How to Make a Jew
Parashat Lech Lecha
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
How to Make a Jew
How do you make a Jew? This is a tried-and-true recipe that has worked fabulously well throughout the centuries, starting with Rikvah and Yitzchak. You get a Nice Jewish Boy to meet a Nice Jewish Girl under favourable circumstances and with a bit of luck and a bit of coaxing, you hope that they will fall in love, have a chuppah and produce some Nice Jewish Babies that we can all kvell over. Bonus points if you can get this Nice Jewish Couple to sign up to join your congregation and enroll their kinderlach in your cheder or religion school. Of course, the recipe can be updated a little in case a Nice Jewish Boy meets another Nice Jewish Boy. Or Nice Jewish Girl meets another Nice Jewish Girl.
Then there’s another, though less common recipe, that has worked nicely since the days of Ruth the Moabite. Nice Non-Jewish Boy or Girl might wander into your synagogue. They might be in relationship with a Jew, be friends with Jews or just love Judaism as a spiritual path. After getting to know the rest of us, a period of study and deliberation, this Nice Non-Jewish Boy or Girl might choose to become Jewish.
So why these Jew-making recipes? Because this week’s parashah, Lech Lecha, kicks off with Abraham’s mission. We know how it opens: Abraham (still Abram here) is told to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house to embark on his mission. Of course, he can’t engage in the project of building ethical monotheism on his own: he needs fellow travellers. His first and most natural fellow traveller is Sarah (still Sarai at this point), and Lot and the extended family they build over time. But he needs to expand his scope in order to build his ‘great nation’ and so there is a curious passage a little further on:
‘Vayikach Abram et Sarai ishto, v’et Lot ben achiv v’et kol rechusham asher rachashu v’et hanefesh asher asu b’Charan…’ (Gen. 12:5).‘And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot, the son of his brother and all their possessions that they possessed and the souls they made in Charan…’
So how does one ‘make’ a soul (or person)? The Midrash is clear on what this means. Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 39 states that this refers to the converts they brought under the Shechinah’s wing. Sarah converted the women and Abraham converted the men. Due to their noble efforts, they are rewarded with the merit of having ‘made’ these new (for lack of a less anachronistic term) ‘Jews’.
So Abraham provides us with our two-fold model of how one makes a Jew: through birth, as in the case of Yitzchak and arguably, through Yishmael, and through choice. The story doesn’t end here. You don’t just ‘make’ a Jew and that’s it. Making something is a process. There’s actually a third – and more important – way to make Jews, regardless of how they became Jews in the first place. Our obligation as community-builders and teachers of Torah goes much further, as Pirke Avot tells us to ‘aseh lecha rav’, to ‘make yourself a teacher’ (Avot 1:6).
We make Jews through teaching. Through education, empowerment, questioning and relationship. Through a message of timeless hope and morality, a deep connection to the Divine. By providing meaning through the lens of our rich Jewish tradition.
One such a Maker of Jews was Rabbi Leo Baeck, whose yartzeit is commemorated annually by the Leo Baeck College on Shabbat Lech Lecha. Leo Baeck was on a mission which went above and beyond the call of duty to make Judaism relevant for our age and to offer hope when there seemed none.
Leo Baeck was born in 1873 in Lezno, Poland and a descendant of a rabbinic family. He received both a religious training at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau and as well as studying secular philosophy in Berlin. He taught at the ‘Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Jutentums’, the great Reform seminary of its day. During Nazi Germany, he tried to bolster the morale of his Jewish community. He helped many Jews flee Nazi Germany, but chose to stay himself. He was deported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt in 1943 where he continued to lecture, teach and encourage. After the War, he came to England where he spent the rest of his days until his death in 1956.
Leo Baeck was one of those rare gems of a human being who combined wisdom, piety and moral fortitude. When Leo Baeck College was founded (not yet by that name but known as the ‘Jewish Theological College’) in 1956 by Rabbi Werner van der Zyl, it was very much in the spirit of Leo Baeck’s remarkable life and legacy. Leo Baeck understood the need for both compassion and vision, that ‘Jews full of Judaism’ (as he termed it) could be a light unto the nations, a light so bright that it even lit up the midnight of the century.
For over 60 years, Leo Baeck College has been in the business of making Jews and making Judaism through rabbinic ordination, Jewish education at all levels and by being the heart of Progressive Judaism in the UK and beyond. Hundreds of rabbis have been ordained by the College and many of them have left their ‘land and birthplace’ – yours truly among them – to serve communities ranging from Australia, Asia, Europe and America.
If we want to be serious about our Judaism, then we have to support institutions like Leo Baeck College. It was through their faith and support in me – emotional, practical and financial – that I have managed to become a rabbi. Without them it wouldn’t have been possible and I cannot express how indebted I am to them. Leo Baeck College very much ‘made’ this Nice Jewish Girl a rabbi. They taught me passion for Judaism as well as the critical thinking skills. They taught me Midrash and Talmud and Israeli poetry as well as the lived experience of being a student rabbi through practical rabbinics and student pulpits.
And their influence reaches beyond the rabbinate. With initiatives such as their new ‘Lehrhaus’, where rabbis and laity can learn with each other, as well as their long-standing social justice and interfaith work, Leo Baeck College is not only very good at making Jews but also at making Judaism meaningful.
Please, if you can, support the College, financially or otherwise, even if London feels far away from here. Like Abraham so long ago, and like Rabbi Leo Baeck, they have been and continue to be a light and a blessing. We all want Progressive Judaism to be strong. We have a recipe that can’t be beat. Let’s make it so.