Your People Are My People

“Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge.
Your people will be my people, and your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried… Ruth 1:16-17

The Book of Ruth is dear to the hearts of most converts to Judaism, and I am no exception. Ruth’s story is one that is traditionally studied on Shavuot. Over the past few days, as Counting the Omer drew to a close, Ruth’s journey as a convert has been in my thoughts a great deal.

Shortly after I became a Jew almost 30 years ago, I was walking through the hallway at my synagogue and ran into one of the Hebrew School administrators. She smiled, gave me a big hug, and said: “Your daughter told me you officially converted last week. Welcome to the Tribe!!”

I often relive and rethink my own path to receiving Torah and to becoming a member of the Tribe. The passage of time can facilitate deeper understanding and reassessment of traditions and values. When I first began studying for conversion and for a significant period of time thereafter, I just absorbed what I was learning and didn’t question traditional assumptions or practices much at all.

As I became more secure in my new identity and delved deeper into study of Torah, however, I learned how to question, argue, debate, and sometimes reject outright what I was learning. This practice is one of the things about Judaism that I love most (although I will admit to frequently being highly frustrated by it as well). The foundation of all of the questioning and debating is the understanding that life is very complex, and different views and interpretations of Torah–if done for the sake of heaven–are valid. In fact, they are mandatory.

There is a traditional idea that all Jewish souls (even of those who were not yet born) were present at Mt. Sinai at the moment of Revelation, including the souls of those who become Jewish through conversion.

Becoming Jewish also involves choosing a Hebrew name. Jews may have a name that is more common in the social setting where they live, but most have a Hebrew name as well. Hebrew names are used for ritual purposes and during significant spiritual occasions.

The names follow a formula:  Name, son/daughter of Father’s Name & Mother’s Name. As a convert, though, I became Hannah, daughter of Abraham & Sarah, not Hannah, daughter of Robert & Avis. Did I live half my life (before conversion) as a Quaker with a Jewish soul? Did I stand at Sinai as Martha, daughter of Robert & Avis, or Hannah, daughter of Sarah & Abraham, or Hannah, daughter of Avis & Robert? Who am I now? All three? Can I learn something from people who are labeled at birth with an identity that does not honor who they really are inside? Is that even a fair comparison?

I am certain that both the traditional image of a convert’s soul standing at Sinai, and the use of Abraham & Sarah as parents in the convert’s Hebrew name are meant to be inclusive and welcoming. I am sure they are not meant as negative in any way.

I struggle, though, with how both of these ideas seem to erase my individual past, all my experiences “before” that created who I am today. Does changing an identity or major aspects of one’s identity require elimination of the past? Changing a name can be a very positive affirmation of the new person. But does that require elimination of who that person was?

Humans go through many different kinds of identity journeys, some temporary and simple, some deeply difficult and hard. There is an infinite variety to these experiences and the ways we can answer the fundamental question: How do we honor who we were, who we are, and who we may yet become?


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