Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
HOW TO BECOME JEWISH
Q. I am interested in becoming Jewish. Can I convert and if so how?
A. Judaism always accepted sincere converts, though for many centuries ours has not been an outgoing missionary religion.
Conversion was known in early Biblical times, before the set procedures we follow today had been developed. The Torah speaks of Abraham and Sarah “making souls” in Haran, and the rabbis say that Abraham converted the men and Sarah the women (Gen. 12:5).
Ruth adopted Judaism when she said, “Your God shall be my God” (Ruth 1:16; the Midrash reconstructs the detailed conversation on the subject between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi).
The equivalent of conversion took place when the sailors were awestruck at the power of the God of Jonah (Jonah 1) and when Haman was defeated and “many of the people of the land became Jewish” (Esther 8:17, though the verse might be interpreted as reading, “took the side of the Jews”).
What motivates a person to want to become Jewish when it is such a difficult faith to follow? The best answer is that of Ruth, who wanted the Jewish God, the Jewish way and the Jewish people. In some cases, applicants for conversion have their interest first aroused by getting to know a Jew or a Jewish family, sometimes in a romantic way, and though the applicant must not have any ulterior motive (Yoreh De’ah 268:12), a genuine interest in Judaism for its own sake does often follow.
There is a rabbinic view that the souls of sincere converts were already disposed towards Judaism from time immemorial; when the nations were offered the Torah and rejected it, there must have been some amongst them who disagreed and would have preferred to accept the Torah, and it is the descendants of those dissentients who one day find their way back to the principles their ancestors always wanted.
Throughout rabbinic literature the sincere convert is praised highly. The Midrash says, “The Holy One, blessed be He, loves converts greatly… the convert left his family, his father’s house, his people, and all the gentile nations, and came to us… Can anyone be dearer to God than this person?” (Num. R. 8:2, Tanchuma, Lech L’cha).
But this does not make Jewishness an easy way of life, and it is the halakhic (Jewish law) obligation of the rabbi to point out all the drawbacks (Yev. 47a) so that the applicant is aware of the whole facts.
Therefore, if you really do want Judaism, talk to a rabbi in the first instance, arrange an interview with a Beit Din (a Jewish ecclesiastical court) and become involved in Jewish life. Even if in the end you decide not to pursue official conversion, you are likely to find that you have become a Ben (or Bat) Noach, a person who is not formally Jewish but lives by the Seven Noahide Laws for all humankind.
BLACK FOR SORROW
Q. Why is black the colour associated with bereavement and mourning?
A. Despite common belief, the wearing of black does not begin in the Bible even though God says in Isaiah 50:3, “I clothe the heavens with black and I make sackcloth their clothing”, which seems to suggest a parallel between black and the wearing of sackcloth which was customary amongst mourners.
We aren’t certain that Isaiah was speaking of mourning in this passage; maybe he was describing the skies darkening before and during a storm.
The Talmud speaks of black footwear in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple. Some people extended this practice to the wearing of black clothes.
It is the custom in many cultures for mourners to wear black, maybe to symbolise the metaphorical darkness that has come upon a person who has suffered a bereavement.
Despite this argument, Jews are not generally too pedantic about wearing black, though there is general agreement that bright colours should not be worn oat such times.
Q. What does glatt kosher mean? Is there something wrong with regular kosher?
A. Glatt has come to be a code word for “strictly kosher”, but the term is often not used correctly.
Glatt literally means “smooth” and applies to the lungs of an animal. It cannot therefore be applied to chicken, because their lungs cannot be inspected; to fish, which do not have lungs; or to bread, cake, oil, toothpaste, chocolate or soft drinks.
In relation to an animal, glatt means that external examination reveals no blemish, adhesion, etc., on the lungs. From the time of the ancient geonim it has been allowed (Tur, Yoreh De’ah 39) to shake the lung to see if a “false” adhesion will separate. Other authorities, especially Yosef Karo, oppose trying to remove an adhesion with one’s fingers.
The Sephardim follow Karo, and though the Ashkenazi authority, Moshe Isserles, allows an adhesion to be removed without tearing the underlying tissue, the custom has become widespread to follow the stricter opinion and to use only glatt meat.
Some prefer the stricter opinion in relation to everything, but the technical term glatt is not appropriate in relation to anything other than meat.