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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 (1042)
November 4, 2016
I know how you feel. I don't think I could feel closer than I do.

Health issues like sight impairment do not stop me from caring or feeling. I have also arthritis, I think it brings me closer as a person. We still have to live our lives, whatever.
Helen Dudden
Bristol
November 2, 2016
Jews, more jews and others
There is a documentary which you can either watch online or see in in NY or some place in Florida (not sure), named a kippah in the carribean. well, there are Jews, more Jews and others.Not converted but definitely jews. To me this topic raises the desire in me to rather convert money into more money which is very pleasant and less complicated.
Meira
Netherlands
October 27, 2016
Re:Rabbi Moshen

My mother's reaction was similar to Craig's mother's. No communication for a few monts but I felt that she had accepted it when she told me later that she didn't discuss it with others in order to protect me (mothers seem to do this even when the child is an adult). She was born during WWll, so I don't blame her . To the other side of the family (throgh marriage) even the topic of any faith will be met with aggression so the books need to be put away untill they leave.
Anonymous
October 26, 2016
To anonymous
Hello!
Welcome to the club! Although we do not knowingly have ancestors from Spain, but eastern Europe we too never felt comfortable being catholic. So what do you do in such a case? I've been awaiting a local Rabbi to respond in order to move forward. Warm Regards,
K
kay
richmond
October 12, 2016
I just found out my ancestors were Sarphadic from Spain.
We are having a discusión on taking our ancestral religion.
My children and I have never been confertable with been Catholics.
Anonymous
October 11, 2016
Gmar Chatima Tova!!!
Robert Pepe
Boston
October 10, 2016
Re: Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
"I've also heard of Batey Din who do not want to convert couples unless all their children, including adult children are on-board."
Similarly, I totally agree because at first my parents worked against me in my religious pursuits. For example, my mom would hide or throw out my precious books that I used for study. I pay rent to my parents, and my dad threatened to raise my rent beyond what I could afford if I continued my Torah study. Sure, we could have moved. However, this happens to be the property of choice for me, and my family. My mom has changed, in tears about how proud she was for me to stick to my study path, and for me a life of Torah study is bringing together my family instead of breaking it apart.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
October 9, 2016
Yom Kippur
Easy fast to all
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
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