56:3a, emphasis mine)

    Penny for your thoughts.
    -Paul

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