Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 26 June 2010 / 13 Tammuz 5770

Heretical Hope

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Barbara

Dear Rabbi,

An older relative of mine converted from Judaism to Christianity many years ago. I don’t think she did so out of theological reasons, but rather (without going into details) out of convenience. Now that she is getting on in years, I’m wondering what will be with her? Is there any point in discussing it with her? Is there any hope?

Dear Barbara,

While Judaism does not require non-Jews to convert to Judaism and righteous gentiles are rewarded in the World-to-Come, Judaism does prohibit Jews from repudiating Judaism by ‘converting’ to other religions. This is viewed as a grave transgression with the most serious of consequences.

However, circumstances and intentions are certainly taken into consideration by G-d, who discerns one’s innermost thoughts and motivations precisely. Therefore, converting for reasons of convenience, which on some level involves a degree of ‘coercion’ (as opposed to theological repudiation), is viewed less severely, albeit also very seriously.

Whether and how you should discuss this with her depends on your relationship with her and on her personality. But certainly, if there is any way you can encourage her return to Judaism you should do so.

Is there any hope?

In the times of Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid, there was a particular Jew who converted to Christianity in order to gain the rights and privileges denied to him as a Jew. After many years of alienation from Judaism, he appeared before the rabbi asking forgiveness and whether there was any chance his repentance would be accepted. The rabbi flatly rejected him and told him that after all he had done, there was no hope.

After some time, the rabbi was given a miraculous indication that the man’s repentance was in fact accepted by Heaven. He called the man to him, asking if he had done any truly great deed over the years. The man recalled that one year before Passover, he witnessed a mob gathering to initiate a blood libel against the Jews. The mob was stayed only by the local governor who prevented the mob from causing any harm to the Jews unless they could bring proof that the Jews use Christian blood for their Passover matzot.

The group immediately turned to this alienated Jew who could surely be “relied” upon to affirm their accusations against the Jews. On the one hand, sure to lose his ‘hard-earned’ rights as a Christian, he preferred to side with the mob. On the other hand, he loathed being the direct cause of the deaths of innocent Jews.

Amidst this chaos from without and turmoil from within, the Jew addressed the governor: "Your Honor, the Jews do not use blood in their matzot. They make great effort to remove all blood from meat through slaughter and salting. They won’t even eat an egg with the tiniest spot of blood in it. To use human blood for the matzot is absolutely unthinkable to the Jews."

In the merit of having saved Jews as a non-Jew, he was saved from having become a non-Jew and was rather accepted back as a Jew.

I recently heard another story related to your question:

A young man who learned in Ohr Somayach for several years eventually married, moved back to the States, and works in the health field. One day, an elderly patient he was treating suddenly volunteered to this obviously Orthodox Jewish practitioner, "You know, I'm Catholic". "That's nice", he said, thinking her admission a bit odd. Then, recalling her Jewish sounding name, he remarked, "That's interesting; your name sounds Jewish". She said, "I know, I converted". Contemplating his next move, he decided that since she was being upfront, he would allow himself to be straightforward as well: "You know, according to Judaism, a Jew can't convert out, so you'll always be Jewish". Again, she frankly replied, "I know".

So he said, "Since you know so much about Judaism, why did you convert?" She explained, "When I was a kid, things were different than now. The only way I could go to school is if I converted. So I did. I've been Catholic ever since." This catalyzed a whole discussion about her relationship with Judaism which eventually led to the two of them saying “Shema” together – he said a word and she repeated. By the end of this declaration of her Jewishness, he was in tears and could no longer continue. But this elderly Jewish woman, disaffected from Judaism for so many years, proudly completed by herself toward the end of her life what she was taught in her youth: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d is One….I have redeemed you from the land of Egypt to be your G-d. I am the Lord your G-d”.

It's never too late.

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