Conversion to Judaism
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Conversion to Judaism (Hebrew: גיור, giyur) is a formal act undertaken by a non-Jewish person who wishes to be recognized as a full member of a Jewish community. A Jewish conversion is normally a religious act and usually an expression of association with the Jewish people and, sometimes, the Land of Israel. A formal conversion is also sometimes undertaken to remove any doubt as to the Jewishness of a person who wishes to be considered a Jew.
The procedure for conversion depends on the sponsoring denomination, and depends on meeting the requirements for a conversion to that religious or non-religious branch or denomination. A conversion in accordance with the process of a denomination is not a guarantee of recognition by another denomination.
In some cases, a person may forgo a formal conversion to Judaism and adopt some or all beliefs and practices of Judaism. However, without a formal conversion, many highly observant Jews will reject a convert's Jewish status. There are some groups that have adopted Jewish customs and practices. For example, in Russia the Subbotniks have adopted most aspects of Judaism without formal conversion to Judaism. However, if Subbotniks, or anyone without a formal conversion, wish to marry into a traditional Jewish community or emigrate to Israel, they must have a formal conversion.
- 1 Terminology
- 2 Overview
- 3 Requirements
- 4 Early debate on requirement for circumcision
- 5 Modern practice
- 6 Maturity
- 7 Reform Jewish views
- 8 Interdenominational views
- 9 Intra-Orthodox Controversy
- 10 Canadian Orthodox program
- 11 Karaite views
- 12 Attempts to resolve the "Who is a Jew?" issue
- 13 Consequences
- 14 Jews by choice
- 15 Anusim
- 16 See also
- 17 References
- 18 Further reading
- 19 External links
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|Jews and Judaism|
A male convert to Judaism is referred to by the Hebrew word ger (Hebrew: גר, plural gerim) and a female convert is a giyoret. The word is related to the term "proselyte" which is derived from the Koine Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible. In Karaite Judaism a Ger is a non-Jew who has yet to fully convert to Judaism. After a Ger converts to Judaism, they are no longer considered a Ger but a full-fledged Jew.
- "The Hebrew ger (in post-Biblical times translated as "proselyte") literally means "resident" and refers to a non-Israelite who lived among the Israelite community. When the Torah commands compassion and equal justice for the ger, it is referring to these "residents." Rabbinic tradition interpreted the word ger as referring to proselytes..."
- As a citizen among you shall be the ger (foreigner) who lives among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt—I am the Lord your God.
The Jews were not converts in Egypt, but rather foreigners. Another passage which may be relevant to a process of conversion involves non-Jewish women captured in war who could be adopted forcibly as wives (Deuteronomy 21:10–14). Another verse which has been interpreted as referring to non-Jews converting to Judaism is Esther 8:17, although no process is described. (Esther 8:17).
In the Talmud, "ger" is used in two senses: ger tzedek refers to a "righteous convert", a proselyte to Judaism, and ger toshav, a non-Jewish inhabitant of the Land of Israel who observes the Seven Laws of Noah and has repudiated all links with idolatry. In Modern Hebrew, ger refers to a convert to Judaism.
There are unique prohibitions attached to the abuse of the vulnerable members of society, particularly orphans and widows. In the same context where the Torah makes explicit mention of orphans and widows, the Torah adds a requirement to treat gerim (singular, ger) exceptionally well. The term “ger” literally means “sojourner,” as opposed to a native-born citizen. In Tanakh, the word may be translated as alien, foreigner or stranger. Halakhically, there are two types of gerim: the ger tzedek is a convert to Judaism, while the ger toshav is a non-Jew living in Israel who abides by the Noahide laws but not by other mitzvot, such as keeping kosher and observing Shabbat. Colloquially, the term ger on its own refers to the former.
Two prohibitions are recorded and repeated in the Torah about mistreating gerim, and elsewhere there is a requirement to love gerim as well.
The Torah states: "You shall not wrong a sojourner, nor shall you oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt." (Shemot 22:20)
Here the Torah not only states the prohibition but the reasoning as well, “for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Of significance is also that the verse is stated in plural and indicates that there are two separate prohibitions: onaa (wronging) and lachatz (oppression).
A little later on, the Torah (23:9) repeats this in a similar form: "You shall not oppress a sojourner, as you know the soul of the sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt."
Besides these verses, the special care one must have for gerim is repeated numerous times in the Torah. In fact, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) points out that the Torah cautions us no less than thirty-six times regarding our behavior towards the ger.
The Torah does not limit its approach to our interactions with gerim to the prohibitions of mistreating them; the Torah (Vayikra 19:33-34) also commands us to loving gerim.
"If a sojourner sojourns amongst you in your land, you shall not wrong him. A sojourner who sojourns amongst you shall be for you like a citizen from among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt; I am Lord your God."
This idea is repeated again in Devarim, when Moshe speaks about the greatness of God alongside His meticulous care for the weak members of society (10:17-19):
"For Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great and mighty and awesome God Who shows no favor and takes no bribe. He does justice to the orphan and widow and loves the sojourner, providing him food and clothing. You shall love the sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt."
Furthermore, Avraham is told at the Covenant of the Parts (Bereishit 15:13), “Your seed will be a ger in a land that is not theirs,” referring to our status during our sojourn in Egypt as that of gerim. Thus, the simple meaning of the verse seems to indicate that any foreigner who comes to dwell in our land must be loved and not mistreated.
Beloved are the gerim, concerning whom God adjures in many places: "You shall not oppress a ger;" "You shall not wrong a ger;" "You shall love the ger;" "As you know the soul of the ger."
The Torat Kohanim (ad loc.) explains the distinction between the two individuals: "Ger” – this means a ger tzedek; “toshav” – this means a carcass-eating ger. The “carcass-eating ger” is, of course, the ger toshav, who may eat of any dead animal by Noahide law, as these verses discuss. One is required to sustain a ger toshav, but his status is different than that of a ger tzedek. As the former is not a Jew, though he or she may truly be a sojourner in the land, a ger toshav has a different relationship with the citizenry. A ger tzedek is someone unique, someone who requires extra-special treatment, not only to be sustained when in dire distress.
The Chinnukh and the Rambam both indicate that one who transgresses either of the two commandments relating to the convert actually commits a double violation: one of the specific commandments relating to the sojourner and another of the parallel general commandment relating to all Jews. The Rambam (Hilkhot De'ot 6:4) states: "Love for a ger who has come under the wings of the Divine Presence comprises two positive commandments: one, because he is now among one’s fellows; and the other, because he is a convert, and the Torah says, "You shall love the ger."
Defining Onaa and Lachatz The Mekhilta distinguishes between onaa and lachatz. “You shall not wrong a sojourner” — with words; “nor shall you oppress him” — in monetary matters. The exact meaning of lachatz is still a little unclear, and this leads the Yere’im to offer a profound understanding. "The Yere’im (Ch. 181) attempts to prove from the Talmud that lachatz is a more general concept regarding our treatment of the ger. I do not know what is meant by lachatz. However, the Talmud quotes a beraita teaching that one who oppresses a ger violates three prohibitions, among them… “Do not act as a creditor to him” (ibid. 22:24), which Rav Dimi understands in the Talmud as applying even when one passes by the debtor without the intention of being seen as a creditor… We may derive from this that the nature of the prohibition of lachatz demands that one deal with the ger in a manner which is above the letter of the law and not stick to strict justice; nor should one attempt to find loopholes that might trouble the heart of the ger."
The Uniqueness of the Ger The Torah often groups the ger with the orphan and the widow, and essentially, a ger could be considered both and then some. If so, the special mention of gerim can be understood as pointing to the vulnerability of gerim, which allows others to easily take advantage of them. For this reason, the Torah informs us that just as orphans, widows and other defenseless individuals must be treated properly, so too gerim must be dealt with appropriately.
The commentators note that the various verses repeated in the Torah specify the sundry contexts in which one may be prone to discriminate against the ger. The Rashbam explains that the first verse prohibits insulting references to the ger’s non-Jewish origins, and the second verse comes to prohibit forcing a ger to do one’s own work, as the former has no protector. Furthermore, other verses focus on not being prejudiced against a ger in a lawsuit. While the vulnerabilities of orphans and of widows are obvious, that of gerim is not. For this reason, the commentators (Shemot 22:20) attempt to explain why gerim should be treated similarly.
The Ibn Ezra explains: The reason for the prohibition “You shall not wrong a sojourner” is that he has no family roots. Just as the orphan and widow lack family structure and support, the ger has also left his family by joining the Jewish people and has no one to share his burden.
Rabbeinu Bachya similarly explains: "In several places in the Torah God warns regarding the gerim, because the ger finds himself alone in a foreign land. The ger has left his homeland as well as his family, and the Torah commands that the community provide the social network and love that he is missing.
On a practical note, the Chizkuni notes that it is easy to deceive gerim, as they are unfamiliar with the local customs.
Along the same lines, Rav S.R. Hirsch notes that the constant switching in the verse between the plural and the singular would seem to indicate something about the nature of the prohibitions. "In our opinion, when the Torah uses the singular, it is always addressing either the individual as such or the nation as a whole community, whereas the plural is used to address the nation as a plurality of members, individuals in the context of their social lives and social involvement… Accordingly, here the admonition against wronging the stranger is directed primarily to the state. The state must not practice onaa against the stranger; the state must not impose on him heavier taxes or grant him fewer rights than it grants the native-born, just because he is a stranger. “Nor shall you oppress him” indicates that the state must not, in any way, restrict him in his efforts to gain a livelihood."
Besides the need to strengthen the prohibition as it applies to someone who is prone to be taken advantage of, the Talmud relates two different understandings as to why gerim require a special prohibition.
Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: “Why did the Torah admonish us about the convert in thirty-six” —or as others say, in forty-six — “places? This is because he has a strong inclination towards evil.” (Bava Metzia 59b) Evidently, Rabbi Eliezer the Great understands that the Torah is concerned that mistreating the ger might cause him to second-guess his original decision, abandon his Judaism and revert to his old way of life.
"For you were sojourners in the land of Egypt" is used not only to justify the positive commandment to love the sojourner, but also to justify the prohibition of maltreating him. 
Nowadays, with the notable exception of some Syrian Jewish communities, (primarily the Brooklyn, NY and Deal, NJ communities), all mainstream forms of Judaism today are open to sincere converts, with all denominations accepting converts converted by their denominations. The rules vary between denominations.
For Rabbinic Judaism, the laws governing conversion (gerut) are based on codes of law and texts, including discussions in the Talmud, through the Shulkhan Arukh and subsequent interpretations. (Many of the guidelines of accepting converts are based on the Book of Ruth and the manner whereby Ruth was brought into the fold through her mother-in-law, Naomi). These rules are held as authoritative by Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism. Jewish law is generally interpreted as discouraging proselytizing, and religious gerut is also discouraged. In the past, Rabbis often rejected potential converts three times, and if they remained adamant in their desire to convert, they would then allow them to begin the process. This practice has been justified on several grounds, including:
- The laws Jews require of themselves are more stringent than they consider to be required of other nations; a person who would be considered derelict of religious duties under Jewish law could easily be, without change in action, an exceedingly righteous gentile.
- Jews have suffered regular and often severe persecution throughout the ages; a proselyte is exposing himself to potentially mortal danger.
- In the Book of Ruth, Naomi tried to get Ruth to go back to her own people three times before Ruth became a part of the Hebrew people.
However, a rabbi convinced of the prospective convert's sincerity may allow him or her to follow the process of conversion. This requires the person to appear before an established three-judge Jewish religious court known as a beth din ("religious court") to be tested and formally accepted. A person who formally converts to Judaism under the auspices of a halakhically constituted and recognized beth din consisting preferably of three learned rabbis acting as dayanim ("judges"), but also possibly two learned and respected lay members of the community along with a rabbi, is issued with a Shtar geirut ("Certificate of Conversion").
Conservative Judaism takes a more lenient approach in application of the halakhic rules than Modern Orthodox Judaism. Its approach to the validity of conversions is based on whether the conversion procedure followed rabbinic norms, rather than the reliability of those performing it or the nature of the obligations the convert undertook. Accordingly, it may accept the validity of some Reform and Reconstructionist conversions, but only if they include immersion in a ritual bath (mikvah), appearance before a rabbinical court (beit din) and, for men, circumcision (brit milah) or a symbolic circumcision for those already circumcised (hatafat dam brit).
The requirements of Reform Judaism for conversions are different. The denomination states that "people considering conversion are expected to study Jewish theology, rituals, history, culture and customs, and to begin incorporating Jewish practices into their lives. The length and format of the course of study will vary from rabbi to rabbi and community to community, though most now require a course in basic Judaism and individual study with a rabbi, as well as attendance at services and participation in home practice and synagogue life."
Although an infant conversion might be accepted in some circumstances (such as in the case of adopted children or children whose parents convert), children who convert would typically be asked if they want to remain Jewish after reaching religious adulthood – which is 12 years of age for a girl and 13 for a boy. This standard is applied by Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, which accept halakha as binding.
Reconstructionist Judaism values the symbolism of the conversion ritual, and encourages those who were not born of Jewish parents and who wish to convert to undergo this rite of passage. The Reconstructionist course of study for a prospective convert, which is determined by the rabbi and congregation the individual is working with, includes history, observance and beliefs, and learning how to make educated choices. The completion of the process is marked by ritual immersion for men and women; circumcision or hatafat dam brit (symbolic drop of blood) for men (unless there exists an extraordinary physical or emotional hazard); a Bet Din (a dialogue with three knowledgeable Jews, at least one of whom is a rabbi), and often a public welcoming ceremony.
Karaite Judaism does not accept Rabbinic Judaism and has different requirements for conversion. Traditionally non-proselytizing, Karaite Judaism's long standing abstention from conversions was recently lifted. On 1 August 2007, the Karaites reportedly converted their first new members in 500 years. At a ceremony in their Northern California synagogue, ten adults and four minors swore fealty to Judaism after completing a year of study. This conversion comes 15 years after the Karaite Council of Sages reversed its centuries-old ban on accepting converts.
The Amora'im who produced the Talmud set out three requirements for a conversion to Judaism (Keritot 8b), which must be witnessed and affirmed by a beth din hedyot rabbinical court composed of three Jewish males above the age of thirteen (they do not need to be rabbis):[original research?]
- Circumcision (Brit milah or hatafat dam brit) for men
- Immersion (tevilah) in a ritual bath (mikveh) for both men and women
- Offering a certain sacrifice (korban) in the Temple (the Beit Hamikdash) – this requirement is deferred while the Temple does not exist until such time as it may be rebuilt.
The consensus of halakhic authorities also requires a convert to understand and accept the duties of the classical Jewish law. This is not stated explicitly in the Talmud, but was inferred by subsequent commentators.
After confirming that all these requirements have been met, the beth din issues a "Certificate of Conversion" (Shtar Giur), certifying that the person is now a Jew.
Early debate on requirement for circumcision
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia article on circumcision of proselytes, in the 1st century CE, before the Mishnah was edited, the requirement for circumcision of proselytes was an open issue between the zealots and liberal parties in ancient Israel. R. Joshua argued that besides accepting Jewish beliefs and laws, a prospective convert to Judaism must undergo immersion in a mikveh. In contrast, R. Eliezer makes circumcision a condition for the conversion. A similar controversy between the Shammaites and the Hillelites is given regarding a proselyte born without a foreskin: the former demanding the spilling of a drop of blood symbolic of the Brit Milah, thereby entering into the covenant; the latter declaring it to be unnecessary.
In discussions about the necessity of circumcision for those born of a Jewish mother, lending some support to the need for circumcision of converts, the Midrash states: "If thy sons accept My Godhead [by undergoing circumcision] I shall be their God and bring them into the land; but if they do not observe My covenant in regard either to circumcision or to the Sabbath, they shall not enter the land of promise" (Midrash Genesis Rabbah xlvi). "The Sabbath-keepers who are not circumcised are intruders, and deserve punishment," (Midrash Deut. Rabbah i).
Flavius Josephus in Jewish Antiquities Book 20 Chapter 2 recorded the story of King Izates of Adiabene who decided to follow the Law of Moses at the advice of a Jewish merchant named Ananias. He was going to get circumcised, but his mother, Helen, who herself embraced the Jewish customs, advised against it on the grounds that the subjects would not stand to be ruled by someone who followed such "strange and foreign rites". Ananias likewise advised against it, on the grounds that worship of God was superior to circumcision (Robert Eisenman in James the Brother of Jesus claims that Ananias is Paul of Tarsus who held similar views, although this is a novel interpretation lacking support in mainstream scholarship) and that God would forgive him for fear of his subjects. So Izates decided against it. However, later, "a certain other Jew that came out of Galilee, whose name was Eleazar", who was well versed in the Law, convinced him that he should, on the grounds that it was one thing to read the Law and another thing to practice it, and so he did. Once Helen and Ananias found out, they were struck by great fear of the possible consequences, but as Josephus put it, God looked after Izates. As his reign was peaceful and blessed, Helen visited the Jerusalem Temple to thank God, and since there was a terrible famine at the time, she brought lots of food and aid to the people of Jerusalem.
The requirements for conversions vary somewhat within the different branches of Judaism, so whether or not a conversion is recognized by another denomination is often an issue fraught with religious politics. The Orthodox rejection of non-Orthodox conversions is derived less from qualms with the conversion process itself, since Conservative and even some Reform conversions are ostensibly very similar to Orthodox conversions with respect to duration and content, but rather from that the convert was presumably not properly (i.e. according to tradition) instructed in Jewish Law, and the procedure of conversion has a chance of not having been done properly, and that those overseeing the process were (almost certainly) not qualified to test the convert (and in any case would have had different answers).[original research?]
In general, immersion in the mikveh is an important part of a traditional conversion. If the person who is converting is male, circumcision is a part of the traditional conversion process as well. If the male who is converting has already been circumcised, then a ritual removal of a single drop of blood will take place (hatafat dam brit). However, more liberal branches of Judaism have a more relaxed requirement of immersion and circumcision.
Someone who was converted to Judaism as a child has an option of rejecting this after reaching the age of maturity, which in Judaism is age twelve for girls or thirteen for boys.
Reform Jewish views
In the United States of America, Reform Judaism rejects the concept that any rules or rituals should be considered necessary for conversion to Judaism. In the late 19th century, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body of American Reform rabbis, formally resolved to permit the admission of converts "without any initiatory rite, ceremony, or observance whatsoever." (CCAR Yearbook 3 (1893), 73–95; American Reform Responsa (ARR), no. 68, at 236–237.)
Although this resolution has often been examined critically by many Reform rabbis, the resolution still remains the official policy of American Reform Judaism (CCAR Responsa "Circumcision for an Eight-Year-Old Convert" 5756.13 and Solomon Freehof, Reform Responsa for Our Time, no. 15.) Thus, American Reform Judaism does not require ritual immersion in a mikveh, circumcision, or acceptance of mitzvot as normative. Appearance before a Bet Din is recommended, but is not considered necessary. Converts are asked to commit to religious standards set by the local Reform community.
In response to the tremendous variations that exist within the Reform community, the Conservative Jewish movement attempted to set a nuanced approach. The Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has issued a legal opinion stating that Reform conversions may be accepted as valid only when they include the minimal Conservative halachic requirements of milah and t'vilah, appearance before a Conservative Bet Din, and a course of Conservative study. (Proceedings of Committee on Jewish Law and Standards: 1980–1985, pp. 77–101.)
In general, branches of Orthodox Judaism consider non-Orthodox conversions either inadequate or of questionable halachic compliance, and such conversions are therefore not accepted by these branches of Judaism. Conversely, both Conservative and Reform Judaism accept the stringent Orthodox conversion process as being valid. Since 2008, Haredi Orthodox religious courts in Israel have been rejecting conversions from some other Orthodox rabbis, in addition to Reform and Conservative conversions, as not being stringent enough.
In 2008, a Haredi-dominated Badatz in Israel annulled thousands of conversions performed by the Military Rabbinate in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is the only state-recognized authority on religious matters, backed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, ruled against this, making it legally invalid for purposes of Israeli law. The last ruling means those converts will have no problem from authorities in Israel in regard to their Jewish status.
Canadian Orthodox program
There are two orthodox conversion programmes in Montreal. One is made up of a Bet Din (Jewish Court) of congregational member rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of America, Montreal region (RCA). This program provides a way to convert according to the rigorous rules of Halachah while making the process more “user friendly” for non-Jewish individuals seeking a more “hands-on” or “modern Orthodox” approach. The second program is supervised by the Jewish Community Council of Montreal, the Vaad Hair.
All conversion candidates—who could include singles, non-Jewish couples and adoption cases—must have a sponsoring rabbi and undergo a rigorous screening process. Conversions stemming from both programs are recognized in Israel and around the world.
As of 2006, the Moetzet Hakhamim (Council of Sages) began to accept converts to Karaite Judaism through the Karaite Jewish University. The process requires one year of learning, circumcision (for males), and the taking of the vow that Ruth took.
כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ, וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין—עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי, וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי. בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּמוּתִי אָמוּת, וְשָׁם אֶקָּבֵר; כֹּה יַעֲשֶׂה יְהוָה לִי, וְכֹה יוֹסִיף—כִּי הַמָּוֶת, יַפְרִיד בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵךְ.
"For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me." Ruth 1:16-17
Attempts to resolve the "Who is a Jew?" issue
1950s: proposed joint beth din
In the 1950s Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and other members of the Rabbinical Council of America engaged in a series of private negotiations with the leaders of Conservative Judaism's Rabbinical Assembly, including Saul Lieberman; their goal was to create a joint Orthodox-Conservative national beth din for all Jews in America. It would create communal standards of marriage and divorce. It was to be modeled after the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, where all the judges would have been Orthodox, while it would have been accepted by the larger Conservative movement as legitimate. Conservative rabbis in the Rabbinical Assembly created a Joint Conference on Jewish Law, devoting a year to this effort.
For a number of reasons, the project did not succeed. According to Orthodox Rabbi Bernstein, the major reason for its failure was the Orthodox rabbis' insistence that the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly agree to expel Conservative rabbis for actions they took prior to the formation of the new beth din, and the RA refused to do so. According to Orthodox Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former president of the RCA, the major reason for its failure was pressure from haredi Orthodox rabbis, who held that any cooperation between Orthodoxy and Conservatism was forbidden. In 1956, Rabbi Harry Halpern, of the Joint Conference wrote a report on the demise of this beth din. He writes that negotiations between the Orthodox and Conservative were completed and agreed upon, but then a new requirement was demanded by the RCA: The RA must "impose severe sanctions" upon Conservative rabbis for actions they took before this new beth din was formed. Halpern writes that the RA "could not assent to rigorously disciplining our members at the behest of an outside group". He goes on to write that although subsequent efforts were made to cooperate with the Orthodox, a letter from eleven Rosh Yeshivas was circulated declaring that Orthodox rabbis are forbidden to cooperate with Conservative rabbis.
1978–1983: Denver program
In Denver, Colorado, a joint Orthodox, Traditional, Conservative and Reform Bet Din was formed to promote uniform standards for conversion to Judaism. A number of rabbis were Orthodox and had semicha from Orthodox yeshivas, but were serving in synagogues without a mechitza; these synagogues were called traditional Judaism. Over a five-year period they performed some 750 conversions to Judaism. However, in 1983 the joint Beth Din was dissolved, due to the unilateral American Reform Jewish decision to change the definition of Jewishness.
The move was precipitated by the resolution on patrilineality adopted that year by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. This decision to redefine Jewish identity, as well as the designation of Denver as a pilot community for a new Reform out reach effort to recruit converts, convinced the Traditional and Conservative rabbis that they could no longer participate in the joint board...the national decision of the Reform rabbinate placed the Traditional and Conservative rabbis in an untenable position. They could not cooperate in a conversion program with rabbis who held so different a conception of Jewish identity. And furthermore, they could not supervise conversions that would occur with increasing frequency due to a Reform outreach effort that was inconsistent with their own understanding of how to relate to potential proselytes.
— Wertheimer, A People Divided
The end of this program was welcomed by Haredi Orthodox groups, who saw the program as illegitimate. Further, Haredi groups attempted to prevent non-Orthodox rabbis from following the traditional requirements of converts using a mikvah. In the Haredi view, it is better to have no conversion at all than a non-Orthodox conversion, as all non-Orthodox conversions are not true conversions at all according to them.
1980s: proposed Israeli joint beth din
In the 1980s Orthodox Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, along with other American and Israeli Orthodox rabbis, worked with Conservative and Reform rabbis to come up with solution to the "Who is a Jew?" issue. In 1989 and 1990 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir spearheaded an effort to create a solution to the "Who is a Jew?" issue.
A plan was developed by Israeli Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubenstein, who negotiated secretly for many months with rabbis from Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Judaism, including faculty at Yeshiva University, with Lamm as Rosh Yeshiva. They were planning to create a joint panel that interviewed people who were converting to Judaism and considering making aliyah (moving to the State of Israel), and would refer them to a beth din that would convert the candidate following traditional halakha. All negotiating parties came to agreement:
- Conversions must be carried out according to halakha
- the beth din (rabbinic court) overseeing the conversion would be Orthodox, perhaps appointed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and
- there would be three-way dialogue throughout the process.
Many Reform rabbis took offense at the notion that the beth din must be strictly halakhic and Orthodox, but they acquiesced. However, when word about this project became public, a number of leading haredi rabbis issued a statement denouncing the project, condemning it as a "travesty of halakha". Rabbi Moshe Sherer, Chairman of Agudath Israel World Organization, stated that "Yes we played a role in putting an end to that farce, and I'm proud we did". Norman Lamm condemned this interference by Sherer, stating that this was "the most damaging thing that he [Sherer] ever did in his forty year career".
Rabbi Lamm wanted this to be only the beginning of a solution to Jewish disunity. He stated that had this unified conversion plan not been destroyed, he wanted to extend this program to the area of halakhic Jewish divorces, thus ending the problem of mamzerut.
1997: Neeman Commission proposal
In 1997 the issue of "Who is a Jew?" again arose in the State of Israel, and Orthodox leaders such as Rabbi Norman Lamm publicly backed the Neeman commission, a group of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis working to develop joint programs for conversion to Judaism. In 1997 Lamm gave a speech at the World Council of Orthodox Leadership, in Glen Springs, N.Y., urging Orthodox Jews to support this effort.
- Lamm told his listeners that they should value and encourage the efforts of non-Orthodox leaders to more seriously integrate traditional Jewish practices into the lives of their followers. They should welcome the creation of Reform and Conservative day schools and not see them as a threat to their own, Lamm said. In many communities, Orthodox day schools, or Orthodox-oriented community day schools, have large numbers of students from non-Orthodox families. The liberal movements should be appreciated and encouraged because they are doing something Jewish, even if it is not the way that Orthodox Jews would like them to, he said. "What they are doing is something, and something is better than nothing," he said in his speech. "I'm very openly attacking the notion that we sometimes find in the Orthodox community that `being a goy is better'" than being a non-Orthodox Jew, he said in an interview.
2000s: Conversion Annulments and Confusion
A current situation of confusion and instability in Jewish identity in Israel was made worse when Haredi Rabbi Avraham Sherman of Israel's supreme religious court called into question the validity of over 40,000 Jewish conversions when he upheld a ruling by the Ashdod Rabbinical Court to retroactively annul the conversion of a woman who came before them because in their eyes she failed to observe Jewish law (an orthodox lifestyle). This crisis deepened, when Israel's Rabbinate called into question the validity of soldiers who had undergone conversion in the army, meaning a soldier killed in action could not be buried according to Jewish law. In 2010, the rabbinate created a further distrust in the conversion process when it began refusing to recognize orthodox converts from the United States as Jewish. It is important to note, that according to the present judgements of Israel's Supreme Rabbinical Court, the former President of the State of Israel, Ezer Weizmann would not be seen as Jewish, as his mother (married to Israel's first President and Zionist pioneer Chaim Weizmann) was a convert who led an unflinchingly secular lifestyle. Indeed, the great-niece of the renowned Zionist Nahum Sokolow was recently deemed "not Jewish enough" to marry in Israel, after she failed to prove the purity of Jewish blood for four generations. At present, the question of Who is a Jew is a political crisis in Israel's Knesset which is impacting the personal status of thousands of individuals in Israel, and their children.
Once undergone, a religious conversion to Judaism is irreversible (from a Jewish perspective), unless there are convincing grounds to believe that the convert was insincere or deceitful during the conversion process. In such cases, a beth din may determine that the conversion was void.
Relations between Jews and proselytes
Judaism, unlike Christianity and Islam, is not currently an openly proselytizing religion: unlike Christianity, many of the followers of which maintain that belief in Jesus and in one God are prerequisites for salvation, and Islam, which requires that each person state the confirmation of faith "no God, but God; and Muhammad is His prophet and messenger", Judaism teaches that the righteous of all nations have a place in the afterlife. Much like in the other Abrahamic faiths, Jewish law requires the sincerity of a potential convert, but takes it to a much more serious and formal level. In view of the foregoing considerations, most authorities are very careful about it. Essentially, they want to be sure that the convert knows what he is getting into, and that he is doing it for sincerely religious reasons. However, while conversion for the sake of love for Judaism is considered the best motivation, a conversion for the sake of avoiding intermarriage is gaining acceptance, also. There is a tradition that a prospective convert should be turned away three times as a test of sincerity, though most rabbis no longer follow the tradition. Neither the Rabbinical Council of America nor the Rabbinical Assembly, the leading American Orthodox and Conservative organizations, suggest taking this action in their conversion policies, with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) actively opposing its practice.
Halakha forbids the mistreatment of the convert, including reminding a convert that he or she was once not a Jew. Hence, little to no distinction is made in Judaism between those who are born Jewish and those who are Jewish as a result of conversion. However, despite Halakha protecting the rights of converts, some Jewish communities have been accused of treating converts as second-class Jews. For example, many communities of Syrian Jews have banned conversion and refuse to recognise any Jewish conversion, including those done under Orthodox auspices (possibly influenced by sects in Syria like the Druze which do not accept converts).
According to Orthodox interpretations of Halakha, converts face a limited number of restrictions. A marriage between a female convert and a kohen (members of the priestly class) is prohibited and any children of the union do not inherit their father's kohen status. While a Jew by birth may not marry a mamzer, a convert can. Converts can become rabbis. For instance, Rabbi Meir Baal Ha Nes is thought to be a descendant of a proselyte. Rabbi Akiva was also a very well known son of converts. The Talmud lists many of the Jewish nation's greatest leaders who had either descended from or were themselves converts. In fact, King David is descended from Ruth, a convert to Judaism.(Ruth 4:13–22) In Orthodox and Conservative communities which maintain tribal distinctions, converts become Yisraelim (Israelites), ordinary Jews with no tribal or inter-Jewish distinctions. Converts typically follow the customs of their congregations. So a convert who prays at a Sephardi synagogue would follow Sephardi customs and learn Sephardi Hebrew.
A convert chooses his or her own Hebrew first name upon conversion but is traditionally known as the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah, the first patriarch and matriarch in the Torah, often with the additional qualifier of "Avinu" (our father) and "Imenu" (our mother). Hence, a convert named Akiva would be known, for ritual purposes in a synagogue, as "Akiva ben Avraham Avinu"; in cases where the mother's name is used, such as for the prayer for recovery from an illness, he would be known as "Akiva ben Sarah Imenu".
Talmudic opinions on converts are numerous; some positive, some negative. A quote from the Talmud labels the convert "Hard on Israel as a scab." Many interpretations explain this quote as meaning converts can be unobservant and lead Jews to be unobservant, or converts can be so observant that born Jews feel ashamed.
Jews by choice
The term "Jew by choice" is often used to describe someone who converted to Judaism, and is often contrasted with such terms as "Jew by birth" (or "Jew by chance").
In recent decades, there has been a renewed Jewish conversion interest with some descendants of Anusim, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity or forced to convert to Islam. Since many of these descendants lack satisfactory proof of their Jewish ancestry, conversion has been a growing option for them to return to Judaism.
- Abraham ben Abraham
- Lord George Gordon
- Miller Introduction to Judaism Program
- List of converts to Judaism
- Machon Meir
- Outreach Judaism
- Religious conversion
- Proactive conversion
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