I recently came across a Talmudic tale about a Rabbi who was approached by a wealthy merchant. He offered to generously provide for all of the Rabbi's needs if he would return with him to his town, which was full of people who were thirsty for knowledge. The merchant felt that the Rabbi could make the townspeople as wise as himself, but the Rabbi declined, instead fearing that he would lose his wisdom in such a place.
I have learned not to treat these stories with a superficial understanding, and I am sure there are explanations I am missing, but this one just bothers me so much. I can't help but wonder what happened to all of those people. Were they lost to Judaism forever? Both the Chofetz Chaim and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z"tl, placed a lot of emphasis on reaching out to other Jews and giving them a chance to connect to their heritage. This obviously does not apply to non-Jews, as Judaism is not a proselytizing religion and believes that all good people will have a share in Olam Haba.
However, the Talmud also tells us of a convert named Onkelos, the son of a Roman Emperor. After Onkelos had traveled to Israel to begin studying for his conversion, a battalion of soldiers was dispatched to prevent him from becoming a Jew. But instead, those soldiers converted to Judaism after seeing Onkelos, as did the second group the Emperor sent. In frustration, his father ordered the third battalion to avoid speaking to his son at all; they were simply to bring Onkelos back to Rome. In the midst of his capture, Onkelos reached up and kissed the mezuzah. The soldiers could not help themselves—they had to know what this object was. So Onkelos explained...and then the third battalion converted, too. At this point, the Emperor threw up his hands in defeat, and Onkelos lived to be a great scholar in Israel.
I've had several Jews tell me they admire me, because they're not sure they could have chosen Judaism had they not been born a Jew. Au contraire, I say. I am living proof that one needn't have been born a Jew to choose it. And I'm so happy with my choice, with my new perspective, that I can't help but talk about it. I'm certainly not trying to turn anyone Jewish, as I'm sure Onkelos wasn't, but I also just can't keep this information to myself. You wanna know what a mezuzah is? Buddy, I hope you have an hour. Or two. You'll never look at a doorpost the same way again.
We converts are the torchbearers. Not only do we keep the passion alive, but we prove the eternal relevancy of the Torah by exchanging pretty comfortable and easy lives for ones that are often anything but. I'm aware of what the Talmud says about converts, and it's all very nice, thank you, but I'm not looking for a special status. What I do want is for every Jew to be as proud of their Judaism as I am. I want you to wear it on your sleeve. Because for all you know, you're a descendant of one of those soldiers, and you owe your Jewishness to a man who wouldn't—couldn't—shut up about his.