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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.
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Discussion (676)
March 18, 2015
Observing the Sabbath
I don't advocate telling someone to observe the Sabbath until after s/he has learned what it really means. Firstly, many of those who have just studied a little will usually be more stringent on some things than we Orthodox Jews are. Secondly, it might be too great a demand and we may lose some candidates who otherwise would be very good Jews.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
March 17, 2015
Impossible to convert?
B"H Okay, you say you want to be Jewish? Before going somewhere and jumping in with both feet, try keeping three Sabbaths, at you own home. Even if no one else is Jewish there, or even if some in your family are hateful of the Jewish people, try keeping three Sabbaths in your room all by yourself with as many of the traditions of the Jewish faith as you can find. No matter what it costs, no matter what anyone else, or you may think of how it looks, and no matter what anyone else says or does. See if you can do that. If you can, then go to a synagogue, or call a rabbi at the nearest synagogue, and tell them you are interested in learning more about Judaism. Expect the unexpected. Never get comfortable. But keep going forward, if you are being called to it, the door will open. Let go of your feelings, let The Force guide you. You never know, you could end up right back where you started, but with gifts from above, or you might make it, and have to work very, very hard.
Pasadena, CA
March 14, 2015
Easy and Free - worthless
Difficult and Costly - priceless

Jews are accused of being money grabbers ... and murderers of Christians children in order to use their blood to make matzoh ... we are accused of having all the power and all the money.

So, why become Jewish?

I bought my son a car - it cost me $500 that was difficult to get together. After a few months, he sold it for $600 and bought what he liked. He had no regard for the free car... or for the free guitar...

I was a bad mother - according to both my children. She converted to Catholicism and he had no religion and probably his children won't either, based on their mother denying her Catholic faith.

My experiences in Life - if it's easy and free, it's probably not going to be truly appreciated.

I love paying my way ... including giving what I can when attending church services.

How many synagogue services have you, as a Christian, attended?

For people who talk about converting, I ask the same question.

If you want to join, learn all!
Meira Shana
San Diego
March 13, 2015
When you have gone in the mikveh (may it be soon) we will all say, "Welcome Home!"
Making a mezuzah or making tefillin is for professional scribes.

Most Jews are not professional scribes.

Nobody needs to be a scribe to be a Jew.

Try to find the nearest Young Israel congregation, or the nearest modern orthodox congregation.

And do not pay anyone big bucks to convert. At most, you might join a conversion class and pay the same as you would for any course that lasts a year. Or less.

I can almost guarantee you that anyone who sincerely wants to convert and is willing to do the reading and to attend services and to participate in the congregation can convert via United Orthodox or Young Israel can convert in Houston. I am saddened by the notes from people who are finding it impossibly difficult.

Gd bless you and help you to find us.
March 4, 2015
Being a Jew where there is a Jewish community is easy. Converting is easy as well because you are among Jews. I was lucky to have been born a Jew; however, I live in a very small, isolated town, where you can count Jews with the fingers of one hand and the next Reform community (let alone Orthodox) is hundreds of miles away . I have a friend who is literally dying to convert and there is nothing I can do to help him. He accompanies me in prayer, celebrates holidays with me, and is looking forward to when he can convert and have his brit milah.

I find it very displeasing to the Jewish people when others who live in densely populated Jewish areas have an attitude of "you can't do it, if you don't join through us."

My friend suffers because he is not a Jew, yet, his soul is purer than most I read here.
February 18, 2015
Convert to Judaism
I don't understand, why it's so hard to convert to Judaism, I am interesting more when 3 years, and till now, I don't know how to start, first time, I did found one synagogue in London, so they are charging I think around 1500 pounds for convert to Judaism, but why so expensive??? so it's mean if someone want convert to Judaism, and if he is poor he can't do that, can someone explain to me??? Thank you.
February 15, 2015
Hi i am from the UK, recently received news my ancestors may have been Jewish also that uk obe or mbe been awarded to recent relatives for helping rehabilitation of prisoners....I have been enthralled with Judaism from teenage years, regardless i am intent on devoting myself and my children to the teachings and experiences that await us although we are at the cusp of a new journey we welcome any advice possible or friends who wish for anything else :-)
February 14, 2015
Shabbat Shalom everyone! My name is Ravena and I'm Brazilian. I'm trying to learn more about Jewish religion and about the Torah 🔯. I wasn't born in a Jewish family so it's being difficult to me. I want to study more because I want to know and do what G'd really wants. If you can tell me anything about Jewish religion I would be very grateful! Have a nice day 😊
Ravena Guedes
Manaus, Brazil
February 14, 2015
How to become a Jew
After reading your article I still don't know how to become a Jew. Who do I contact for guidance on the way?? Our Synagogue is empty. One female Jew in town but she is always on the run. Who can I turn to?
Middelburg Mp
January 20, 2015
Taking time converting
I will look up the Jewish learning institute as well, thank you anonymous from Pasadena, CA. I am far away from everything so this would help.
Speaking of Yiddish, there is a very funny book I think is called "Frum speak", written by a Jewish person, it translates Frum speak into English in a casual and humorous way, so a beginner or a convert might find it helpful without feeling overwhelmed by all the learning requirements.
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