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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 (1085)
January 14, 2017
To Helen--You have actually fulfilled one of the most important qualifications.
You came to us because of two Jews. To me that means you basically enjoy us or like us. Two of us, anyway, and I feel sure they are very much like the rest of us. (Did you ever hear the saying, "Two Jews, three opinions"?) Our very differences are one of the ways we are alike. I cannot guess why the orthodox shul in your area is giving you a hard time. I want you as a member of us. Please don't give up. Maybe another (nearby?) town has a congregation that can help you. Or maybe the rabbi here can suggest a way you can convert at a distance. It's unfortunate that we are so few that so few places have more than one (and most places don't have any) orthodox congregations. But you see that most of us on this discussion group want you and appreciate you, including me. Go ahead and get your conservative conversion. It may help. Often that enables you to attend and participate and keep mitzvoth and the orthodox see their error and ask you to join. I've known it to happen. Keep us posted. Best
Ruth
Indianapolis
January 14, 2017
Helen, you have been so determined. Don't give up on orthodox just because of
your own location. Write to United Orthodox synagogue in Houston, Texas. Maybe they can teach you online or on the phone so that you don't have to move. Or they may be able to help you in some other way.

I do know that they have classes that last a year or two and if you care--the way you do--they will work with you. They convert all kinds of people all the time.

Other synagogues may take two to five years.

It is not about "having to please others to be accepted" but it is also not about what you believe or how you feel. It is like getting citizenship in a new country except that it's not a country, it's a peoplehood. The orthodox are the only ones who ask you to promise to keep all the mitzvoth, and since keeping the laws is essential to true Jewish practice, theirs is also the only authentic conversion. If all you want is to participate, you can attend all you want, orthodox or otherwise. If you want to become a member of the tribe, you need to promise to observe the mitzvoth.
Sarah
Boston
January 14, 2017
Kay, being visually impaired does exclude you from education or the ability to learn. The books I've read on audio, all the classics as great of love of classical music. I've written law, commented on law even at a high level. Can you understand why I feel so insulted by a narrow minded attitude. I feel like a social leper at a time they were excluded from society. You can't catch visual impairment, if you could my family would all have it. My children take care of their sight, as a matter of course. Yes, I have two children and grandchildren. My sight impairment restricts, but does not prevent.
I love learning, the problems with the attitude to disability seem deep, as with Converts. A good thing I'm excepted in some areas.
I pity a narrow mind, worse to have than a visual impairment.
Helen Dudden
Bristol
January 14, 2017
Christians did NOT accept Jews
In response to the person who converted, joined an Orthodox shul, and is now still searching. Ahhh, well, as the Subject line states, Christians did not accept Jews and murdered those who refused to become Christians.

I'm not versed in all aspects of either religion, just know that there are many people who converted from pagan to Jewish in the biblical days - and Jews who did not like all the rules set down by G-d so they started their own sect of Judaism and eventually that became known as Christianity, after the death of Jesus.

In order to gather people into Christianity the church leaders had to do their best to destroy many ties to the "old" bible and to make sure that the rules were more accepting, in spite of not as G-d stated!

There is no other G-d but the One I Am ... and Jesus was never G-d and never will be. If anyone believes in Jesus as god then they cannot be Jews. Period.

You'll find a place - even if not in an orthodox shul. Raised orthodox I am now in Reform.
Meira Shana
San Diego
January 13, 2017
I am a Jew to the inner most of my being. It is who I am.
When I converted to Judaism, the Rabbi who converted me, told me that I needed to work on a Jewish identity. He said that the first few years would feel, and seem, difficult because I was making a change in my life that had to come from within and manifest itself outwardly. Being accepted by others will not make you more Jewish. It is how we view ourselves that is important. The first few years after my conversion were the hardest. I realized, despite all of the study that I had done to prepare, just how little I knew about Judaism. The synagogue where I attended had one congregant, a woman, who could not even bring herself to say "Shabbat Shalom" to me. She never did speak to me even though I know for a fact that she was not mute. There have been other Jews, who for whatever reason, were resentful of my continued study. These Jews don't want to be bothered with knowledge. Being Jewish, for them, always seemed to me that they were just going through the motions.
Barbara
Washington
January 11, 2017
Helen
Hello Helen,

From what I have studied in terms of history and issues of acceptance in regards to those presumably not born of the House of Israel it has bounced back and forth upon the continuum of acceptance to non acceptance. What happens I think in any body of religion is that some individuals in their sincere zeal can make terribly wrong decisions and consequently render poor PR in the name of G-d in the end that taints that body in the eyes of the "outsider". Somewhere I missed you were involved with childrens law, BRAVO. G-d will lead us to our respective duty stations have no fear. Be encouraged, and do look into the videos and works of the beloved Rebbe Schneerson.
kay
richmond
January 11, 2017
For Rabbi Aryeh Moshen.
Thank you, but after lots of thought and logic I no longer attend the Orthodox Shul. I was not born a Jew and if we are honest it is difficult to be accepted. For me, being honest, I don't need to prove to anyone how I feel. I've been a bit lost in the trying to be what I felt others expected, that's not me.
I will be going elsewhere. I sometimes wonder how those who were strangers in the tent felt. How they became part of history. My involvement in children's law continues, that and finding a Synagogue, not Orthodox should be more important. Live life and be a person you feel comfortable with, not a person that has to please others to be excepted.
I was a Christian, can't go backwards and return, so I look for an option acceptable, and who will except me as a Gentile now a woman who embraces Judaism. I wish I learnt this lesson earlier.
Helen Dudden
Bristol
January 10, 2017
To Helen
I would like to take the time to thank you (as a reader, I am not on the staff of this group) for your many comments. It takes a lot to share (notice how many anonymous comments there are). It is very unfortunate that some people confuse our ability to say something rather than our permissibility to say the same.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn
January 10, 2017
There is no G-d given right that we are thoughtless and hurtful to anyone. The question of Conversion should be a private and personal issue, without the need to make obvious our own unhappiness on the subject. It is narrow minded to give judgement on another. As I open up my own feelings on a web page of a time when I was so weakened by a terrible accident, my doubt expanded and I asked why? I feel humiliated and hurt, perhaps I have no right to the birthright of a religion that depends on birthright. There were converts written and highlighted within the history, I think there needs to be some consideration on how we treat and look at others. Both in disability and conversion. I have felt so hurt this weekend, no one has the right to cause unhappiness to others.
Not even under the pretext of a higher order.
Helen Dudden
Bristol
January 9, 2017
Thank you, Rabbi Freeman, this clears up a number of questions that I have had about being a convert to Judaism.
Anonymous
Washington