Conversion

Rabbi Ezray and Bill Futornick, Ritual Director, work with candidates for conversion personally. Each student studies the fundamentals of Judaism (holidays, life cycle, beliefs, history, prayers, mitzvot, modern issues) and integrates those beliefs and values into their lives. The study culminates in a conversion process and ceremony when the student is ready.


ABOUT CONVERSION

HISTORY OF CONVERSION

PROCESS OF CONVERSION


ABOUT CONVERSION

Conversion to Judaism means more than simply adopting a new way of relating to God. It requires an identification with the Jewish people, and Jewish peoplehood itself encompasses both Jewish religious practice--the mitzvot, or commandments, that Jews are required by God to do--and a sense of national destiny in which all Jews are responsible one for the other.

Because being a Jew is not a side issue that can be compartmentalized into weekly attendance at Sabbath services but rather a life-defining commitment, conversion to Judaism requires a transformation of personal identity. The prospective Jew-by-choice is embarking on an evolutionary journey that involves the adoption of new values, cultural norms, and mythological understandings as well as holiday and life cycle rituals that transform daily life. This personal metamorphosis is embodied in the traditional definition of a convert as a newborn.

The process of conversion created by the rabbis is modeled upon the "conversion" of the Jewish people from an amorphous group of slaves in Egypt with shared ancestral memories to a people defined by a covenant with God--expressed through their acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Just as the Hebrews were circumcised in preparation for leaving Egypt--distinguishing themselves with a ritual sign that united them as a single people--the new convert's circumcision is a physical identification with the Jewish fate. And just as the people had to cleanse themselves at Sinai in preparation for receiving the Torah (the document that specifies the mutual obligations between God and the Jewish people), similarly the new convert immerses to signify acceptance of this covenant with God.

Both aspects of conversion--the national and the religious identifications as a Jew--were expressed by the biblical prototype for the convert, Ruth, who said to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi, "Your people shall be my people, and your God my God."

Because the decision to become a Jew demands such a fundamental change in individual identity, rabbis since the talmudic era have been concerned about the motivations of potential converts. Motivations of convenience, whether personal or economic--for example, the desire to marry a Jew or to get a better job--were rejected as insufficient. The only acceptable motivation fueling the changes demanded of a convert was a pure desire to become a Jew "for the sake of Heaven." Today some rabbinical authorities, particularly within the liberal Jewish community, recognize that becoming Jewish is an evolution, and what may have been originally a conversion out of convenience--for example, to appease Jewish in-laws--often evolves into a conversion of commitment.

Although, generally, the rabbis were favorably disposed toward converts, some authorities opposed conversion. The variance in rabbinic attitudes reflected both personal idiosyncrasy and contemporary historical conditions. Over time, however, the Jewish experience of persecution turned the community inward, emphasizing survival and observance of the mitzvot over outreach to the majority culture and conversion of the non-Jew.

Although Jews are enjoined never to treat converts differently than other Jews, sometimes converts experience ambivalence, distrust, and suspicion from born Jews. Although such responses are religiously unacceptable, they are not unknown. In some cases, they reflect a distrust of the surrounding gentile culture, born of the Holocaust experience. In others, they represent an unfortunate misunderstanding of Judaism as a racial rather than a religious identify, one accessible only via a mother's milk. Another common source of ambivalence involves Jews who project their own ambivalence about being Jewish onto the new convert, wondering why anyone would choose to be Jewish.


HISTORY OF CONVERSION

The history of conversion reflects the ebb and flow in the relationship between the Jewish people and the cultures in which they have lived. There is some evidence that when Jews have felt strong and self-confident, a universalist impulse--which holds that the Jewish people has a religious obligation to offer Judaism to the world and welcome converts--has impelled them to share their God with all people. But when Jews have been at risk from the surrounding culture or from political persecution, they have turned inward and focused on the particularist elements of Jewish law and practice--the unique, defining rituals and institutions--in an effort to survive as a people.

In biblical Israel, Israelite religion and nationality were virtually indistinguishable. As a result, conversion as a concept did not really exist and most new members of the community joined through assimilation. For example, a resident alien, or ger toshav, might become part of the Israelite people through intermarriage, while other nokhri, or foreigners, might remain separate from Israeli society.

The exile of the Jews in 586 BCE detached religion from national identity, allowing the religious elements space to develop independently. Because this new version of Judaism was detached from the land of Israel, its portability meant that God could be worshipped anywhere. Eventually, the Israelite God became accessible to any gentile who adopted the Jewish religion by undergoing the formal conversion procedures developed by the rabbis.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the defeat of Bar Kokhba's revolt in 135 CE, external restrictions imposed by Christian and Muslim authorities led to a decline, although not an absolute end, to proselytism. The defeat by the Romans turned Jewish life inward, and a new focus on religious observance was viewed as the key to survival.

In the Middle Ages, Christian and Muslim authorities prohibited proselytizing by Jews, although conversion did continue on an individual basis. There were also two interesting cases of mass conversion to Judaism--that of Yusuf Dhu Nuwas, the King of Himyar (in what is currently Yemen), in the early part of the sixth century and that of the Khazar royal house in the 720s.

But as persecutions and restrictions increased, along with greater success by Christianity and Islam in winning converts, the Jews began to focus on separation and autonomy within their own communities as a way to achieve some sense of control over their lives. The new theology was one of performing the mitzvot [commandments] and waiting for the messiah, without any outreach to potential converts. The codifiers of Jewish law chose this inward-looking survivalism over an outward-looking sense of mission, thereby enshrining it in Jewish law and making opposition to conversion the Jewish tradition.

After the emancipation, the idea of a Jewish mission was revived among the Orthodox, both in Germany and especially in France, as well as by the Reform. The Reform version promoted a liberal universalism in the prophetic tradition, yet at the same time stripped Judaism of its particularist elements.

In the second half of the 19th century in the United States, the Reform movement began to welcome converts, affirming in organizational pronouncements that the purpose of the exile was "to lead the nations to the true knowledge and worship of God." Later Leo Baeck wrote in The Essence of Judaism that "the Jewish religion is intended to become the religion of the whole world... Every presupposition and every aim of Judaism is directed towards the conversion of the world to itself."

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century a stringent approach to conversion prevailed, although liberal elements permitted conversions in the case of intermarriage. But in response to the increase in intermarriage after the Second World War and to the non-halakhic [not following Jewish legal requirements] conversions of the Reform movement, the Orthodox began to focus more on the particularistic, especially the legal, aspects of Judaism.

Conservative Judaism, on the other hand, sought a balance between particularism and universalism. The Conservative movement welcomed converts for pragmatic reasons--as a means to combat intermarriage--but not in the light of a specific covenantal mission, although individual voices did promote a sense of mission.

More recently, a number of sociological changes have caused Jewish attitudes toward conversion to become more positive: with the decline in anti-Semitism, Judaism seemed more attractive; more Jews within intermarriages remained loyal to Judaism; more converts were choosing Judaism; ethnicity was more valued; cults and evangelicals were becoming increasingly active; and converts themselves were proactively demanding acceptance by American Jews.

As a result, the liberal movements have convened conferences about outreach and developed educational programs and materials for non-Jews, particularly the non-Jewish spouses in intermarriages. The Orthodox movement continues to accept converts in principle, but tends to reject converts not converted according to what the Orthodox understand to be halakhic procedures.


PROCESS OF CONVERSION

The process of conversion penetrates a person's innermost character and spiritual being, demanding an examination of self and other that may culminate in the adoption of a new identity.

Because of the potential consequences both to the convert's psyche and to the Jewish people--particularly at times when conversion to Judaism was banned by the ruling powers--rabbis have always urged conversion candidates to carefully consider their own motivations. The Talmud, in fact, states that the first question that the beit din--the rabbinic court that rules upon a conversion--must ask of a potential convert concerns motivation, "Why should you wish to become a proselyte; do you not know that the people of Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions?"

Conversion candidates are urged to learn as much as possible about Jewish religion and culture, to seek out Jewish experiences, and to talk to a rabbi early in the process. When both candidate and rabbi agree that the time for conversion has arrived, the formal conversion procedure begins.

Because the different movements have such different visions of what constitutes a "good Jew," the requirements for conversion can vary significantly among them. A traditional beit din, for example, expects a conversion to be based entirely upon the desire to become a Jew, whereas the liberal movements permit more latitude in a candidate's initial motivation. Many liberal rabbis will perform a conversion for the sake of an upcoming marriage, reasoning that exposure to Judaism in the context of an intimate relationship is likely to inspire such a convert to eventually accept Judaism for its own sake. Even the process of conversion is a matter of contention among the movements. Whereas traditional rabbis expect the candidate to undergo all rabbinically prescribed rituals, liberal rabbis may use rituals more selectively (although circumcision is a nearly universal requirement).

If the candidate is male, the first step in a traditional conversion is to undergo brit milah, or circumcision, or if already circumcised, hatafat dam brit [ritual extraction of a drop of blood]. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis may offer the candidate a choice about hatafat dam brit if he is already circumcised.

Once the circumcision has healed, a beit din is assembled. This three-person court, generally comprising at least one rabbi and two other observant Jews knowledgeable about the laws of conversion, has sole authority to rule on the convert's readiness for conversion. The beit din explores a candidate's sincerity by evaluating his or her knowledge, motivation, and intent to live as a Jew. For traditional Jews, a convert must assent to kabbalat ol ha-mitzvot, acceptance of the yoke of the commandments, that is, a willingness to accept the validity and often to commit to the performance of the Jewish commandments. Liberal rabbis usually ask only for a commitment to perform selected commandments.

Once the beit din is assured of the candidate's sincerity, the candidate usually immerses in the ritual pool, or mikveh, if available, or else in a lake or the ocean, or, in some cases, a swimming pool [however, only certain non-Orthodox authorities allow a pool].

The mikveh water is symbolic of the in-between state, or liminality, of the convert, who is undergoing what amounts to a spiritual rebirth. The immersion, known as tevillah, symbolically cleanses the convert of past misdeeds and prepares the convert for a different future and destiny. Following immersion, the candidate is officially considered a Jew and can legitimately recite the blessing for immersion that includes the words "who has sanctified us with the commandments."

The newborn Jew takes on a Hebrew name, but a given name only is not sufficient to locate a person within the Jewish tradition. When Jews sign legal documents or are called up to the Torah, their parents' names are appended to their Hebrew names to locate them in Jewish spiritual space. A convert traditionally adopts Abraham and Sarah as spiritual parents and in legal situations is referred to as "ben Avraham Avinu," "son of our Father, Abraham," or "bat Sarah Imenu," "daughter of our Mother, Sarah."

Even for the most sincere converts, the post-conversion period can be challenging, as the new Jews-by-choice reestablish relationships with their birth families, develop new ones with newly acquired Jewish families, and work to bridge the emotional gap between feeling like "a convert" and being a Jew who truly feels part of am Yisrael, the Jewish people. With patience, persistence, and a realization that the process is one of evolution, not revolution, the convert acquires that combination of knowledge, habit, and subculture that constitutes an enduring Jewish identity.

Content reprinted with permission from myjewishlearning.com


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Contact Rabbi Ezray by email or at 366-8481 if you are considering conversion and would like more information.