Children of Abraham
“Lekh Lekha! Go forth from … your birthplace, from your father’s home … to a land that I will show you.” —(Genesis 12:1)
Some version of God’s famous words to our patriarch, Abraham, is what conversion candidates recount in sharing with me the geneses of their journeys. As supervisor of conversions at BJ, I am privileged to guide and support the journeys of those who, in one way or another, are called to join the Jewish people. Some are moved initially by Jewish theology, others by observance, still others by a clear sense that somehow, they are and have always been Jewish. They embark upon a process of examining and owning Jewish beliefs, behavior and belonging—a path that engages (and ultimately invites and requires them to immerse) mind, body, and soul.
My understanding of some of the language around conversion has been aided in viewing conversion through the lens of Abraham’s call and journey.
While we are all considered “children of Abraham,” some among us are more explicitly so than others. Upon converting, “Jews-by-choice” are given Hebrew names by which they are henceforth called to the Torah. In noting parentage, converts are referred to as ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah: “son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah.” Traditionally, Abraham and Sarah’s names are used instead of those of the convert’s biological parents as a way of expressing the transformation undergone by those who choose to cast their lot with that of the Jewish people and the sense that this process is a rebirth of sorts; they are—says this practice—reborn as Abraham and Sarah’s children.
I’ve struggled with this practice in the sense that it implies a convert’s renouncement of his or her family of origin and a need to disavow his or her roots. My work with conversion candidates here at BJ, however, has given me a new and deepened appreciation of what it means to be known to the world as a ben/bat—as a direct child of—Abraham.
Although the text of the Torah provides us with precious little information about Abraham before his being “called” by God, as readers, we yearn to know that it is not simply his being singled out by God that makes Abraham special, but that his own uniqueness causes God to reach out to him in this way. This desire to demonstrate Abraham’s inherent specialness is evident in the myriad midrashim (stories written to explain biblical questions or seeming gaps) constructed by the rabbis on this subject. These tales depict a child who, unsatisfied with the notions of God (or, in fact, gods) that exist around him, is spurred to examination, intense inquiry, and rebellion; a young boy who, filled with what Heschel calls “radical amazement” at the world, is certain such a magnificent kingdom must have one unifying master; a person brimming with wonder, gratitude and an insatiable curiosity that lead him to God … and that lead God to respond.
Why did God choose Abraham to unfold the Jewish way? The answer from our tradition seems to be: because Abraham chose God. It is in this way that I find converts to be “children of Abraham (and Sarah).” Attributing to them this parentage is not merely a superficial or generalized way of making them eternally identifiable as having converted; God forbid—for in fact, once a person converts to Judaism, their status as a convert is never to be a subject of attention. Instead, I believe that the bestowal of this Hebrew name (ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah) is intended as a badge of honor; it speaks to the heart of their having been “inexplicably” called to take an uncertain journey—to their being meaning- seeking, awe-appreciating iconoclasts of the same ilk as Abraham—a profound connection, indeed.
This brings me to another aspect of conversion terminology that has not always sat well with me: the word “ger.” This word, literally translated as “stranger,” is the Hebrew word used for convert. This seems quite a, well, strange word to describe people welcomed into our midst. How can they be at once fully one of us and officially called “strangers”? But this word, ger, comes from the verb gar, to reside or dwell. And here we find a beautiful irony: Ger can be understood as both “one who is a stranger” and “one who is at home.” This double meaning is not dissimilar from that found in the words “Lekh lekha“ themselves. These words are often translated as “go forth”—as directing Abraham to uproot, to take leave of all he knows. But because of the reflexive nature of the formulation of these words, they are also interpreted as meaning “go unto yourself”—instructing our patriarch not to uproot, but rather to journey inward, to his truest self.
Just as “Lekh lekha” implies, at its deepest level, not only a going from, but a returning to oneself, I believe the title “ger” points poignantly to converts being not strangers to Judaism but rather ones who, in leaving their “father’s home,” so to speak, return to a truth that has always been theirs—that “dwelt” within their souls already. As genuine inheritors of Abraham’s seeking spirit, their journey to Judaism is a journey home.
This perspective on conversion has been revealed to me through the holy texts with whom I am blessed to work—the approximately 20 individuals into whose travels I have been invited thus far. On the first evening of my Introduction to Judaism course (comprised of a mix of Jewish BJ members and other students on or considering the path toward Judaism), I asked each student to briefly share what brought them to the chair in which they sat, plus one word that expresses what for them is most compelling about Judaism. People’s words constituted a collage of rich and varied images: challah, happy, countercultural, books, tolerance, timelessness, family, ritual. One person’s word took my breath away: “home.” She shared with a mix of pride and timidity, as though wondering whether it would be thought an inappropriate word to describe Judaism as a non-Jew.
I felt tears threatening. I was moved by how apt this word is to the experience of this spiritual descendant of Abraham; at the same time, I lamented the overwhelming number of Abraham’s “biological children”—born Jews—who lack a feeling of “home” in their Jewish identity. I wondered for a moment whether there was a way to bottle up the exuberance—the joy, the love, the feeling of “at home-ness” about and within Jewish life and practice—felt and demonstrated by these b’nei Avraham v’Sarah … to share with all the rest of us.
The Bible is filled with tales of our ancestors who heard and heeded (or sometimes evaded or flouted!) God’s call, God’s words. Abraham is the first to hear God’s call and respond “hineni,” here I am. Centuries later, hineinu, here we are, his descendants, striving in various ways still to live up to that daunting declaration of presence and preparedness. Tradition holds that direct prophecy, of the “And God spoke to” variety, no longer exists today. But if neviim/prophets we are not, b’nei neviim/the children of prophets we most certainly are. Having ears and eyes trained to perceive the sublime, if subtle, divine markings and murmurings in our world—and hearts and minds bold enough to respond—this is what it means to be children of Abraham.
Converts in our midst serve as embodied reminders of the mandate to live up to this status ourselves each day—of the power and privilege of our inspired heritage. Hineinu—May we heed the call.