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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 (632)
September 11, 2014
Religion versus Covenant
I am a Filipino citizen but I am not the descendant of Spaniards, our country became a religious land by forced inquisition. As I read the Philippine history I found out that our ancestors refers to the ten group of Datu who arrived in the year 1210 was not a Muslim, for they observed shabbat and practicing mosaic ceremony and never eat pig meat , in addition ;followed by the arrival of the Jewish three Levy brothers in the year 1870, the record shows that most of Jewish people permanently settled in Visayas Island the land of Cebuano people. This fact prompted me to forsake my christian religion and aspiring to be converted into Judaism. I believe I belongs to the lost tribe of Israel.
arnold saunay abadila concha tinula
Philippines
September 10, 2014
Elegantly expressed.

I might contribute that as part of my own journey I have yet to present myself - though I am taking hebrew lessons independently and have spent over a year in study and reflection.

Regardless of preparation I know that I must wait until I fully accept that my true journey id not to become a Jew - but to learn the truth in how I needed to approach, embrace and heed G_D. Simply yet thoroughly determining that I am not a Christian does not then make me a Jew. Ultimately my journey cannot fail as my only objective is to discover truth. In such pursuits the result cannot be described in terms of succeed or fail. I would be dishonest if I said I did not have hopes that my Jewish beliefs becomes convictions, but only in that if true I would finally have found my home.

The comfort I have lately felt, tn my choices, thoughts and intent; the value I find in a more studied purposefulness - these gifts are mine to keep and to share regardless.
Anonymous
August 21, 2014
Are you willing ...
... to put your beliefs into action? If Christians again took arms against Jews to force conversion or die, what would be your answer?

If a Muslin told you that as a Christian, you will die if you refuse to convert to Islam ... what would you do?

More Jews refused to convert to Christianity than the few who chose to live as a Christian in order to keep their lives. (of course, then Hitler came into power and anyone with even one drop of Jewish blood was considered a Jew and was on the list to be annihilated).

Only 'you' can decide ...

But decide ONLY after at least one year of wearing a Star of David visible to all. See if you experience anti-Semitism, even from your friends or close family members. Would you know anti-Semitic comments?
Meira Shana
San Diego
August 16, 2014
Shalom
My grand grandmother had her Jewish ancestors, and all my family lost it , i am the only one who wants to continue the Judaism because I feel that I am Jew lost .
but I dont have any papers to show that my ancestors were Jews , so I decided to convert anyway and to became Jew . I actually live in Israel but is not the same for me , because i am just like a Goya living in Israel ,
So I decided to be Ger , and to continue make growing branch of my family tree one day broke.
Anna
Israel
July 29, 2014
Difficulties in Conversion
B"H As was explained earlier, if a person changes rabbis, or congregations sometimes even those born to Jewish parents end up going through another conversion process. We can't please everyone, no one can. Maybe that's not the important issue? Perhaps, it is within the individual's conscience as to whether they feel they have become Jewish enough? Whom do we have to please, everyone else, or our own self? Each of us will be judged by what we DO with this life we live, whether Jewish, or not. Let G-d be the judge, yet if we ARE Jewish we will be judged by the Royal Law of Torah whereas if non-Jewish solely by the amount of Love we have brought into Our World. I am of the personal opinion that G-d will ask us if we have any regrets, or anything we harbor in the matter of Resentment towards Him, our fellow man and ourselves and that will determine what His decision will be. Whether we ascend to a higher level of Life's ladder, or to repeat the life we have lived for tikun (karma).
Kolyah
Pasadena, CA
July 27, 2014
Conversion Difficulties - II
And I know of a Yeshiva that was willing to let its students take time to study with a young man from a converting family, dividing the day into periods where he could 1-on-1 with young men in the Beit Medrash.

Now there are places where conversion is practically impossible. I've often suggested to someone who wrote me that s/he consider a different country. If someone is in Italy I would suggest that s/he consider another country. The same is true if one is in Finland or Ireland. And yes, people from those countries have written me....

What could we use? It would be nice to have a school with a residence that could house people who come from the four corners of the earth. One that had a set path to conversion. One that was funded by individuals interested in converting and those who had benefited from conversion. Such a facility would have a direct line to at least two Batey Din and could promise to complete the conversions of those who were serious.

I don't think that it will ever happened. Some have tried. But no one has stepped forward and offered the funding necessary.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
July 27, 2014
Conversion Difficulties - I
I've only met a few hundred people who have come across difficulties in their attempt to convert. I've corresponded with several hundred more. Short of being a millionaire, no one has found conversion to be a cake-walk. And it should not be a cake walk. It might seem ironic that a few million Jews don't know what blessing they were born into and may not even care, and then thousands of those not born into the Jewish Nation are begging to be let in.

I'm not going to claim that everyone gets a fair shake. I've seen too many who did not. But I would like to defend the quite a few rabbis whom I do know who donate their time and effort in trying to help those who are serious about conversion. The going rate for a baby's circumcision is about US 600. Yet I know a Mohel who gladly performed full circumcisions of men and boys for free in order to permit them to convert. Mikvehs have their fees but then you have a Mikveh that will give them a pass when needed. to be continued
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
July 27, 2014
rabbis and conversion
I am afraid it would not be appropriate to name anyone at this stage as it remains a deeply sensitive issue as you are probably aware. If you email various rabbis and ask them for their honest opinion on the subject, some may be willing to respond candidly, though I think it is only fair that their anonymity is respected until such times as they and others feel one can talk more freely about this potentially divisive issue.
I am also aware that the Jewish community needs to act with solidarity in order to survive and given their is so much at stake, one must also look at the needs of the greater good. That said, I do hope, in the not too distant future, that more trust will be placed in Hashem to permit a true ingathering of exiles. In this there is the hope of renewal and redemption. Like all great changes that must take place, they are initially resisted by those who fear they will not be able to control the outcome, but then who can if it is the will of Hashem. Peace to all.
Giordano
July 25, 2014
Rights and privileges?
"Citizenship is mostly associated with the attainment of rights and privileges" Sorry, this is not true. Serious citizens "convert" to be part of the country, which does not mean rights and privileges only.
Marina
Switzerland
July 23, 2014
To Giodano
Could you please fill in some details, and names of rabbis if you have access to them?
Anonymous
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