These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Shavuot: An Inspiration For Converts

Posted on May 28, 2012 by Ma'ayan Dyer

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(x-posted from my blog Lost in Jerusalem:

Now that Shavuot has come to an end (well, for those of us in Israel, anyway), the complete cycle of my first year as a Jew has also drawn to a close. I have been fortunate enough to have my first experiences as a Jew with every one of our holidays in the Holy Land, which is really something special. Not every new Jew gets to jump on an El Al flight just weeks after conversion to live in Jerusalem. I guess there’s no better way to make sure that you’ve joined the correct tribe than to live among the natives.

Shavuot holds a special place in my heart. It may not be as fun as Purim is, what with all its booze, encouraged public drunkenness, costumes and acting a fool in shul by blotting out Hamon’s name as we recount the story of Esther. It may not be as profound as Yom Kippur, when we fast the day away, admit to our flaws and sins, and seek forgiveness from everyone we’ve wronged and from the King of Kings Himself, wiping the slate clean for another year. It may not be as significant and grandiose as Pesach, as we recount the story of overcoming slavery with the guidance of the hand of the divine over our chametz-free seder tables. And it’s certainly not as odd and quirky as Succot, as we dwell in Sukkahs out in our yards or on our patios, shaking the four species in all cardinal directions (during my conversion, as I was discussing the difficulty of explaining Jewish practices to the people in my life who were wondering just what kind of people I’ve joined, an Orthodox rabbi friend of mine told me, “Just wait until you get to Succot. Invite them over for dinner in the little hut that you’ve built out in your driveway while you shake a bundle of branches and a citron around, and they’ll think you’ve joined some bizarre cult).” But Shavuot has all of the aspects I look for in a chag: all night text study on a caffeine buzz with my fellow Jews, lots of dairy foods, including the heavenly taste of cheesecake, and the recounting of the story of Ruth. As a convert, I identity with and look up to the Moabite lady-turned Jewish. They said it couldn’t (shouldn’t?) be done, but Ruth defied the status quo, transcended ethnic and religious boundaries, and provided part of the lineage of the glorious Kind David. And of course, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah–God’s gift to the Jews.

With all of this text study and deep consideration of Torah, Shavuot certainly does inspire a multitude of philosophical questions and analytical discussion on all things Jewish. And since the wheels in my head are constantly turning with the momentum of a gushing stream of thoughts and questions about the nature of Judaism and where the Megan-shaped piece of the puzzle fits in to it, Shavuot just feeds my need to understand, to analyze, to question, to discover, to ponder–all done over copious amounts of coffee; all in all, it’s a chag that pats me on the back for being neurotic and obsessive. The validation is comforting.

Just a few short months ago, I found myself agonizing over the realization of just how complex simply being Jewish is in the modern world, especially in terms of conversion. Nightmares, insomnia, anxiety and tears all plagued me as I considered the possibility of going through another conversion and what that would mean about the way I feel about my Jewishness currently. It’s not as though I wasn’t aware that a Conservative conversion just isn’t going to cut it for some, but when I started to consider where I’d ultimately like to make my home in the world, and where I’d like to rest my bones once this crazy ride called life is over, I started to feel anxious about status as a Jew. Could I make aliyah one day? Can I have a Jewish wedding that will be universally recognized as legitimate? What if I have kids? What about when I die? And furthermore, what do you mean I’m not Jewish?! You might as well say that I’m not Megan.

So I suppose it’s appropriate that we ask, for whom was the Torah intended? If Torah is God’s gift to the Jewish people, and we are currently living in an unprecedented historical era where the question of who is a Jew has become more complicated than ever before, where does that leave our beloved Torah? If I can claim the the Torah belongs to me just as much as it belongs to any Jew by birth, even when there are plenty among those who I consider to be my fellow Jews who would not consider me legitimately one of them, then isn’t that a good thing? We may be a non-proselytizing people, and we know that righteous gentiles are included in the World to Come (which is why I believe Judaism to be inclusive on a human scale, not exclusive for our distinction of being chosen), but surely there is something to those of us who want and believe that we are intended to play a role in this world as Jews. After all, Ruth had this realization about herself, and that seemed to work out rather well, right?

Perhaps there is something inherently weird and ultimately paradoxical about the concept of “choosing to be chosen,” but I personally think it’s a matter of perspective. My understanding of my own Jewish destiny is that I started down a path at a particular point in my life, and after many twists and turns, I found myself in Judaism. I didn’t so much become a Jew by choice, as I chose to embrace who I’d become, which ultimately meant being Jewish and living my life as such. Also, I don’t believe that God chose the Jewish people over any other people on the earth other than to play a particular role in this existence. If I’m going to meet up with my gentile family in the World to Come because they get a piece of God’s glory in the end too, and if I understand that as a Jew, I’m obligated in my humility to not mistreat others, including the gentiles, the converts, the widowed, the orphaned, the poor, and my fellow Jews as well, then that says something to me about the nature of choice. Choosing an action over another one includes more than just the action; it includes accepting the subsequent consequences that action as well, whatever they may be. And since we are beings of free will, both blessed and cursed with the ability to choose, then I chose to embrace this life as a Jew, knowing that it can be a very complicated existence. It’s up to God whether He chose me or not, but He chose me for something, just as He chooses every soul for something, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. What we do with the divine gift of our lives, is up to us.

As I walked home this morning from the Old City after Shacharit at the Kotel, my exhausted mind reflected on my all night study marathon, and my stream of consciousness looked something like this (mind you, it was about 6:30 in the morning): “I’m so hungry; I have to get home; Wow, that was so cool, all of us at the Kotel at sunrise; I’m so happy with life right now; I want more cheesecake; Angels, humans and God–divinity and flaw, divinity within flaw…hmmm…; I can’t wait until I can write down what that rabbi said at his shiur; I’m so happy that I became Jewish…hey. I’m in Jerusalem still. Wow.” This is the state of mind of someone who is happy with the choices she has made.

Yes, I choose Shavuot as my favorite of all our chagim. Not because it’s better or more important than the others; it’s just special to me in the specific role that it plays for me in my life.