Each year, as we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, we are reminded of the remarkable spiritual journey undertaken by the heroine of the story, a Moabite woman who left behind everything she knew to tie her fate with the people of Israel.
In one of the Bible's most moving declarations of pure faith, Ruth expresses her desire in simple yet compelling terms, telling her mother-in-law, Naomi, "Wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people and your G-d shall be my G-d" (Ruth 1:16).
While such authentic affirmations may seem like something that existed only in the distant past, the truth is that the Jewish people is blessed each year with thousands of new members who, despite all the challenges and difficulties they face, nonetheless are determined to join us and share in our destiny.
Rather than looking askance at this phenomenon or giving the cold shoulder to converts, we as Jews need to do far more to welcome Jews-by-choice into our midst and show them a level of appreciation and esteem for the courageous path they have undertaken.
Over much of the past two decades, as chairman of Shavei Israel, I have been blessed to work with countless people from across the world who have made the choice, in a world increasingly hostile to Jews, to become loyal and observant Jews and openly identify as such.
When you meet such a person, be it a former film actor from Paris, a special-needs teacher from Texas or an engineer from China, and you see the sacrifices they make to live a fully Jewish life, it is nothing less than inspirational.
Indeed, as Jews by birth, many of us take so much about our identity and our faith for granted, often paying little more than lip service in our daily lives to weighty matters of belief and practice.
And that is what makes the sincerity shown by many converts so rewarding and refreshing, for it strips away the cynicism and sarcasm that often seeps into our psyches and reminds us of the collective treasure that is our Jewish heritage.
In this sense, I believe we owe a debt of gratitude to Jews-by-choice, if only because by choosing Judaism in a world rife with numerous other options, they help us to deepen our own appreciation for what we already have.
Treating converts with warmth and respect is therefore something that each of us as individuals as well as a community should strive to do with all our might.
This is not only the right and proper thing to do, it is also demanded of us by Jewish law itself.
Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th-century text that enumerates and explains the mitzvot, says (Mitzvah 431), "We are commanded to love the convert," noting that "we are cautioned not to cause them any sorrow, but rather to do good unto them and treat them righteously as they deserve."
In his great compendium of Jewish law, the Mishne Torah, Maimonides writes (Hilchot De'ot 6:4), that "G-d has commanded us concerning the love of a convert just as He has commanded us to love Him," and adds that, "G-d Himself loves converts as the Torah says (in Deuteronomy 10:18), 'and He loves converts.'"
And one of the most powerful statements of all is to be found in the Midrash Tanhuma (Lech Lecha 6), where Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish states, "A proselyte is more beloved before the Holy One Blessed be He than all those who stood at Mount Sinai [i.e. the people of Israel]."
He explains that if the people who stood at Sinai "had not experienced the thunder, the flames, the lightning, the quaking of the mountain and the sound of the shofars, they would not have accepted the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven." By contrast, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says, the convert to Judaism witnessed none of these things and yet chose of his or her own accord to accept G-d. He concludes by asking rhetorically, "Is there anyone more precious than this?"
Obviously, in recent years, conversion has unfortunately become an increasingly complex and controversial issue, with a variety of different and conflicting views about the process and its core elements often serving as the subject of heated debate.
But there is one matter that all can agree on and that is the need to uphold the dignity of converts while reminding ourselves that, having completed a valid process of conversion, they are no less Jewish than the rest of us.
Those who are less enamored of conversion are often quick to cite seemingly critical comments regarding converts that appear in the Babylonian Talmud. But as, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the late chief rabbi of Israel, pointed out, none of those ostensibly negative statements was included in the Jerusalem Talmud, the Talmud of the Land of Israel, because the convert will almost certainly forge deeper Jewish roots here living in a Jewish society.
And to that I would add that since the establishment of the State of Israel and the return of Jewish sovereignty, perhaps we as a nation can now be even more open to those who genuinely wish to join us, without of course compromising on the requirements of Halacha.
So to all those who have come from near and far to join the Jewish people, and who choose to share in our nation's triumphs and mourn in its sorrows, let me say on behalf of my fellow Jews on this Shavuot: thank you for having the courage of your convictions. You are a blessing to the Jewish people and let no one ever cause you to think otherwise.