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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 (867)
February 12, 2016
Antisemitism vs "Stealth Flight"
To Meira Shana

Being not a convert but an unaffiliated Jew of Jewish mother and non-Jewish father (hence having a gentile family name and frankly such "appearance" that most people do not consider as "Jewish-looking"), I have heard often colleagues and others speaking very negatively about Israel, Israeli policies and the Jewish people. If those people knew that I am actually Jewish - as they do when people known as Jews are present - they would speak politely with political correctness. Being well educated and working in finance, my colleagues and acquaintances tend to be from the wealthy and upper-middle-class, so their "excuse" can not be ignorance or lack of education or sophistication.

Actually hearing (quite often) such defamatory opinions has lead me to seek closer meaning and association with my own Jewishness, so in all silence I have gradually started to observe kashrut and praying the Siddur prayers. Somehow I have realised that G-d is drawing me closer to the brit.
JV
Espoo
February 8, 2016
conversion
I am interested in reading more stories about people who became Jewish.
shoshana duban
Brooklyn
February 7, 2016
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Thank you for your reponse. I will continue to study and learn as much as possible without everyone going nuts here!!! *:-)

The Jewish People and the Torah is such a heartbeat to me... that i dearly love. Your words are great comfort and strength... thank you very much...
Anonymous
February 7, 2016
loving the books doesn't do it for you
Hi Chaim
That's very true,and thank you for sounding inviting about joining the people . I can't speak for others but some of us have to go at our own pace though, for family and geographical reasons (and probably financial). By the way where I said "conversion", I meant how I could have opted for conversion outside of the orthodox auspices but didn't. It would never occur to me to judge Jews for their imperfection, since I am far from perfect. It is the striving of the people I respect and love, not the idea of perfection. Sure just learning from books don't do it but at least now I have moved to an environment where I can open a Chumesh without hearing horrible comments. Keep spreading the light !
To Meira,
even though I am not a convert sometimes I get comments , and sometimes excluded from groups. eg.mother & child groups a few years ago. But you take that as a sign that your journey has started, and you accept it.
From : anon Jan 27
Anonymous
February 4, 2016
Chaim, very wise words.

Thank you.
Helen Dudden
Bristol
February 3, 2016
Outside slings and arrows
I wonder sometimes about people who have converted to Judaism - are they more or less aware of anti-Semitism, have they personally experienced it, and, if so, what was their reaction.
Meira Shana
San Diego
January 29, 2016
Loving the books doesn't do it for you
You need to love the people. Nobody can totally live up to the ideals in the books. The ideals are something we shoot for, rather than something we can all achieve. Yes, there are some who are amazingly fine people. Many, even. But most people have a fair amount of human error. Can you love us even with our imperfections? Or are you going to be judgemental about us for failing to perfectly live up to Jewish ideals?

So DO go to synagogue. Get invited to Shabbos dinner on Friday night, or to Shabbos lunch on Saturday after services. Experience real Jewish observance, instead of only the ideals in the books. Yes, continue to learn from books--but learn from real people, also!
Chaim
Detroit
January 27, 2016
To Helen

Your patience and perseverance, and your comment - "Hashem is there, the decision for my future comes from a higher belief." is so inspiring.
I remember asking my mother about the Jewish people at around the age of 4, when I had just learned to speak her language which is different from my own. I never got a satisfactory answer , understandably she thought I was too young to understand. My question nudged me again in my late teens through a Nun of all people, then the real push (more like a shove) from nowhere came in my 40s.
There are barriers at this stage to go forward but the positive ripple effect of my learning and faith outweigh the uncertainty of where I will end up. The barrier has been a blessing in a way, forcing one to transform cell by cell.
"Becoming" is now more important than "conversion" now.
Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment , despite of the challenges you face with your vision.
Anonymous
January 27, 2016
A hard call
There have been a couple of times when I've suggested divorce. They have been cases where even if it were not for their conversion I would have suggested a divorce.

I will ask you to follow the path that a black Giyores taught me. She had wanted to convert for close to 40 years but her husband did not want to convert. She studied and studied. After he passed on, she moved to Brooklyn and converted a few months later. I suggest that you study. You practice to a certain extent without driving yourself or your husband crazy. It sounds like there is a lot you can do with his cooperation and encouragement. Then, if there is a time when you become single, you will be in a position to convert quickly. And if not, there is ONE who understands our hearts and knows what is inside each.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
January 26, 2016
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen... I am a gentile woman that has been listening to the Rabbis and shirs for a while now, but wondering if maybe sometimes im trying to push for something that can not be...

My husband is loving some of the Jewish teachings and the Jewish music... but to live as a Jew or convert or move to Israel, no... he will not do this, so that is my lot, and i accept this.

...but wondering if maybe my trying to learn so much or try to follow the Jewish teaching is going above what should be done for me...

When reading these posts of converting and wanting to learn the Jewish Way of Life, it puts such a longing in my heart for Torah and Israel that is real. But... knowing it can only go so far... am i trying to push for something too hard, and should "back up" from the drive i have in my heart?

Want to do what is right and appropriate for me as a gentile/woman/married/noahide. *:-)
Anonymous