Bruce James (Baruch Gershom)
I wrote the following article which was published in
the Baltimore Jewish Times on April 10, 1981. It has
been excerpted in the book "Becoming Jewish" by Rabbi
"You're a convert? Gee. That's interesting. If you don't mind my asking, why did you do it?"
I suppose every convert to Judaism is asked the question and I've gotten used to it, but there is another comment I often hear that is disturbing:
"You're a convert? There must have been a girl."
A lot of people just can't believe that there is something in the Jewish religion worth having. Something that someone from the accepted, middle-class WASP world would want. So when a Jewish person makes this comment, I have to realize my patience and explain why I converted and how much value there is in being Jewish.
I doubt that my parents will ever understand why I converted. All they see now is a yarmulka on the head of a son who's not the same person they watched grow up.
But I am the same person. Yes, I keep my head covered, pray three times a day, put on tefillin, keep a kosher home and stomach, keep Shabbos strictly, and observe other laws that, in my parents' eyes, link me with the most fanatic and backward cult in the world. When I come home, it's not as if their son came home, rather it's as if they received a visit from someone from another planet.
Still, it is doubtful that I could have become an Orthodox Jew without important training I received at home.
My parents gave me a firm belief in G-d, a dedication to honesty and consistency, and a love for all people. Without these values I would have been lost in an agnostic world full of contradictions and ethical conflicts.
I was 16 when I decided to become a Jew. But even at 14 or 15 I was very religious, active in my church and giving thought to someday becoming a minister as had my great-great-grandfather. I was developing ideas that were different from standard Christian doctrine: not knowing any alternative, though, I decided to use them in a Christian context.
But all that changed one Friday night. My church confirmation class made a field trip to the synagogue in my hometown, Colorado Springs, Colorado. After the service, the rabbi stayed on and answered our questions.
One student asked if the color of the rabbi's skullcap meant anything. No, he said. He has one to match his blue suit and others to match different articles of clothing. Another person asked him why they had somebody else (a cantor) sing the service. "Because he has a better voice than I have," he answered quickly with a grin.
But I was cocky, and still believing that Jesus was Messiah, I baited the rabbi:
"Has the Messiah come yet?" I asked.
"No," he said. "Look at all the suffering in the world."
"When will he come?"
"Certainly not until we get better for him."
"Then why should he come?"
I was stunned. Obviously, his answers to my questions were brief and over-simplified. But he hit me with one of my own theories that had no source in Christian doctrine: man plays a key role in the salvation of the world. The world is not doomed to destruction, and man may be, ultimately, perfectible.
I continued my studies of the New Testament. I was disturbed that the enlightenment of Jesus was fizzled by the narrow-minded doctrine of the Apostle Paul. Yet, when I finished my confirmation training, I was at the top of my class. On a test of Bible knowledge, the average score was 20 to 40 points. I scored an 88, double the next highest.
Then my minister asked everyone in my class to write a statement of faith. This would be used when the church elders considered our application for membership in the Presbyterian Church.
I prepared my paper with the same glee that Martin Luther must have had when he wrote his attack on the Catholic Church. First I attacked the way the Jewish ideas of Jesus had been cast away by Paul and other Church leaders and substituted with customs and values
from pagan religions -- often without benefit of any symbolic tie-in -- all to make Christianity more marketable.
Then I attacked the dualism of Christianity. The devil got the blame for everything, I wrote with tongue in cheek, but where would Christianity be without the devil? What would motivate people to do good if not for the threat of eternal damnation?
One of the elders eventually read my piece. He told me that I had some interesting ideas. And he recommended me for membership. I couldn't believe it. Didn't the Church have any standards? I should have refused membership at that point. But at the time, I felt I really had no choice but to accept.
One day I just stopped going to church. But that didn't send me to the synagogue. I didn't know anything about Judaism. But I did know that I didn't like the way Christianity had developed. In my mind, what had begun as a Jewish cult, in a short time, became a religion that preached love and fought wars.