Claiming Our Spiritual Ancestry

This seder plate belonged to my husband's grandmother, Miriam Rose.

In the year 2000, I was still a newly-minted Jew, having completed my conversion in March of 1999. As Passover approached, I was in a quandary. I asked, “Am I allowed to say during the Passover seder, ‘God brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with signs and wonders (Deuteronomy 26:8)’”? After all, as a Jew by Choice, I’m pretty confident that my ancestors were not Jews. I was most likely not related by blood to any of the Israelites who came out of Egypt in the Exodus.

It was a few years later that I first discovered that I was not the first Jew asking that question. In fact, over 800 years ago, Rabbi Ovadyah, a convert to Judaism, asked our great rabbi Maimonides this very question. It was both amazing and wonderful to me that my exact question had been considered and answered by Maimonides, who by that time was one of my heroes.

His answer to Ovadyah, and by extension, to me and others like me, was a qualified “yes.” What he said on the question of whether a convert may say, “Who brought us out of Egypt,” as opposed to, “Who brought Israel out of Egypt,” is that if the convert wants to make this change and say “Israel,” that’s fine. However, it is also perfectly permissable to speak of “us,” “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.”

Why not just say yes? One of my teachers, Rabbi David Greenstein, taught that Maimonides was recognizing that conversion is not completed in a moment, and that a Jew by Choice may need time to become comfortable saying “who brought us out of Egypt.” Therefore, he or she may say it either way.

It has indeed been my experience that conversion did not cause a full-fledged Jewish identity to spring forth in me. My Jewish identity had certainly begun to develop, but was still fragile in some ways. For example, I was terrified that people would tell me I wasn’t really Jewish, that I didn’t belong. Finally a wise person said to me, “If you really feel inside that you are Jewish, why does it bother you what other people think?” That helped move me forward, because it held a lot of truth.

Today my Jewish identity is solid, but continues to develop, as does that of anyone who continues to learn and grow. At my Passover seders this year, as I have for the past 15 years, I proudly proclaimed that God heard my cries in Egypt, and brought me out of slavery there. Because the Israelites of the Exodus are my spiritual ancestors, as they are to every Jew in the world. I wish a chag Pesach sameach—a happy Passover—to all who celebrate.

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