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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 (641)
November 26, 2014
I have found it impossible to Convert into the Orthodox Judaism, but I am trying Masorti Jews a little less demanding. It would be impossible for me to live with a family, and to move elsewhere.

I am committed to what I believe. After the death of my husband many years ago, I had some Jewish friends, and they had started the fire in the Menorah burning.

Every Shabbat, I go to Shul and keep as many as the rules as humanly possible.
Helen Dudden
Saltford
November 4, 2014
Conversion
B"H Thank you Reb Moshen for answering my query about the time of wandering in the Sinai. My actual point was that of the original circumsized men of Israel coming up out of Mitzraim only TWO were allowed to enter into the Promised Land, Calev & Yahshua. All the rest had passed away. The entire male population as they came across The Jordan River became circumsized enmass. (The place of the foreskins, it came to be called). Mystically, I believe this may be connected with the 1st and 2nd Temples, perhaps there are lines in cipher which connect them?) They say the outside should reflect the inward spirit and soul should it not? It is to reflect baring one's soul to the power, love, and direction of Hashem to the very core of one's being; a sign of the agreement between Avraham Avinu, Hashem and his offspring eternally. It's only a beginning, for Ishmael's descendants are also of the same covenant. Conversion goes further, in fact, I now limp after my wrestling but am not there yet
Anonymous
Pasadena, CA
October 23, 2014
Israel
I haven't been on here in a while. I just wanted to let you know that I will be traveling to Israel within the next two months! I hope to hook up with Rabbi Chaim Richman, as he had once told me to let him know when I would be arriving and he would set up to give me a tour of the Temple Mount! Any other places do you suggest other then the WALL(which I will be going there), to see? I have in mind the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, Rachel's Tomb and more!
Letitia
Schenectady
October 16, 2014
Mother/father has to be Jewish
Hello! I enjoyed reading this,but I have a question:what is all this about"The mother has to be Jewish?"...further,I was told by a Rabbi that,it used to be ,in days of old,that the father had to be"-so really,thiere are two questions.Thank you Rabbi
Frank
NY
October 13, 2014
The process in Israel is very different from the processes in other countries. Only listen to answers from those living in Israel who converted there. As an American Rabbi I will merely wish you Hatzlachah.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
October 13, 2014
response to religion vs covenant and decendants...
You know... even if you find out you are not a Jew, you are converting even now from what you were to what you will become. Maybe converting is not only to have it on a dotted line, but a complete heart change.... like Jethro did. We don't know for sure if he "converted", but... yes, he DID convert and went back to tell his family and all about this Wonderful Truth... just a thought...
____________________________________________________________

And to... "living arrangements when converting".... Wouldn't one have to live with an actual Jewish family in order to learn straight from the Source, or at least next door... close enough that you would learn just how to cook, clean, dress, act, eat, socialize, study, teach children, .... so many things to change.... and the family that is convertING... is still learning also, is this correct?
Anonymous
October 13, 2014
living arrangements when converting
Hello everyone,I was wondering if someone knows if it's necessary to live in a cosher house already in the process of conversion?I heard there are "visits" from the authorities...anyone knows about this?thank you very much!
Anonymous
israel
September 11, 2014
religion vs covenant and decendants
I recently discovered that my great grandmother on my mother's side may have been a descendant of the' hidden' Jews, her people migrated after the Spanish expulsion , then a few hundred years migrated again to Oceania. One of the relatives who is the only source of information does not wish to discuss anything about the family. Whether or not I discover any evidence supporting my lifelong suspicions, I will continue to learn about Judaism. I have gained a tremendous sense of equilibrium and purpose since I started. My skin colour, features and culture may be different from my ancestors but the spirit is still there.
Anonymous
September 11, 2014
HalacHelp
A play with words. But for some added info on being an observant Jew, I suggest a few websites to learn Laws & Traditions. As pointed, to believe in G-d and accept Torah is not all. You to convert truly, must live Torah and learn the rules prescribed by our sages. And may you all be inscribed for a good year.
Marco
NYC
September 11, 2014
Religion versus Covenant
I am a Filipino citizen but I am not the descendant of Spaniards, our country became a religious land by forced inquisition. As I read the Philippine history I found out that our ancestors refers to the ten group of Datu who arrived in the year 1210 was not a Muslim, for they observed shabbat and practicing mosaic ceremony and never eat pig meat , in addition ;followed by the arrival of the Jewish three Levy brothers in the year 1870, the record shows that most of Jewish people permanently settled in Visayas Island the land of Cebuano people. This fact prompted me to forsake my christian religion and aspiring to be converted into Judaism. I believe I belongs to the lost tribe of Israel.
arnold saunay abadila concha tinula
Philippines
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