He approached me in the subway, a good-looking African-American boy about 11- or 12-years-old wearing a green winter jacket and no head covering on a frigid day. I stood alone at the end of the platform. He walked up to me, bold and carefree.
“You know those straps that you put on when you pray?” he said. “What are they for?”
“The one on the arm binds our emotions and actions to G-d, and the one around the head binds our thoughts,” I answered. “Your actions and your thoughts are focused on G-d.”
In my career as a New York subway rider, conspicuous in beard and fedora, I’ve been asked two kinds of questions: the Evangelical Question on a verse or passage in the Bible aimed at provoking an argument or proving a point; and the Limited Curiosity Question seeking relief from puzzlement over a Jewish practice once observed.
This boy was different. His questions were personal and serious.
“What about putting the strap around the hand?” he asked, wrapping an invisible Tefillin strap around his left hand.
I hesitated, searching for the answer. I could see him on the periphery of a large synagogue closely watching Jewish men putting on Tefillin. Then suddenly he cut to the point.
“How do I become a Jew?” he asked.
I paused, stunned by his question.
“Do I need a bar mitzvah?”
The three train arrived. I didn’t have a lot of time now – now that our time seemed suddenly precious.
“Well, first you study a lot,” I answered, as we stepped onto the crowded car. I was traveling only one stop.
A gentile who declares his intention to convert is not automatically accepted. To consider someone as a candidate for conversion, a Jewish court must determine if the person sincerely wants to convert. To discern the candidate’s sincerity, the court apprises the prospective convert of the difficulty and sacrifice demanded by the keeping of the commandments and of the history of suffering and persecution experienced by the Jewish people.
For those not inclined to take on the obligation of the Torah and its commandments, the Seven Noahide Laws function as a path to serving G-d available to all gentiles at all times. With that in mind – and considering he couldn’t convert now, anyway, since he was apparently younger than 13 – I decided to introduce him to the Noahide Commandments.
“You know, conversion is not your only option,” I said, hanging on to a handrail with passengers all around me. “You can keep what’s known as the Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah.” I then specified the Seven Noahide Laws: 1) do not worship idols; 2) do not curse G-d; 3) do not murder; 4) do not commit incest or adultery; 5) do not steal; 6) do not eat a limb from a living animal; 7) establish courts of justice.
I told him that G-d gave seven commandments to Noah and transmitted them again with the Torah on Mount Sinai, making them incumbent on all gentiles. A follower of the Noahide Laws must believe that their authority derives from G-d’s commanding them in the Torah.
The train stopped at the Utica Station and the doors opened. I regretted leaving him there. Even though we had talked only a short time, I felt affection for him. He valued the thing most central to my life – my Judaism. We shared a confidence unlikely to exist between two other strangers meeting by chance.The wonder of two people from such different circumstances being drawn to the same Truth reminded me of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s reading of the world: ripe to have its essential goodness revealed. According to the Rebbe, the dissemination of none other than the Seven Noahide Commandments has brought the world to its current state – ready for the arrival of Mashiach. As I emerged from the subway and headed toward my apartment to get ready for Shabbat, I felt joy at having been shown a glimpse of that new world awaiting.