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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 (1012)
August 23, 2016
South Africa
Capetown and J'burg (Josie) are very different venues. But either way, get your local rabbi to talk to the Beit Din ASAP. Note: Starting two weeks before Rosh Hashanah until after Simchat Torah every rabbi is going to be too busy to meet.

And while you are waiting start preparing. I had a bad experience with one of my Gerim. He was already above the level of most Gerim and when he met with the Beit Din he was given the simplest of books to read. He told them that he was already reading Gemara. The secretary responded that this is their curriculum and he had to start from the beginning. He converted in Israel.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
August 23, 2016
The Price
Your points are very accurate. The price of becoming and living as an Orthodox Jew may be more than some people can afford. And here I am not being "cute" but rather realistic.
If you don't like the price in Florida, then you surely would not like the price in The UK. Not only is kosher food much more pricey in the UK (chicken and meat are more than double the cost in the US), but the LBD requires that pre-converts rent space in approved Orthodox homes.
Costs such as higher housing, more expensive food, more expensive clothing, Yeshiva tuition, monthly Mikveh fees (for wives), etc. are things that all orthodox take for granted. I have known a couple of candidates who were rejected because they would not be able to afford to live as Orthodox Jews. Both eventually converted.
When it comes to Beit Din costs, the cheaper the cost the better the conversion. The Lakewood Beit Din Meshorim does not charge anything for conversion, not even for the Mikveh...
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
August 23, 2016
Not the process, but the price
I fully understand the process and why it takes so long. But I think what I couldn't bring myself to justify was the costs in my area. I expected fees, but I think what stopped me from moving forward for now, is the fact that I simply can't afford it at this point in my life. The moving. The books, the new clothes, the beis din fees, application fees, mikvah fees.
Anonymous
Florida
August 23, 2016
children of converted parents?
It is said that the convert is just as the born Jew, but does this include the children? does it include the children before the conversion or the children after the conversion, both or neither?
Joe
kentucky
August 21, 2016
He is duty bound to turn you away three times. If you are really determined to become a Jew
you won't let that stop you, but will keep at it. Many have kept on & have converted. If you gives up after being discouraged only one, two, or three times you make it look as if you can't take rejection, such as to endure the prejudice of non-Jews against Jews. It would be sad to convert and then find you couldn't handle it. We want to spare you that kind of sorrow, because once you become a Jew, you cannot undo it & go back to who you were. Best to know up front if you can handle a little rejection, because once you become a Jew, you might get plenty of rejection, even from friends and family. My sister-in-law became a Jew & her parents and siblings disowned her & never spoke to her again. Her parents went to their graves without ever speaking to her again. Her father was wealthy & he left her share of his estate to the church. So don't blame the rabbi for failing to "welcome" you. If you think you could take big time rejection, show your stuff: never stop demanding to become a Jew.
Alex
Brooklyn
August 19, 2016
To Craig: The rule is to discourage converts, because you need extreme motivation to be a Jew
Jews have a saying: It's good to be a Jew, but it's difficult.

One difficulty is in being disliked or even hated or even killed. Every time I see in the news that a Jew was killed for being a Jew, I feel as if it was my cousin who was killed. In fact, the killer would have been just as happy to kill me. He doesn't care which Jew he kills. Any Jew will do.
We don't want to subject you to that risk unless you desperately want to be a Jew. It's not not worth being killed for--unless you think so. It's not worth losing friends for-- unless you think so.

Also, being an observant Jew is a lot of work. Four sets of dishes. Cooking dairy & meat separately in separate pots & pans. Keeping Shabbos--unable to drive your car; unable to touch money; etc. I was really motivated & learned all that as an adult. So hard!
But you can't change your mind. Once you convert, it's a sin to violate Torah mitzvos. If you violate them, you pile up sins. If you do not convert, no sins and Heaven is yours.
Stephen
Boston
August 19, 2016
What am I missing? Almost 5 months after relocating for the purpose of conversion I still have not been allocated to a conversion class. The day before Tisha B'Av I discovered it is not Jewish law that Jews are not allowed to greet me in the street. And then I'm told this is still my 'honeymoon' period, it is going to get more difficult once I get enrolled. Pretty lonely honeymoon I'd say. I would better not ever dare to get married if this loneliness is the Jewish idea of honeymoon.
But thank goodness I can draw close to Hashem as my sole (soul? No pun intended) lover.
I would have thought rabbi's would rather try make sure the stranger learn the correct facts from the start rather than rely on experiential learning.
Anonymous
South Africa
August 19, 2016
To Craig
Hi Craig,

I am not sure what you mean by "access to show reverence to the Torah". As a rule, we do not offer Torah honours such as opening the Ark, Hagbahah (lifting the Torah) or Gelilah (tying the Torah closed after reading) to non-Jews, even those who are nearing the date of their conversion.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
August 18, 2016
From Rikva to Meira
If you are a woman and want to attend Friday night services at an orthodox congregation, try it. Maybe you will not be one of six or fewer women attending. Orthodox Jewish women usually have guests coming for dinner after services, and during Friday night services most Orthodox women are at home setting the table or otherwise putting the finishing touches on their preparation, or getting dressed after spending the day cooking and cleaning. Most Orthodox women attend only on Saturday mornings and on festival mornings and holy day mornings. Also on the Eve of Yom Kippur to hear the Kol Nidre prayer.

Since a woman will sit in the women's section, she will want to attend when there are other women present. The other women may even help her find the place in the prayerbook, or they may explain if she has questions.

Also, as the Rabbi says below, it is perfectly fine, almost everywhere, for a non-Jew to hear the Torah reading.
Rivke
Newark
August 18, 2016
Kay in Richmond
A big mistake. Any congregation calling itself "messianic" is Christian, with a few members who actually converted from Jewishness to Christianity. They even adopt a Hebrew name such as Bet Nasi Shalom to fool people into thinking they are somehow "Jewish". They practice a strange slightly Judaized form of Christianity.

There are several orthodox Jewish congregations in and around Houston. Within Houston proper, there is a Young Israel, there are a few Chabad Hasidic synagogues, there are two Sephardic synagogues, there is a Modern Orthodox synagogue. And there are Chabad Hasidic synagogues in some of the towns surrounding Houston. See if you can find a Yellow Pages. Call one of them and ask for the name of the nearest Modern Orthodox congregation. They conduct conversion classes every year there. Once you have demonstrated your commitment by actually keeping Shabbos and keeping kosher, you might want to ask at Chabad. Chabad is less eager to convert people, but it's worth a try.
Rachel
Houston, Tx