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Why Is Conversion to Judaism So Hard?

Why Is Conversion to Judaism So Hard?

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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.


Question:

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?

Response:

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 Chabad.org, 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.
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Discussion (697)
June 26, 2015
Vickie
I'm not sure why you want to convert to a religion you know so little about.

Wouldn't it make more sense to learn all you can about Judaism and then see how you feel?

Anything worth having is worth learning about.

Don't short-change yourself.
Meira Shana
San Diego
June 26, 2015
I made the choice not to eat meat.

Even Kosher, I try to make sure it is Kosher vegetarian. .
Helen Dudden
UK
June 26, 2015
Before Noah, the things were slightly different (better).
Bereshit / Genesis: 29 Then G-d said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
31 G-d saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
.
I think that killing an animal in a deliberate matter like in order to (cook) eat it is a kind of a murder. The commandment, you shall not murder, improves in this way, like, you shall not kill people, you shall not kill anything, you shall not harm, you shall act the loving kindness.
That is what I think, I do not wish to push anybody to think the same.
Al
Canada
June 26, 2015
Going back to the subject of conversion. I don't think anyone who wishes to convert will not be prepared to learn.

How can you be part of something if you don't.
Helen Dudden
UK
June 25, 2015
Why is it so hard to convert?
B"H Okay, so now what? I have question; It was written in the article that once a person has converted they are believed to have been Jewish and were at the foot of Mt. Sinai (spiritually speaking); here's the question then: Of all who were present at Mt. Sinai, how many made it into the 'Promised Land'? This question is a daunting challenge for many of people. Are we saying Aliyah is similar to repentance? That the lost souls of those who didn't make it, even though they were Jewish and at Mt. Sinai can still make it into the Promised Land all these centuries later? That it is difficult is obvious even at the literal level of interpretation. i could do everything correctly and precisely, and still not get there. The mind, heart and body can Not get us there alone; only HaShem has the Power. My last mind-boggling quest-ing: If a born Jew becomes a christian, they are still Jewish, this means I was Jewish since Mt. Sinai to now, conversion was but a symbolic gesture to show it?
Anonymous
Pasadena, CA
June 24, 2015
Do not eat a limb of a living animal
There are actually people who would cut off an animal's leg and cook it and eat it. Meanwhile the animal is left with three legs. An animal is able to survive and even to walk with only three legs.

The laws of Noah, which apply to ALL people, forbid everyone from doing this to any animal. It is permitted to slaughter the animal humanely and then to cut up the body and eat it, as is commonly done with lamb, mutton, beef, and so on.

Killing an animal is not murder. Murder applies only to killing a human, and not all killing is murder. Self defense is not murder. Participating in war is not murder. Accidental killing is not murder. Only the deliberate pre-meditated planned killing of a person who is not in any way attacking you, is murder.

More than that: it is still not murder unless someone reminds the killer that murder is a capital offense.

But I hope I have explained the Noachic law against eating a limb from a living animal. Cutting off and cooking any animal's limb is cruel.
Bella
Chicago
June 7, 2015
Somebody please explain to those on here who want to convert that there is no " cold shoulder" this is simply the law. You must ask the rabbi three times and the first two you will be told no and on the third you will be accepted. Most non- Jews don't understand this and feel rejected. As for it taking a long time, I am Jewish by birth and am studying Catholicism at my local Catholic Church just out of curiosity. I have had many Catholic friends and wanted to learn about it.I am not converting but I am in the RICA classes and they are a year of study and you are allowed to sit in om the mass but must leave ( are called outside for discussion) before communion and non- Catholics cannot take communion whereas non- Jews can take part equally in every
aspect of Judaism. It has actually made me appreciate Judaism even more. There is no debate or discussion and even the people running the classes don't know much. The emphasis is on belief not exploration.
L.R
May 30, 2015
Noahism
Maybe the Noahite 6th commandment is mistyped:
"Do Not Eat of a Live Animal".
Maybe it caused by the English translation.
It may be "Do not kill a live Animal".
Otherwise it may contradict the third commandment: Do not murder.
Al
Canada
May 28, 2015
To whom to talk
Vicki - as you are in the UK the two options are the London Beit Din and the Manchester Beit Din. The choice should depend on where you live. They communicate to each other and have the same standards.

Your other option (perhaps it should be your first) is choosing a synagogue to join and a rabbi with whom you can talk. I suggest that you contact Rabbi Alan Kimche I can't put a link to his site on this page. He can help you navigate your conversion.

(For those who recognize his surname, yes he is a direct descendant of the Radak)
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
May 28, 2015
I think the situation remains difficult almost impossible within Orthodox.

Has Hashem defined who may or may not be part of the way of life.

I am not asking to have something that has not happened before, Ruth was accepted without classes. But then what is the point of being part of anything older than time if we don't give it our all.
Helen Dudden
england
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