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Why Is Conversion to Judaism So Hard?

Why Is Conversion to Judaism So Hard?


Note: This article replaces a previous article that said much the same, but in a way that was often misunderstood. I hope this version will be much clearer to all.


Why do the rabbis make conversion to Judaism so hard? There are many Jews who don’t keep anything Jewish, yet the rabbis demand full observance to become a Jew. Is that fair?


You have a very good point. Religion, after all, is all about belief. If you believe, you’re in; if not, you’re out. So why can’t anyone who believes in the Jewish religion be considered Jewish? And why are those who don’t believe and don’t keep any of the Jewish practices still considered Jews?

That’s what happens when you view the Jewish people through another people’s lexicon—it all looks very puzzling. What, though, if we look at ourselves through our own language, through the original Hebrew?

Religion versus Covenant

We’ll start with this word religion. Is Judaism a religion? Is that the right word?

Religions generally start when one teacher spreads his teachings to many disciples. The people who accept these teachings are considered coreligionists. Their common beliefs hold them together as a community.

Moses didn’t preach a religion to individuals. He was more of a populist—a civil-rights leader who stood for empowerment of the people. He took his own people, who already had a common heritage, along with many who had decided to join that people, and brought them to Mount Sinai. There he brokered a covenant between a nation and G‑d. G‑d said, “I choose this nation to be my messengers of Torah light to the world.” The nation, in turn, chose G‑d, saying, “Whatever G‑d says, we will do and we will obey.”

The Jewish people, then, are best described as the “People of the Covenant”—meaning that they are a people because of a covenant. In Hebrew, a covenant is a brit—in this case, not a brit between two individuals, or even between an individual and G‑d (as Abraham had made), but a brit between an entire nation and G‑d.

So let’s replace religion with brit and see what happens.

In a religion, you belong because you believe. In Judaism, you believe because you belong.

The brit, as I wrote, is what defines us as a nation—not geographic vicinity, language, government or culture. Even if we live in different countries, speak different languages, establish different leaders and eat different foods, that covenant still bonds us. Most significantly: even if we stop keeping our obligations under that covenant or decide not to believe in it, the covenant endures. A covenant, you see, is a two-way deal. It takes two to make it and two to break it. Just because the people have let go, doesn’t mean G‑d has. That’s why it’s called an “eternal covenant”—because even if the people may be fickle, G‑d doesn’t change His mind.

So there’s the difference: In a religion, you belong because you believe. In a brit (in this case, Judaism), you believe because you belong.

Believing is part of the brit. So are all the other mitzvot—obligations—of the covenant. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in that covenant or those obligations, or believe that G‑d obligated you, or believe in G‑d at all. You can’t fight with history. You are part of this people by virtue of having been born into it, and that’s who this people are and what this people do. A deal is a deal.

Conversion versus Giyur

Let’s look at another word—conversion—and things will become even clearer.

Let’s say you weren’t born into the Jewish people. Let’s say you decide you want to enter into the same covenant as every other Jew. If this were a religion, no problem—you would just accept upon yourself whatever beliefs and rites are expected of you, and you’re in. That’s what people generally mean when they talk about conversion.

But this is a brit. To enter into G‑d’s covenant with the Jewish people, believing and doing is not enough. You need to become part of that people. How do you do that?

In this way, becoming Jewish is very much like becoming an American, a Moldavian or a Zimbabwean citizen. You can’t come to a country and declare yourself a member. It’s a two-way street: aside from you choosing your country, the government of that country has to decide to accept you.

Similarly, if you choose Judaism, you also need Judaism to choose you. Like we said, a covenant is a two-way deal.

So you need to become a ger (pronounced “gehr”). A ger is more than a convert. A ger literally means someone who has come to live among a people to which he or she was not born. A naturalized alien. That’s how the ger is described in Torah, and how the process of becoming a ger is described in the Talmud: “A ger who comes to sojourn among us.”

By joining this people, the ger instantly becomes part of the same covenant to which the people are part. And although the most essential part of joining this people is to accept the same obligations of the covenant in which they are obligated, it is not by force of his or her acceptance that the ger is obligated. Proof is, if the ger later has a change of mind, it helps zilch. The ger is obligated no matter what, because he or she has now also become “a child of the covenant.”

That’s one difference between this citizenship and citizenship of a modern country: You could always renounce your citizenship of a country. A Jew, however, is a member of an eternal covenant. Once in, there’s no way out.

The details of joining

In short, a ger is an adopted member of the Jewish family. In the words of the paradigm of all gerim, Ruth the Moabite, “Your people are my people; your G‑d is my G‑d.”

The rituals of that adoption are the same as what the Jewish people went through at Sinai: circumcision for males, immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath), and acceptance of all Torah obligations. The crucial element, however, is that all of these are to be supervised by a tribunal of learned, observant Jews—representing none other than G‑d Himself. Their job is not only to witness that the ger was properly circumcised and fully immersed in the mikvah, but also to ensure that the ger is duly cognizant of the obligations of the covenant into which he or she is entering.

That’s another distinction between obtaining citizenship of a modern nation and joining the Jewish People: citizenship is mostly associated with the attainment of rights and privileges, while Jewish citizenship (gerut) is principally concerned with the responsibilities that come along with those privileges.

If the ger-wannabe learns of these obligations and feels they are more than he or she bargained for, so be it. You don’t have to be Jewish to be a good person and to be loved by G‑d. Believe in one G‑d and keep His laws—the seven laws of Noah. Judaism—as opposed to Jewishness—is not just for Jews.

But if the ger does accept, then he or she is reborn as an eternal Jew, the same as any one of us who was born into the covenant. The soul of the ger, our sages taught, stood at Mount Sinai. In at least one way, the ger is yet greater, for the ger is the lost child who has found his way home.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Discussion (1093)
February 13, 2017
The Two Torahs
Orthodox Jews do not believe that everything is written in the Torah.We believe that an oral Torah was given to Moshe at Mt. Sinai and firstly, without the oral Torah one cannot begin to understand the meaning of the Torah, 2, that the oral Torah fills in the details that the Torah left unsaid as Hashem never meant the written Torah to have all of the details.For example, the Torah says four times "You shall bind them...." twice in Exodus and twice in Deuteronomy yet does not tell us to make leather boxes and leather straps, to paint the leather straps black, and how to write the paragraphs and place them into the boxes. When it comes to other areas the Torah is silent.It need not tell us whom Cain and Seth married yet we understand that they had children ergo they must have had spouses. Again the Torah is not a history book it guides us how to live; but it is a studies with the Talmud and commentaries in order to be understood.Therefore if you read the written Torah you are left with
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
February 13, 2017
I find that an interesting question, how did other non Jews get excepted in the Torah? We hear of marriages put nothing else.
Helen Dudden
February 10, 2017
Where in the Torah does it say that gentiles wanting to become jews have to follow a process?
Is it even in there or was it man made?
February 8, 2017
Helen Dudden
I'm sure the others join me in wishing you all the best in your efforts to be recognized as a Jew and in wishing you success in your journey.

I feel certain that Gd must love you especially much for your extraordinary efforts. May Gd reward you tenfold or much much more.
February 8, 2017
To Yaakov
Your post is appreciated. Actually called this synagogue and was told to email the Rabbi, which I did, last year- twice. Have yet to hear from him and would have loved to have been contacted and participated in such a program you share. However, I was invited to a Chabad synagogue close by. The years of having the door not answered upon knocking now being answered and opened is amazing. Now the decision is to take a risk and go ( and may be unwelcome as when I attended the Messianic congregations or not). What I have the guts to do thus far is to to support the congregation. Thank you Yaakov for your post it is indeed encouraging.
Kaaren "kay"
February 2, 2017
Thank you for all the support I've received. I hope my continued efforts help myself and others. Most disabled people want to be a excepted for the people they are.
Helen Dudden
February 2, 2017
Start on the journey
In a different synagogue, a young Christian couple wanted to become Jews. So, they did whatever was required and became 'Conservative' - when they were comfortable in their own skins, they left and continued on their journey and are now practicing orthodox Jews with 4 children.
Meira Shana
San Diego
February 1, 2017
Some congregations and communities are more difficult than others.

In Houston, is a congregation called United Orthodox. They conduct classes & in two years or less, if you can pass the quizzes, you can become a Jew with minimal effort.

After that, you can go to services at whatever congregation you like. If you want to convert again with a more difficult congregation, they now have the opportunity to see that you really meant it. You are keeping kosher and keeping Shabbat. They will begin to take you seriously. You are not one of the many who seem to convert but then don't bother to uphold Torah. You are the real thing. So they accept you. Soon everyone in town accepts you [except the Syrian community, which does not accept any converts].

My hope for all of you is that you, too, will find an accepting congregation. Once you are officially accepted by any orthodox congregation, if you keep mitzvos & take an active part in the community, soon everyone welcomes you.
January 14, 2017
To Helen--You have actually fulfilled one of the most important qualifications.
You came to us because of two Jews. To me that means you basically enjoy us or like us. Two of us, anyway, and I feel sure they are very much like the rest of us. (Did you ever hear the saying, "Two Jews, three opinions"?) Our very differences are one of the ways we are alike. I cannot guess why the orthodox shul in your area is giving you a hard time. I want you as a member of us. Please don't give up. Maybe another (nearby?) town has a congregation that can help you. Or maybe the rabbi here can suggest a way you can convert at a distance. It's unfortunate that we are so few that so few places have more than one (and most places don't have any) orthodox congregations. But you see that most of us on this discussion group want you and appreciate you, including me. Go ahead and get your conservative conversion. It may help. Often that enables you to attend and participate and keep mitzvoth and the orthodox see their error and ask you to join. I've known it to happen. Keep us posted. Best
January 14, 2017
Helen, you have been so determined. Don't give up on orthodox just because of
your own location. Write to United Orthodox synagogue in Houston, Texas. Maybe they can teach you online or on the phone so that you don't have to move. Or they may be able to help you in some other way.

I do know that they have classes that last a year or two and if you care--the way you do--they will work with you. They convert all kinds of people all the time.

Other synagogues may take two to five years.

It is not about "having to please others to be accepted" but it is also not about what you believe or how you feel. It is like getting citizenship in a new country except that it's not a country, it's a peoplehood. The orthodox are the only ones who ask you to promise to keep all the mitzvoth, and since keeping the laws is essential to true Jewish practice, theirs is also the only authentic conversion. If all you want is to participate, you can attend all you want, orthodox or otherwise. If you want to become a member of the tribe, you need to promise to observe the mitzvoth.