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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. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Discussion (1034)
September 12, 2016
To Meira
Hello!
I enjoyed your post. Why would someone go to the trouble of sabotaging the conversion of another? Ones relationship with G-d is so sacred. I wonder why someone else would interfere with a conversion as this too is an integral part of that relationship one has with G-d. Additionally you are correct in pointing out that a happy person is far more appealing than one glum from crummy experiences. How do we mend that one? Incidentally, looking at Ephraims post, the more thought and reading done the more community , and Jewish soul come into clarity and make sense. Oddly enough I think I understood these concepts ( not saying at all I know it all!) more than originally thought for a very long time. Another day........ : )
Still looking for our place/ home community and or hoping our place finds us ( i have kids).
kay
richmond
September 12, 2016
Conversion Time
The curriculum will give a lot of us fuel and hope to carry on, eg people like Kay and myself who are geographically stuck or have to resolve a family situation before they can go to the next step. I follow an online Hebrew study course (free) run by a teacher who is a Sephardic Jew, as I find the pronunciation easier, though I got used to Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation through the online classes at Chabad.org. I find it tricky when they mix Hebrew and Yiddish but slowly getting used to that too. I would imagine that it would make the job of the Rabbi and the Bet Din as well if we have a certain level of understanding/education (after completing the curriculum) when prospective converts contact them.
p.s. Rabbi Moshen ,Thank you for your advice about my son (the minor).
Anonymous
September 10, 2016
It is said that a convert should have a Jewish soul, and that right conversions only can take place when that soul was at Mount Sinai when the covenant was given to the Jewish people. Therefore, a Beit Din does actually not convert anyone, but the process is rather discovering, checking and leading the education of the discovered soul. In essence there is no difference between that person, maybe coming from the ten lost tribes, or not simply aware of his/her Jewish ancestry, and someone who has well documented Jewish ancestry, but who is not raised in a Jewish family. In Hashem's eyes they are both Jews from the beginning. And in the opposite case: if a person does not have a soul that was present at Mount Sinai, then no matter how well he/she is being educated, and how frum he becomes, no Jew can be created out of him. Am I right?
Efraim
September 9, 2016
I know people whom it took 30 years to convert. They even lived in the promised land. Their conversion was sabotaged so many times and still they persisted. Chapeau!! Yes they are now extremely jewish. But still as a human being they are a bit different. They don't have fun any more. Sad, because all other non converted jews are so fun to be with. Even all lubavitcher I know are to pleasant to be with. BTW, I really love the sfaradim. No wonder I am one of them.

Can any "savant" tell me why??
Meira
Netherlands
September 8, 2016
Conversion time
This is great news! I hope it develops into an approved and accepted method for starters. Hebrew is available on-line in a live classroom setting. I was amazed at how fast myself and 2 of my children were progressing. The tricky part is connecting with a local Orthodox Rabbi. Still emailing about as it is preferred here come to find out. The idea of moving into the Orthodox community is 100% spot on, but some of us have situations that temporarily restrict moving , so having a point to start in terms of study and a synagogue to fellowship in is important at least for me.
kay
richmond
September 8, 2016
Conversion Time
I am working on a one-year curriculum. But note that the curriculum is study-only. It does not include time needed to learn how to read Hebrew. It also does not include the time you need to get to know your Local Orthodox Rabbi, move into a Jewish community, become acclimated to the Synagogue services, holidays, etc., these are not academic achievements and no time can be guaranteed for them.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
September 5, 2016
There is so much Torah to study without ever converting. The way I see it is that I don’t have to be a Jew to study or contribute. Why not opt in to observe mitzvos, even mitzvos I am not required observe as a son of Noah? My personal feeling is that if deeds are healthy for Jews, then they are probably healthy for me. I have studied Chumash, Daily Halachah, Psalms, and Tanya, with plans for others at chabad.org for several years now. I have no need to convert to be blessed by Jews. I hope that this generation will find ways to make peace with other nations of the world - count me in for that one! Jews studying side by side with non-Jews in study halls has the potential to heal hate.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
September 5, 2016
Minors Not Converting
There are cases where Batey Din will not require that all family members living together not convert. I know of one case where the son was 12 and unsure if he would be able to catch up to his peers asked if he could opt-out. He was told that he could. In the end he converted with his mother and sister.

Speak to your Local Orthodox Rabbi (LOR) and the head of the Beith Din. I hope that they will agree to convert you with your son staying at his current status.

I've also heard of Batey Din who do not want to convert couples unless all their children, including adult children are on-board.

When it comes to minors converting without their parents, almost all cases are told to wait (even candidates who were over 17 and in college). I know of one young man who was converted when he was 17. His parents signed off on his conversion and he left for a Yeshiva the day after his conversion.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
September 5, 2016
What is your suggestion?
Should Judaism do to people what Christians did to people who refused to convert?

Should Jews worldwide be out ringing doorbells and doing what G-d said not to do?

Should Jews go to countries around the world and force the natives to become Jews?

What is it that non-Jews who want to be Jews need?

If you want to become a Jew you will do whatever it takes, no matter how long. There is no time limit.

Jews are not forcing you to become a Jew.

How will you feel when your former Christian friends and family turn their backs on you? Or demean you by word or action?

How will you feel being a Jew?

I know how I feel -- because I was born a Jew and have made sure that no Christian ever calls me names again!! Ever.
Meira Shana
San Diego
September 4, 2016
Yosef
my process took ten years...Orthodox conversion process took three years. I felt like the Rabbi was pushing me away the entire process, and at points i didn't want to continue to the process. It was extremely hard. The process would not move forward until i became shomer shabbos, and move to the community. Financially I'm destroyed.
Reb Yosef