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April 4, 2012

By Rabbi Heidi Hoover

More than a decade ago, shortly after my conversion to Judaism, I was working as a religious school tutor. One day at about this time of year, I was having a conversation with a colleague about Passover, specifically the part of the haggadah that instructs us to say, “God brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” How, I asked, could I honestly say “us?” As a Jew by Choice, I am obviously not descended by blood from the Israelites who left Egypt in the Exodus. At the same time, as a Jew, it didn’t feel right to say, “God brought them out of Egypt.”

It was a number of years later that I found two answers to my question. One came from Maimonides, one of our great rabbis, who lived in the 1100’s in Spain, Morocco, and Egypt. Maimonides wrote a letter responding to Ovadiah, a man who had converted to Judaism, and who had written to Maimonides with the exact same question that I had. Maimonides responded that if one who had converted to Judaism wanted to say, “Who brought Israel out of Egypt,” instead of “Who brought us out of Egypt,” that was fine. However, he continued, it is also perfectly permissible to say, “Who brought us out of Egypt,” “since you have entered under the protective wing of the Divine Presence and you share company with God, therefore there is no difference between us and you, and all miracles worked can be considered to have been performed for us and for you…. There is no difference whatsoever between us and you for any matter.”

Rabbi David Greenstein teaches that when Maimonides says the Jew by Choice may say it either way, he is acknowledging that conversion is not completed in a moment; Jewish identity takes time to develop and strengthen to the point that the Jew by Choice feels Jewish through and through. Therefore, he or she may not feel comfortable saying “who brought usout of Egypt” until some time after the conversion.

That was one answer to my question, and it was comforting to realize that in responding to Ovadiah, Maimonides was responding to me, more than 800 years before I asked the question.

The second answer to my question had to do with the possibility of adopting a history that was not mine by blood. I learned of the concept of “fictive kin,” which refers to people creating relationships that they consider familial without being related by blood or marriage. It is something that happens when a family adopts a child, for example. There is not a biological relationship, but a familial relationship, and that is accepted by society as such. When a person converts to Judaism, she or he is becoming part of the family of Jews, and becomes kin even without the biological relationship.

Over the years it has become important to me that in the Torah’s account of the Exodus, we read that a mixed multitude of others left with the Israelites. Just a few verses later, we read: “If a male stranger who dwells with you would offer the Passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall then be as a citizen of the country. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you” (Exodus 12:48-49).

This is right in the middle of the Exodus! Even in that dramatic moment, God recognized that there were others-there would always be others-who were not born into the Israelite tribes, but who would choose to join them. God gave the Israelites a mechanism to include these gerim, these strangers. Thus, from the time of the very formation of the people Israel, God made it clear that being born into this people was not the only way to become part of this community. This is not exactly conversion-there is no conversion as such in the Bible. But I would consider it proto-conversion.

During our Passover Seder, we declare, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” There are different kinds of hunger-some physical, some spiritual. Jews by Choice have come to Judaism because they have found that it satisfies their spiritual hunger. Those who are born Jewish may also hunger spiritually. It has been said that in our time in the United States of America, all Jews are Jews by Choice, because we are free to form any religious identity we want, or to reject religion altogether. This Passover, let us all choose to feed one another both physically and spiritually, as we eat together, learn together, and celebrate our freedom together as a Jewish extended family. Hag Same’ah.


Heidi Hoover is the rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek, Brooklyn, New York.