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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 (958)
July 29, 2016
We all make mistakes. Written in Torah is the account of many errors of judgement.

I was once told, its part of living.

If you love this man, and he loves you, that is something go be treasured.

So, talk through the idea. Hashem, never comes in between a husband and wife.

My best wishes for your futures.

Helen
Helen Dudden
Bristol
July 27, 2016
to annie
as rabbi nike says: just do it, if you are for it.

if you ask 10 rabbis you will get 100 different replies, so don't take it to the letter and leave your inner voice lead you.

good luck

ps: very easy to convince your husband. learn how to cook cholent and he will walk with his hands.
almost anonymous
Guanzhou, Mexico
July 27, 2016
Re: Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Thanks for the offer. I don’t know what I could give in return. I don’t believe it is right to frequent a Synagogue when I often have less than a dollar my account many times a year, and year after year. I trust in Hashem, not in money, but it is okay to have and spend money.
A Jewish older friend of mine loved would say, “No freebies.”
Since my marriage, there has never been a day that I have been without food, shelter, or clothing. Quite contrarily, I’ve been told that my family lives like millionaires. Whenever one door closes, another opens, may it be a blessing. Hashem, Himself, has taught me to trust Him fully, and that solving all our problems is mystically within the reach of our grasp. There is nothing to great to ask for.
Approach Him with an open mind, the mind of a child. Be careful not to be too bold in His eyes.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
July 27, 2016
Mixed Marriages
I can't answer for non-Orthodox versions of Judaism, in terms of Orthodox Judaism a conversion candidate cannot be converted while still cohabitating with a non-Jewish spouse. This is the case for both men and women.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
July 27, 2016
Conversion to Judaism
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen... Just this week learned something that never even occurred to me. I am a gentile woman who is married to a man who does not want to convert to Judaism. I read here on your blog that a woman is not allowed to convert if her husband does not want to convert, and cannot split the home with children still at home. What i learned this week is that if the woman wants to convert, she may do so, but continue to live with her husband, he being a non convert, but she live the life of a Jew while living with a non-Jewish husband and children. What is your advice to this?

My understanding was that mixed marriages were not allowed, nor encouraged. Even if you were married to this man and both being a gentile at the time of your own conversion, it now, after conversion, would be a mixed marriage, correct?

And, after conversion, would there come a time that you would have to leave your husband and children who remained gentiles? Moshiach time? Truth on this
annie
July 26, 2016
Meira,
I see now who you were addressing your response to.
It was a disturbing comment but to non-Jews as well.
Anonymous
July 26, 2016
Hello, Kay.
If you really want to be a Jew, keep trying.
Don't be discouraged. Or, do be discouraged and give it up.
Some say that if you are not discouraged, and if you keep trying, it means you already have a Jewish soul. They say that your soul got lost and is trying to find its way home. I do not know if this is true, of course. I only know that some folks, especially Hasidim, believe this.
This means that if you really want to be a Jew, you will keep trying.
First, find a modern orthodox congregation. Attend services. Ask to be invited for Sabbath dinner. Ask advice on what to read. Read it. Take classes. Learn to keep kosher--gradually change the foods you buy, then your pots & pans, finally your dishes. This is a lot of work but if you have a Jewish soul this will nourish you. Hang out with the community. Tell them you want to join them; call attention to your devotion. After one-two years they will probably quiz you & have you immerse in the mikveh. Then they'll say "Welcome home!"
Isaac
Brooklyn
July 26, 2016
The Nearest Synagogue
Don't wait. Just show up at a synagogue just before services begin. Stand near the door holding a Sidur in your hand. Someone is likely going to offer to help you.

For women: Women in most orthodox congregations only go to Shabbat and holiday morning services. The women's section(s) may be on the side or in a balcony. There might be a sign for a women's entrance. You might want to come a few minutes after the services begin.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
July 26, 2016
Craig, try Liberal or Conservative. I'm doing just that. We all can't get on that human nature.

I dislike no one and I'm not aggressive, why should I dislike anyone?

Kind regards,

Helen.
Helen Dudden
Bristol
July 25, 2016
For Craig
I get the impression that in Judaism there is a way of arriving at an understanding where reason and faith (and practicality) can merge , and it is ok to keep questioning till one can reach that point so long as it's constructive and the mentor and student can agree to allow a two way dialogue. So perhaps it's not a bad thing to question or feel that you might clash with a mentor?
Anonymous