Why would anyone convert to Judaism?

Originally answered on Quora: Why did you convert to Judaism?

The real answer is that I have no single coherent explanation. Having said that I can share a number of “pieces” of the mosaic that was my life as a youth and adolescent, and perhaps you can piece together an answer to this question.

  • I had a natural curiosity about religion that blossomed into an in-depth self-directed study of comparative religions throughout high school;
  • My parents came from different backgrounds: my father a 7th generation French Canadian Roman Catholic and my mother a second generation Anglo-Saxon Anglican. I often joked that the contrast of their beliefs effectively canceled each other out, freeing me to seek and choose what appealed to me;
  • Throughout high school, I had an almost obsessive interest in the Holocaust perpetrated against the Jewish People during the Second World War ( in additional to my theological interests mentioned above). There was something staggering in the all-encompassing hatred towards Jews and Judaism that didn’t seem natural. To understand better, you need to realize that it wasn’t just the Germans that hated Jews! When the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs was asked at the Bermuda conference convened to seek solutions for the Jewish refugee question caused by Nazi persecution, how many refugees Canada would accept, he was quoted as saying “One would be too many!”.
  • I was a book worm. I read everything I could get my hands on. Ranging from Anthropology to Zoology. Sanskrit literature (in translation), the Koran, the Book of Mormons. I left no stone unturned. The mysteries of the human mind, particle physics or molecular biology were all sources of inspiration and inquisition.
  • At some point during high school, I came to realize that the ‘bible’ (King James version) was a translation from Latin. Together with a brilliant young woman who was convinced that she loved me, we painstaking sought out the Latin sources and analyzed why the King James translators chose the phrasing they did.
  • Realizing that the Latin source was a translation from Ancient Greek, she and I spent an entire summer and winter applying the same analysis to the Greek-Latin translations.
  • Eventually, I came to realize that the Greek sources were translations from the Hebrew source. On my own now, my girl came to realize she didn’t really love me and dissolved our research partnership, I started learning Biblical Hebrew.
  • This entire process of scriptural analysis, drove home the awareness that each translator chooses words, phrases and “rewrites” the source to fit their particular theological views and beliefs, very much like a game of Broken Telephone. The amazing fact is that the King James English translation bears any similarity to the Hebrew source at all.
  • It was during this period that I was first exposed to what I then thought of as “Jewish Scripture”. As a teacher at my church’s Sunday School I was eventually ”Let Go” after purchasing an entire set of books which told the “Old Testament” stories in a fashion that children could understand and learn from.
  • My research wasn’t just academic. I lived & worked an entire summer with a Mennonite family; I attended classes at a Muslim Madrassa for an entire school year; learned in a Jewish Community Night School twice a week for two semesters, learning from Rabbis representing all the various flavors of Judaism; I spent weekends in Ashrams in Detroit and Toronto and explored what today is called New Age beliefs in Haight Ashbury San Francisco and a commune in Toronto whose name I have forgotten.
  • I gradually realized that Christianity no longer held any interest for me — I could no longer blindly accept the superstitious belief in gods born of women or gods that die and then miraculously come alive again. ( In grade 11, together with another iconoclast free thinker, we wrote a term paper comparing New Testament Christianity with Zoroastrianism. Our teacher agreed to give us 93 for the quality of our research, the originality of our thesis and the tremendous effort we put into the essay — on the condition that we burn the essay and never share with anyone what our subject was!)
  • In parallel, I also studied the History of Religion, especially Christianity. Without going into detail, the establishment of a separate religion ( as opposed to a sect of Judaism), the formulation of the principles of belief and the gradual merger between “church” and state, clarified the issues that bothered me more than any theological argument could. Christianity was selected by Rome, was adapted and modified by Rome, to fill the vacuum of the paganist faiths that has ceased to hold the Rome Empire’s citizens belief. As such it was intentionally modified to retain much of the Jewish beliefs of early Christians, but in a narrative pagan would feel comfortable with.
  • There is the little issue of the creation of the State of Israel, the rebirth of the nation-state of the Jewish People after 1,900 years; the realization of Biblical Prophecies depicting the ingathering of the exiled Jewish People from the four corners of the globe.
  • Finally, there is the experiential aspect. Throughout high school, I had several Jewish classmates. Some I had contact with, others I only watched from afar. Most, but not all, had a family life I could only dream of. The rituals of Judaism (Shabbat Meals, Festivals) all seemed to provide natural opportunities for family bonding and the creation of a sense of belonging I lacked in my dysfunctional family. Even when compared with my non-Jewish friends, the lack of promiscuity, the sense of honesty and willingness to sacrifice to remain true to their values, was inspiring. Just so you understand — the Jews I’m describing here were either “unaffiliated” or at best belonged to a Reform congregation.

The bottom line:

  • The Jewish People’s role in history, the influence they had on the beliefs, mores, and values of the Western World, was far out of proportion to their size or number;
  • The values and beliefs of Judaism are the root and source of most of the positive values we find in monotheistic religions and Western civilization, especially democracies.
  • At the same time, the tension between these people and the nations, religions, and cultures of the Western World was patently irrational if not pathological, and possibly very cosmological!
  • The source of Jewish belief has a consistency and inner coherence none of the “translated” or “borrowed” religions can begin to achieve.
  • The Jewish Way of Life has the ability to share ideas and values, the rituals and festivals are imbued with an experiential learning experience shared equally by children and adults, the ‘intellectually” challenged and the geniuses of each generation.

These are just a few of the memory fragments which reflect my thoughts and actions starting fifty plus years ago.

I’ve been encouraged more than once to try and put them down in writing. If I do decide to do so, I’d be very interested in in-house reviewers to provide feedback and help raise issues. Let me know if you are interested.

Yoel Ben-Avraham
Shilo, Israel