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What Would You Do if You Discovered?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The following discussion arose at a Shabbat table I attended twenty years ago: According to Jewish law, a person is defined as Jewish if their mother was Jewish. A person that was not born to a Jewish mother can become Jewish by undergoing a conversion process. The question posed at the Shabbat table was: What would you do if you somehow discovered that you were not Jewish?

Our Shabbat host, a Rabbi, stated that he would opt not to convert to Judaism. He explained that Judaism believes that all human beings are commanded in the seven basic Noachide laws. Judaism does not believe that in order to get salvation or be saved from hell that one needs to convert to Judaism. Anyone keeping the seven Noachide laws which God instructed in the Torah is considered a righteous person. He went on to explain that keeping all the laws of the Torah and being Jewish was a tremendous responsibility. Given the choice, he would opt for less responsibility and an easier lifestyle.

Having posed the question to a number of people over the years, I have come across a number of different approaches. Some concur with my Rabbi host that they would not convert, others say they would ask their Rabbi’s advice, and others say they would immediately undergo a conversion. Another common approach is the Sabbatical approach: – take a year off to enjoy cheese burgers etc. and then convert to Judaism.

In order to bring the Korban Pesach, the Pascal lamb offering, one is required to be free of impurity. There were a number of people that had come into contact with a dead body and were therefore not able to offer the Pascal lamb on Pesach. They approached Moses saying, “We are ritually unclean [because of contact] with a dead person; [but] why should we be excluded so as not to bring the offering of the Lord in its appointed time, with all the children of Israel?” Moses then requested clarification from God. God commanded them to bring the Pascal lamb offering one month later on the day we call Pesach Sheni (Second Pesach.)

Although these Jews were technically exempt from fulfilling the mitzvah of the Pascal lamb they were disturbed by the fact that they could not fulfill the mitzvah. They viewed God’s commandment as a privilege and not simply as an obligation. I have no doubt that given the dilemma described above, these people would have demanded to be converted instantly.

There is no doubt that being Jewish carries tremendous responsibilities. The question boils down to our attitude. Do we view being Jewish predominantly as an obligation or predominantly as a privilege? Pesach Sheni teaches us to aspire to the lofty attitude that each divine command is not simply an obligation but indeed an awesome privilege.