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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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Meira Netherlands March 28, 2017

hah, lol..... I admire those who persevere. nobody ever said that the road to judaism would be easy. Rest assured, it's just the beginning. Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY March 28, 2017

I am sorry that Craig feels that my remarks were callous. I usually try to be kind even when I must refuse a request. These comments were on a discussion of foreign wives and their children where I quoted from Ezra. They were specifically geared to counter the "almost no mention" of your previous post. Unfortunately we are between a rock and a hard place.

I actually respect Craig tremendously. He's gone through a lot and have proved yourself in many ways. He is always honest and straightforward.

My comments from December 4th, 2014 are:

I'm sorry, but I must disagree. The Book of Ezra is quite explicit that the foreign wives and their children were sent away. If you want to find a commentary who says that the children were not sent away you also must accept the Talmud and commentaries that say that a child born of a non-Jewish mother is a non-Jew... Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA March 24, 2017

To Rabbi Aryeh Moshen, your December 4, 2012 comment bothers me that you could be so callous to say I must send away my wife to be a Jew. She is more than just a wife to me. She has also been a lifetime companion of mine. She was an acquaintance of mine since I was in 4th grade. Later, we became friends while playing in the same band together. Despite her Christianity, she has stopped attending church, which is a step in the right direction. She is not only a wife to me, but I have considered her to be my best friend for roughly 15yrs. She has never dated any other male; has never even romantically kissed anyone but me. This is not the situation of “The Book of Ezra.” So yes, in my youth I attended a Christian church. However, my dad was clear to me that he did not believe Jesus is his deity that he worships. I don’t know if my mom believes Jesus is her deity either. I think for my mom, to her virtue, Church is merely a way to plug into the community. Reply

Helen Dudden Bristol March 17, 2017

What ever the reason we are at this place, we are here. As I said to a friend of mine recently, if I deny my beliefs after 30 years would you believe me? Believing that the world has good too, is important. I blend with Jewish people as a whole, Reform, Masorti, Progressive I apologise for anyone I missed from my list.

Good Shabbos. Reply

Meira Shana San Diego March 16, 2017

Isn't it sad that when becoming a Jew you find out how the rest of the world treats Jews ...

I wonder how many non-Jews would flock to Judaism if it was easy to become a MOT.

In the good ole days, Christianity has to attract new people - and many were undoubtedly from pagans who had no religion. Back then people knew that Jews were constantly attacked so why become one of 'them' ... it was much easier to become Christian.

And it all continues into the 21st Century and surely beyond.

I feel blessed to be a Jew from birth. Reply

kaaren richmond March 15, 2017

Congratulations!
I actually envy you as i still cannot get myself to re enter another synagogue. In the end Yosef you are a new person and Chabad is very welcoming so no need for you to be lonely especially after you went through your process of conversion. Also follow up on Rabbi Moshen's suggestion. All the best!
Regards,
k Reply

Helen Dudden Bristol March 15, 2017

I adapt to those I'm with. When I do eat out I ask how the foods are prepared. Never had problems because I insist on vegetarian foods, not prepared on the same surface.
My family are not kosher, so they understand I am. Over the last 30 years they have coped with me. When I am with Jews I have eaten kosher non vegetarian, so it works, even for a Ger, quite well. Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY March 14, 2017

Hi and welcome to The Tribe.

Close to all the meetings or conventions I attended provided kosher food for me, with a bit of advanced warning. Try contacting the members' support service when you book.

I take it that you are not a member of a large orthodox community. Consider Partners in Torah to get a Chavrutha (study partner). Reply

Yosef March 8, 2017

I haven't had any issue yet a convert. Now that I've been an Orthodox Jew for a year I feel like an outcast in the secular world. I went to a meeting conference yesterday, and I was the only one out of like 300 people wearing a kippah. I even had people ask me what I was wearing on my head. Oh also, they had food I couldn't eat at the conference, and everyone felt bad for me. I think the hardest part is knowing you're a new person. You have different guidelines. I thought the process was easy, but ohhh no. After is what gets you. I live being Jewish, but I tell you I'm lonely... very lonely Reply

Helen Dudden March 7, 2017

NK. Thank you, and my sincere thoughts to your relative. Reply

Anonymous March 7, 2017

Helen
I thank you for your past comment which prompted me to pull out my old notes where I found the Isaiah verse. It must be very difficult for you , I have a family member who needs a text-to -speech application to communicate but even typing is a struggle.
The difference with this kind of struggle and other type of difficulties is that it was not the individual's choice to be in this situation i.e having the disability, and it remains for life.
The person is caged in. But most of them have a better attitude towards life than those of us without disabilities. I hope it works out for you.
So that you don't lose track of me I will use the initials N.K here next time.
N.K Reply

Helen Dudden March 6, 2017

Anonymous. That is more like I understand. Thank you for explaining.

For me to join other Jews perhaps is what is meant to be. It feels a better idea, can I be honest with those who know a little about me? I struggle, like OP maybe I would be better in the situation other than emails. It becomes very difficult even with my tablet. So being honest, how can I read what I should reading? The words are large it is difficult even very close to me.

I'm not suggesting that they are not less observant, but I can only achieve what is possible as my sight complains, it becomes impossible to do more, then listening takes over. They are willing to listen. Reply

Chaim Buffalo March 5, 2017

Helen I do believe you. I wish I could facilitate matters for you. All I can do is to wish you well. Gd bless you. I am confident that Gd loves you very much, because of your faithful devotion among other reasons. Reply

Anonymous March 5, 2017

Pardon me Helen, The verse from Isaiah regarding the foreigners was 56:6-7, not 55:7. This is why I need to wear my glasses more often now. It may be addressing the Jews in diaspora instead of the "strangers", I hope my interpretation is correct.I have not checked the Hebrew wording yet. Reply

Helen Dudden March 5, 2017

Anonymous. I have just read the passage.

Of course, as I said I have sympathy for OP, but I will be taken by the way I live my life. Would you believe me, if after 30 years if it became tough, and I said I no longer believed. The Amidah was said silently, Jews adapted.

To change to Progressive is saying I'm a Ruth, Your People is My People.... I repeat it every day. I want to join you please give me a chance, I don't want keep having to prove it, lets learn!

The problems with emails they lack anything that remotely shows us as we are, they are only words. Unless, we are gifted with words, they can mean little.

If OP had been in a room with us or a Shul, saying, I feel so unwell and afraid, what would have been our answer to them? I don't know if OP is male or female, sorry it seems impersonal, I too have to cautious with people I don't know. Reply

Anonymous March 5, 2017

Hi Helen,
you mentioned you wondered what it would be like to meet one of the "strangers" from biblical times. I happened to be going through my old notes, and Isaiah 55:7 mentions the foreigners, who "attach themselves to the Lord" and "keep the Sabbath" and "hold fast to my Covenant". I hope you'll be able to read the whole verse. We may not be able to meet those strangers but we know what was said about them. All the best. I also want to thank Rabbi Moshen for all the helpful and practical advice you share with us. Reply

Noah St. Louis, Mo. March 5, 2017

I am reading the posts that are visible. I see a couple from OP. She says she is handicapped, in pain, and without a support person to advocate for her when she needs medical attention. She has another post saying that the renewed antisemitism scares her. Also she says her parents escaped the Holocaust. What is wrong with saying any of this? It is true that there is danger associated with being a Jew. Why not say so? I love being a Jew, but I don't love sharing the fact with gentiles. I don't look like the stereotype and I allow people to think I'm Irish until I know and trust them. And sometimes it turns out I was wrong to trust them. But I love gentiles and I love Jewish learning so much that I cannot resist sharing how beautiful is Jewish tradition & thought, despite the danger and the fear.
Why not say so? Why do you say that OP is out of line? Is this post also out of line? Why? I honestly don't understand, based on what can be seen. (I have not looked at prior posts.) Reply

Helen Dudden March 4, 2017

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen, I feel there is a trail left behind me, as I asked about the difficulties of getting into the Shul at Park Row. I'm concerned that this is not the way forward for me, I would loved it to be, but its not.

Like Ruth Choosing to Chosen, that's me, and as I go slowly reading a little every day.

I was not born a Jew, that's the answer. I feel very unhappy for OP. But I've written on human rights and law, and the woodwork is not where I belong.

Thank you to those who did believe in what I say, I can be as observant as I wish but without the need to prove anything. I'm a ger. Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY March 3, 2017

OP - I think that your comments are out of line. Granted you might have been hurt but Rabbi Freeeman has done nothing that should have received your response. Indeed, when he once felt that my response was a bit strong he rejected it wrote me.

I've been in contact at one time or another with well over 1000 potential and actual Gerim. Some are able to convert. Others are not. There are lots of reasons why conversion might not be right for an individual. And, yes, there are some times that I've disagreed with a BD decision and have held my tongue and pen. A few times I disagreed and made a case for the BD to proceed. Sometimes they actually do what I ask and change their decisions.

I discussed a case similar to Helen's with a really top-notch Rabbi in NYC. He assured me that (in this similar case) her efforts will not go in vain. And he is one of the very few whom I totally trust even in these questions. I am not allowed to release his name. Reply

Helen Dudden March 3, 2017

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen. I feel so concerned at the unhappiness OP feels. I can't, as person worry over what might or might not be. It was very painful for those who have suffered, and you will realise of course I've met some Jews who lives were effected by the very circumstances as described.
The Progressives are concerning the way I could be helped, if I'm really honest then Orthodox is difficult to be part of anyway.

Again, if I had been closer to OP I would have visited and they wished a visit, emails are not positive and can often be misleading. Reply