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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 (1128)
March 17, 2017
What ever the reason we are at this place, we are here. As I said to a friend of mine recently, if I deny my beliefs after 30 years would you believe me? Believing that the world has good too, is important. I blend with Jewish people as a whole, Reform, Masorti, Progressive I apologise for anyone I missed from my list.

Good Shabbos.
Helen Dudden
Bristol
March 16, 2017
Being a minority & Jewish
Isn't it sad that when becoming a Jew you find out how the rest of the world treats Jews ...

I wonder how many non-Jews would flock to Judaism if it was easy to become a MOT.

In the good ole days, Christianity has to attract new people - and many were undoubtedly from pagans who had no religion. Back then people knew that Jews were constantly attacked so why become one of 'them' ... it was much easier to become Christian.

And it all continues into the 21st Century and surely beyond.

I feel blessed to be a Jew from birth.
Meira Shana
San Diego
March 15, 2017
Yosef
Congratulations!
I actually envy you as i still cannot get myself to re enter another synagogue. In the end Yosef you are a new person and Chabad is very welcoming so no need for you to be lonely especially after you went through your process of conversion. Also follow up on Rabbi Moshen's suggestion. All the best!
Regards,
k
kaaren
richmond
March 15, 2017
I adapt to those I'm with. When I do eat out I ask how the foods are prepared. Never had problems because I insist on vegetarian foods, not prepared on the same surface.
My family are not kosher, so they understand I am. Over the last 30 years they have coped with me. When I am with Jews I have eaten kosher non vegetarian, so it works, even for a Ger, quite well.
Helen Dudden
Bristol
March 14, 2017
To Yosef
Hi and welcome to The Tribe.

Close to all the meetings or conventions I attended provided kosher food for me, with a bit of advanced warning. Try contacting the members' support service when you book.

I take it that you are not a member of a large orthodox community. Consider Partners in Torah to get a Chavrutha (study partner).
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
March 8, 2017
I haven't had any issue yet a convert. Now that I've been an Orthodox Jew for a year I feel like an outcast in the secular world. I went to a meeting conference yesterday, and I was the only one out of like 300 people wearing a kippah. I even had people ask me what I was wearing on my head. Oh also, they had food I couldn't eat at the conference, and everyone felt bad for me. I think the hardest part is knowing you're a new person. You have different guidelines. I thought the process was easy, but ohhh no. After is what gets you. I live being Jewish, but I tell you I'm lonely... very lonely
Yosef
March 7, 2017
NK. Thank you, and my sincere thoughts to your relative.
Helen Dudden
March 7, 2017
For Helen
Helen
I thank you for your past comment which prompted me to pull out my old notes where I found the Isaiah verse. It must be very difficult for you , I have a family member who needs a text-to -speech application to communicate but even typing is a struggle.
The difference with this kind of struggle and other type of difficulties is that it was not the individual's choice to be in this situation i.e having the disability, and it remains for life.
The person is caged in. But most of them have a better attitude towards life than those of us without disabilities. I hope it works out for you.
So that you don't lose track of me I will use the initials N.K here next time.
N.K
Anonymous
March 6, 2017
Anonymous. That is more like I understand. Thank you for explaining.

For me to join other Jews perhaps is what is meant to be. It feels a better idea, can I be honest with those who know a little about me? I struggle, like OP maybe I would be better in the situation other than emails. It becomes very difficult even with my tablet. So being honest, how can I read what I should reading? The words are large it is difficult even very close to me.

I'm not suggesting that they are not less observant, but I can only achieve what is possible as my sight complains, it becomes impossible to do more, then listening takes over. They are willing to listen.
Helen Dudden
March 5, 2017
Helen I do believe you. I wish I could facilitate matters for you. All I can do is to wish you well. Gd bless you. I am confident that Gd loves you very much, because of your faithful devotion among other reasons.
Chaim
Buffalo