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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 (622)
July 23, 2014
Born into orthodox, now to become a Bat Mitzvah
Both sets of grandparents were born into Jewish families in Europe. I do not know even to this day if any members of either side were murdered in the Holocaust.

I have felt Jewish, as did my brother. Mom kept kosher; she was the youngest of 7 children. Our father's mother wore a shattle (wig) and was the biggest hypocrite on Earth - my grandfather left her - she remarried to an orthodox rabbi who was a sweet beautiful man. I wander ...

Mom couldn't afford to send us to chadar after about 1.5 years. All of our cousins went through high school. Somehow, however, both my brother and I were the only cousins who remained Jews. Praise to G-d and Mom.

I married a man who was born in Warsaw, came to this country in the late 1930s - he did not want me to keep kosher. When we had our first and then second child he refused to join a synagogue. I left.

I am studying to become a Bat Mitzvah, I can still read Hebrew and am learning to speak. I do the best I can - I am always a Jew.
Meira Shana
San Diego
July 21, 2014
There is a growing movement, even including Orthodox Rabbi's, to provide an alternative for the thousands of Jewish souls who are being denied their place among the Holy Nation. Those Rabbi's who have retroactively and actively sought to turn away thousands of legitimate jewish souls will have to account for themselves in the heavenly courts. There is a movement on the way to unite all the dispossessed into a new gerim whereby they will be taken seriously and acknowledged for the qualities they possess, not based on endless nit-picking and inflated charges for conversion. Then Hashem will truly draw those who have been scattered to the four corners of the Earth and sanctify them in His name.
Giordano
July 17, 2014
Gratitude for being Hebrew and Jewish
As a first born daughter, I am a Jew as was my Mother. My Father refused my birthright, but my maternal grandmother taught me the daily living of a proper Hebrew woman. I was sent away to a Jewish camp at 5, my looks a reminder of my birthright. At 18, I left my father's home. He and I were later reunited, and in the end, prior to his passing, I taught him how to pray to Ha Shem. He eyes were wide and he felt the presence of the love of G*d. To be wandering, alone and unsure is difficult. The journey with educating yourself, finding other Jews, always reflecting on how one can be better each day, forgiveness and kindness, being honorable. The quest for being better never ends. The learning never ends. I now lead my family in prayer at meals. And I have one grandchild from my daughter. A girl. An unbroken line of Hebrew women. Thank-you Chadbad.org, you have helped teach me all along the way
L.J.Barnett, Esq.
San Jacinto
July 17, 2014
To Yitzchak
You are right. A Jew is always a Jew and a Ger who drops out is a Jew who has dropped out. The only reason that some question the conversion is that they ask how is it possible that a proper Beit Din did not check into the Ger well enough to determine if he was sincere. I do not consider this question valid because no matter how well prepared some one is there is always the possibility that someone changes and drops out. I've known men who were born into nice families, received nice Yeshiva education, and they dropped out. If they can, why be surprised when someone else does?
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
July 17, 2014
Frustration
I hear frustrating stories on a regular basis. Real frustration stories. The recent conversion of a family with 10 children was only accomplished after years of frustrations. Rabbis who did not want to talk to them. Batey Din that said they were "outside their territory". A Beit Din that dissolved itself. The costs of full circumcisions for three of their four sons and the father. Trips to New York that costs thousands of dollars in gas, tolls, and restaurants. Mikveh fees for twelve Gerim. And others that I do not want to reveal (and a lot worse than the ones I did mention). Yes, there were Tzadikim who helped them. But their help came only after like Avraham Avinu (our father Abraham) they were willing to sacrifice everything they had for the chance to do Mitzvoth as Jews.

And that was only one story. I have dozens of stories of similar cases. Some have finished their conversions. Others are still trying to convert.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
July 17, 2014
Orthodox Conversions , criteria and standards
I am wondering how it is decided in Israel which Beis Din's conversion process /system is considered authentic or not? The question popped up as I was reading about the complications experienced by some people here, who are obviously sincere candidates. Why was the conversion through a strict Chabad rabbi not accepted in Israel for example? I am interested in how the criteria is set and by which organization.
Anonymous
nz
July 16, 2014
I thought he compared felons to non-observant Jews, not because they are felons, but because they are people who have broken the rules.

The post seemed to answer the question, "Why are Gerim held to a higher standard of observance than Jews are?"

He broadened the question to be, "Shouldn't all those who break the rules be equal?"

He gave an analogy: "Shouldn't all felons be equal?"

He answered, "Some felons are already citizens, and some are applying to be citizens."

Going back to the original question, we get, "Some who break the rules are already members, and some are applying to join the group."

I have a query for the rabbi: If a Ger converts sincerely & later becomes less observant, he is still a real Jew and, like any real Jew, he's a Jew forever. He can't quit. He should also not be expelled. He remains a Jew. Or he SHOULD remain a Jew, but I've heard of judges who "undid" his/her conversion because his observance fell short.

Shanda!!! A Jew's a Jew forever!
Yitzhak
San Jose
July 16, 2014
Sorry for hurting you, not sorry for words that have meanings -2
When one comes to convert, s/he must be ready to live as a Jew completely. This means that the candidate must convince the Beith Din at minimum that s/he will not commit any felonies. In addition, any of my candidates will also be trained so that s/he will be prepared to enter the mainstream Orthodox Judaism on the day of conversion. They will know

How to read Hebrew
Which blessings are said before and after eating
The daily services
The Sabbath services
How to acclimate into the orthodox community
Basics such as the Jewish calendar and festivals

They also will have gone through a full cycle of festivals and learned the basics of each.

To be quite truthful, if someone converting were not interested or able to keep the Sabbath I would terminate my relationship with that student. And I have done so. But then, I'm not Chabad. Chabad is much more generous than I am.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
July 16, 2014
Sorry for hurting you, not sorry for words that have meanings -1
I know that many of our readers are familiar with non-orthodox Judaism or non-practicing Jews who call themselves orthodox. I will lay out my view in a simple manner and trust that you understand that this is my view, one that is accepted by the vast majority of orthodox rabbis.

Judaism has 613 basic commandments. There are several additional rabbinic commandments and many prohibitions. The violation of many of these are considered to be felonies. Major felonies in Judaism include:
Violating the Sabbath
Violating the laws of family purity
Failure to circumcise
Eating Chametz on Pesach
Eating on Yom Kippur.

Other felonies include:
Violating the Torah laws of Kashruth (such as eating a rabbit or horse meat)
Wearing a garment that contains wool and linen.

Whilst we do not normally punish our felons, commission of felonies has a serious negative impact on one's soul. Nevertheless a Jew is a Jew and one is always welcome in a synagogue (unless a danger to society).

to be continued
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
July 15, 2014
Why Make Conversion to Judaism so hard?
It is not hard; it is simply not easy. Becoming a Jew involves tremendous change in how one functions both practically and in taking on life from a completely different perspective. One must be prevented from being drawn into the cosy
companionship of life in the Jewish community; to some extent one must be kept at a distance in order to allow for the development of a relationship between the
individual and Torah and Ha Shem. It is not a course of 'hoops' to jump through to satisfy the rabbis. Rabbis, in my experience, do not convert. If one is seen as being
suitable they will provide information but there is no pressure to attend or to obey.
The initiative is up to oneself; no-one wrestles over your soul. Meanwhile,
discreetly, the rabbi is observing progress, or lack of it. If and when the rabbi sees
that you are ready, you will be referred, for examination, to the Beth Din. How
you use what you are taught and how you interact with HaShem and with others
determine the matter.
Anonymous
UK
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