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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 (567)
April 20, 2014
conversion
My dream is to convert to Judaism. How do i convert
Anonymous
south florida
April 18, 2014
So it's like a gang. Blood in, blood out.
Anonymous
April 15, 2014
The Ten Commandments Movie
I watched the Ten Commandments the other day as I have since I was a small child. Every time I watch it this strong feeling of having been there comes over me. Why?
Letitia
Schenectady
April 15, 2014
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
I have a question for you! I hope it's one that is easily answered. What year are we truly in? In my research I keep finding it said we are in the year 5774. When I posted on my FB page, someone responded this: "It's not the year 5774, it's 6014!"
Letitia
Schenectady
March 5, 2014
Yes to anonymous. They rejoice my heart. Gd bless them in their quest to reconnect with us.
Chaim
Cinncinnati
March 4, 2014
Incredible!!!
Anonymous
March 3, 2014
Kaifeng Jews
Chaim
They seem to have managed to hold onto their identity for over 1000 years without contact with other Jews which is incredible.
(a Chinese scholar - Xin Xu has done some extensive study about the Kaifeng Jews ).
It appears that the Kaifeng Jews also had a partially written Torah scroll in Persian or Yemenite calligraphic script, now in a museum in one of the Western countries. It seems that maintaining a Jewish identity is just as difficult when the host country is friendly and respectful, because it is easier to assimilate eg through prestigious government posts , intermarriage, etc. The modern problem they face is the proselytizing activities by foreign visitors with china being a free market economy nowadays. But like other such stories the people never seem to lose that voice within them, and manage to preserve their roots.
What also helps is that the other Jews are willing to welcome them back and help them to relearn , even after centuries of separation.
Anonymous
February 26, 2014
Kaifent Jews
Look closely at them. They do not look quite Chinese. They look part Chinese.

Because their ancestors are only part Chinese. Their other ancestors were Jews.

And some of them are in Israel, converting, re-learning Hebrew and Torah, so that they can go back to Kaifeng and teach those in the community who want to learn. (Some do not want to learn, but others do.)

To those who do, I say, "Welcome home!"

"DNA testing done over the past few years on the descendants of the Kaifeng Jews, proved them distant relatives of Armenian, Iranian and Iraqi Jews. Most of the researchers, as well as the Kaifeng descendants themselves, tend to suggest that the original Jews in China were merchants from Persia that came by way of the Silk Route (in today's southern Turkey) to...central China."
Chaim
Cinncinnati
February 25, 2014
Not So !
I clipped the following from Wikipedia Genetic_studies_on_Jews

Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews have roughly 30 percent European ancestry, with most of the rest from the Middle East." He further noticed that "The two communities seem very similar to each other genetically, which is unexpected because they have been separated for so long." Concerning this relationship he points to Atzmon conclusions that "the shared genetic elements suggest that members of any Jewish community are related to one another as closely as are fourth or fifth cousins in a large population, which is about 10 times higher than the relationship between two people chosen at random off the streets of New York City" Concerning North African Jews, Autosomal genetic analysis in 2012 revealed that North African Jews are genetically close to European Jews. This findings "shows that North African Jews date to biblical-era Israel, and are not largely the descendants of natives who converted to Judaism.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
February 20, 2014
DNA of Jews
In response to Rabbi Moshen, the DNA of the women of Sephardi Jews and the women of Ashkenazim Jews are very different. The DNA of Ashkenazim women shows that all Ashkenazim Jews descended from four European women. The DNA of Sephardi women is all Middle Eastern women. The DNA of some Ashkenazim men is linked to Arabs, and Sephardi men, because of Abraham being the father of both Isaac and Ismael. And it cannot be determined which is Isaac DNA or which is Ismael DNA. And that is why the wisdom of Hashem was that a Jew is determined by the mother because the Jewish women DNA is different from the Arab, European, and other women DNA.
Anonymous
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