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Why Is Conversion to Judaism So Hard?

Why Is Conversion to Judaism So Hard?


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.


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?


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, 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 (787)
September 11, 2015
conversion criteria
I guess that would also mean that more than ever before , a Ger must also have the strength to withstand family and social pressure and so on (on his or her own) as well as able to keep the commandments, because they're not literally being adopted into an observant family like they used to?

By the way , did the term Haredi come into existance in the late 1880s or was this out of necessity to distinguish the orthodox (observant) from the reform groups?
September 10, 2015
Jewish flavors
The reason why I asked this question, is that unofficially there is a discrepancy between mizraim or mizrachim because of their background. Mizraim are both arabic and jew and so speak both languages. Some (too many) askenazim consider them Arabs and more primitive in the first place, which is very sad. BTW I have a sephardic background and most of my best jewish friends are either sfaradim or mizraim.
September 9, 2015
There have been many Satmar Rebbe. I don't think any of them were named Satmar. I have been told that each of the various Hasidic groups are named for the town where that group originated.
September 9, 2015
Conversion Criteria
Hi Abraham.

My first point is that circumstances have changed. Many converts were burned at the stake for the crime of conversion to Judaism. As recently as my parents' generation the average Lutheran would only marry another Lutheran and would refuse to talk to a child who became a Catholic. Things have changed. Now, people change their religion the way we change our hair cuts. Therefore the rabbis of the past two generations have responded to the changing nature of human beings. There was a time when a Ger would move in with a family and if he wanted to eat a fruit, one of the family would produce two fruits. The family man would recite the blessing on the fruit, and the Ger would say 'Amen' and eat it. The Ger would sit next to a boy and repeat the words of the Siddur. We no longer have this luxury. We now produce Gerim who are able to stand on their own feet the moment that they get out of the Mikveh.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
September 9, 2015
On the different versions of Chassidic Judaism
There are several philosophical differences between the various types of Chassidic Jewry. They are all very similar and they were all based on geography. They are based on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. Almost all use a Siddur based on the Nusach HaAri. My opinion is that the best version of these is the Chabad Tehilas Hashem Siddur. (I am not Chabad).

Chabad is different from the other Chasssidic versions in many ways. For example, Chabad does not have a "Tisch" (Table ritual) and is more accepting of secular studies.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
September 8, 2015
to Rabbi Moshen - part b
hi Rabbi, i appreciate your answer, but apparently my limited mind did not allow me to understand fully your reply to my questions.
would you be so kind to expand on the reply ?
i am really curious to understand.
September 8, 2015
various streams of orthodox Judaism
This has been so interesting Rabbi Moshen, much more personal than looking up on an online encyclopedia.
With the Satmar, Bobov, Ger, Karlin-Stolin, Zelem, Munkacz, Bels, Tosh, Vizhnitz, etc, am I correct to assume that they originate from various Rebbes? Or is it geographical in origin as well?

I also appreciated the list for the criteria posted before.
Somehow it makes one feel more anchored.

p.s. I checked the Siddur I own , it is Nusach Ha Ari Zal.
Thanks to Jewish TV I am at a point where I can hear and recognize individual words in Hebrew , at the beginning a year or two ago the rabbi will be 3 sentences ahead of me but with gladness I realized now I am following the words are read out. Small steps will still get one somewhere.
September 8, 2015
I would say Mizrachim or Edot Hamizrach- a subset of Sephardim.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
September 8, 2015
Why is it so hard to convert?
B"H For those who are wrestling with angels, don't let go. Hang on. The morning Light shall come, There is little Spiritual growth without discomfort and pain. The mind alone cannot get you there, and to rely solely upon human senses can block you from seeing, and hearing with your heart and your guts (the uncanny thing called, the intuition of truth.) Temptations are tools to refine, if you falter, get back up and keep going forward, always question, learn to ask the right questions, and never assume there to be a concrete answer, a no is never a final no, and a yes, can have limitations. If I said . "God does nor exist." Your first instinct is to think I;m either an atheist or just crazy. But what am I doing by stating this? My intent would be to challenge you to debate and discussion. The word, "God" is not a Hebrew word. Therefore, the statement, " God does not exist" has merit in Judaism. 'Elokim' exists, but this does not mean the same thing as the English word, 'God'.
Pasadena, CA
September 7, 2015
I attend a synagogue with one of those groups, one other, I have learnt about. Misraim is one I should research.

My education continues as a convert.
Helen Dudden
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