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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. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Discussion (915)
June 14, 2016
I'm planning to try for the Liberal Conversion, or at 68 years old, I will miss out on the chance completely.

Over the weekend I've been considering my options. I too feel sad,there is this, who is more religious than whom?

Could we not work together, to bring Jews together? I know my mother was not a Jew, nor my father, but I am drawn to Judaism. Within my family there has been critical comments. My continued efforts to convert have not been easy in many areas.

I would rather be happy and supported in learning than not. Its possible to learn Hebrew, even by listening you learn. I think excepting your own level is important.
Helen Dudden
June 14, 2016
To Rob
You have my sympathy, I sure that there are many Orthodox Rabbis who would love not to insult you. The reason that Orthodox Rabbis will not recognize ANY non-Orthodox conversions is that no non-Orthodox conversion, no matter how traditional the rabbis who formed your conversion court were, makes the cut by our standards. Even if you were totally prepared to accept the Torah, both written and oral, and to live what the Conservatives call "Orthoprax" the rabbis who participated were invalid for a court. I invite you to take the tests and go through the checklist in "The Gerus Guide" and either post here or write me how much of it you meet.

However, your conversion was not a total loss from the Orthodox standpoint. As someone who already converted Conservative, you might be fast-tracked if you wanted to upgrade your conversion and met the other requirements.

Either way, all the best.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
June 14, 2016
I am a convert myself but I did it through the conservative branch, I just don't understand why orthodox Rabbis do not accept it, I feel very hurt when I visit an orthodox shul with a friend and get passed up for an honor or the Rabbi ignores me completely. I just don't get it. I am always very honest with the Rabbis.
May 16, 2016
Recommended books
Good Afternoon ,

Ordering the recommended books, and looking forward to their arrival ( easy to locate on Amazon). Thank you!
May 16, 2016
Anonymous. It will happen, sometimes I weaken and let negative thoughts over ride the positive. I have to learn to trust, and stay the path I have chosen, which also has the most fulfilling experience to offer.

It seems hardly enough the answer I have written, I just can't put it into words.
Helen Dudden
May 16, 2016
Why convert when anti-Semitism continues to grow?
I wonder why a non-Jew would want to convert when seeing how much anti-Semitism is in the world, every country.

Sadly, I can almost understand why a Jew would become Christian - being fed up with the constant hatred.

I am blessed to be a Jew - in spite of all the attacks during my childhood and even to the present day.
Meira Shana
San Diego
May 16, 2016
To Kay
I know too little about you to be able to start to give you an answer. My first suggestion is that you pick up To Be a Jew and the Gerus Guide. Read the first chapters of the Gerus Guide and the entire To Be a Jew. I am sure that Rabbi Freeman has some connections in Texas as do I. Houston has quite a few Gerim. Dallas has a few too. They both have courts for conversions. When you're ready call the local rabbi. If he won't help you then write Rabbi Freeman and me offline.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
May 15, 2016
interest in conversion
i have expressed desire and sought to convert, but have been unwelcome and discouraged by those contacted, why is this so ? Thank you
May 15, 2016
For Helen
I did see a quote somewhere at that Hashem doesn't keep us stuck for no reason , good will come from it. I do hope for you that Orthodox conversion will be possible one day. It would be nice if our paths will meet again , next time in real life perhaps.
May 13, 2016
To Helen
When I was younger there were orthodox synagogues throughout England, and even a few in Wales. I am not sure how many are still active synagogues outside of London, Manchester, and Leeds. I am also aware that the London and Manchester Batey Din do not usually relax any of their rules. However, ask your local rabbi what can be done (if possible) under your circumstances.

I have known some cases on this side of the pond where some very respectable Batey Din have relaxed some of their standards for worthy candidates who due to age or disability would not be able to convert under their usual standards. Two were allowed to convert even though they had to pray and recite blessings in English.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen