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Choosing to Be JewishThe Orthodox Road to Conversion
By Marc D. Angel
KTAV Publishing House, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Marc D. Angel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneConversion to Judaism in Modern Times
Every year, thousands of people throughout the world convert to Judaism. They come from different religious backgrounds, races, geographical locations, sociological conditions. Most tend to be well-educated.
They are drawn to Judaism for various reasons. Some are seekers of truth. They have grown dissatisfied with the religion or philosophy in which they were raised or to which they have been exposed. They have undertaken to study Judaism and to share in the life of the Jewish community; and they have found their spiritual home in the Jewish tradition.
Some, though born non-Jewish, have an almost mystical feeling that they really have Jewish souls. They have had a deep longing to become part of the Jewish people, and conversion enables them to fulfill this inner yearning.
Others have discovered Jewish ancestry and have decided to reconnect with the religious traditions of their Jewish forebears. One of the amazing phenomena of our time is the re-emergence of Judaism among people of Spanish and Portuguese ancestry whose research and family traditions have led them to reclaim the Jewish religion of their ancestors. They are descended from ancestors who were forcibly converted to Catholicism in medieval Iberia and were subjected to the cruel oppression of the Inquisition. Many fled to the New World, seeking a freer religious climate so that they might at least maintain Jewish traditions secretly. When the Inquisition also came to the New World, these crypto-Jews were compelled to keep their Jewish identities well hidden. Remarkably, Jewishness survived for centuries under these trying conditions-and descendants of crypto-Jews are returning to Judaism.
Some converts are the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. They may already have a strong Jewish identity, but since the halakha (Jewish law) defines Jewishness through the mother's line, they are technically not Jewish. Conversion brings them completely into the Jewish fold.
A number of converts undergo conversion for a second or even a third time. They originally converted under non-Orthodox auspices. As they study and grow in their Jewish knowledge and religious observance, they have decided to undergo conversion according to halakha before an Orthodox rabbinic court.
A number of people of non-Jewish background, wanting to settle in Israel, opt to convert to Judaism in order to feel more fully part of the Jewish state.
Some converts to Judaism are influenced toward conversion because they have lived among Jews and have felt comfortable and happy in a Jewish milieu. Conversion is their way to become part of the Jewish community.
A large percentage of converts choose Judaism for the sake of marriage to a Jewish spouse. They have fallen in love with a Jewish person or are already married to a Jew. In many cases, the Jewish partner (or the partner's family) is uncomfortable with interfaith marriage, and the non-Jewish partner agrees to convert in order to eliminate the problem of intermarriage. They feel that conversion to Judaism will remove friction from their marriages, and will enable them to raise their children in one faith tradition.
Converts: A Remarkable Group
Whatever the original impetus, those who convert to Judaism are a remarkable group of people. After all, the Jews are a very tiny percentage of humanity. Why should a non-Jew, who is part of a much vaster group than the Jews, consciously opt to become a member of a small minority? Moreover, the Jewish people are subject to overt and subtle anti-Semitism almost everywhere. Over the centuries, Jews have been persecuted throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds, and even today the ugly manifestations of anti-Semitism are all too obvious. The State of Israel is constantly under attack-physically, economically, politically. Anti-Israel propaganda and media bias are rampant, and the line between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish is blurry, if it exists at all. So why would a Christian or a Muslim willingly take on the real risks of being Jewish, in a world where being Jewish can be so dangerous?
Anyone choosing to convert to Judaism, then, must be a very special person. The prospective convert must be willing to leave a majority status to become part of a minority group. Converts must be ready to face the difficulties that may arise in relationships with members of their biological families who do not favor conversion to Judaism. The decision to become Jewish requires religious commitment, intellectual clarity-and a good deal of courage.
The great medieval sage Maimonides (Rambam) wrote a letter to a proselyte by the name of Obadya. Rambam underscored the unique qualities of the sincere convert to Judaism. Sincere converts, he pointed out, leave the family and community of their upbringing and undertake to become part of an oppressed minority. Their decision to convert to Judaism is the result of keen insight, commitment to truth, devotion to the Torah, and rejection of religions that themselves are derived from-and have altered-the teachings of Torah (i.e., Christianity and Islam). The convert has chosen the path of holiness, coming under the wings of the Divine Presence; the convert clings to the teachings of Moses and accepts the Torah's commandments. The convert's heart strives to come near to God, to bask in the light of the Almighty, to rejoice with the righteous. Such a person, wrote Maimonides, is "intelligent, understanding and sharp-minded, upright, the student of Abraham our father who left his family and people to follow after God."
So imagine this: a non-Jewish person, after much thought and soul-searching, decides to take the great step of conversion to Judaism. This person approaches a rabbi and declares the desire to convert. Historically-and very often even today within the community that adheres to halakha-the candidate for conversion is not embraced enthusiastically, but is actually discouraged from converting! Following the pattern outlined in the Talmud (Yebamot 47a-b), the rabbi is likely to ask the candidate: "Why do you want to convert? Don't you realize that Jews are persecuted and oppressed, subject to so many difficulties?" If the candidate expresses willingness to convert in spite of these problems, the rabbi then explains some of the commandments that will now need to be observed, and the punishments for breaking them. "As a non-Jew, you are not obligated to keep a kosher diet; if you convert you must do so or be guilty of serious religious transgressions. As a non-Jew, you do not need to observe the many laws of the Jewish Sabbath; but if you convert, you will be obligated to keep them-or be accountable to God for your violations." The rabbi may inform the candidate that one can be righteous and beloved by God without converting to Judaism. One can follow the seven Noahide laws and still be rewarded with a place in the world-to-come. Heaven is not reserved for Jews only, but is for the righteous of all nations.
This response is often perplexing to candidates for conversion. They have made the extremely difficult decision to enter the world of Judaism-and the first meeting with a rabbi is often discouraging rather than encouraging. Judaism, for most of its history, has not been pro-active in attracting and encouraging conversions to its ranks, and this is still largely the case within the halakhically traditional communities.
The attitude of Judaism toward proselytization is radically different from that of Christianity and Islam. Each of the latter religions views itself as having the exclusive truth. Their adherents are rewarded by God, and those who do not share their faith do not merit God's salvation. They feel driven to convert nonbelievers to their faiths, with the ultimate goal of having all humanity accept their religious teachings. Historically, Christianity and Islam have engaged actively in missionary work-often enough even using physical compulsion to gain converts.
Judaism, though, does not believe that everyone in the world needs to be Jewish in order to enjoy God's love and salvation. Rather, Jews must adhere to their own special covenant with God as defined in the Torah; and non-Jews are obliged to observe the seven Noahide laws, which include belief in God and maintaining a moral and just society. Thus, Judaism has a far more universalistic and inclusive view of humanity than either Christianity or Islam, both of which seek to have all humans within their own religious fold. Jews do not feel an obligation to proselytize, since non-Jews can be righteous and God-fearing people without becoming Jews.
Consequently, non-Jews who decide to convert to Judaism do so from their own inner motivation-not because Jews have persuaded them to accept the Jewish way of life. This makes converts to Judaism all the more remarkable.
Halakhic and Non-Halakhic Conversions
Halakha lists three basic components for a valid conversion: circumcision (for males), immersion in a kosher ritual bath (mikvah), and acceptance of the commandments and tenets of the Jewish religion. A rabbinical court (Beth Din) must determine the proper fulfillment of each of these components.
While the process of conversion seems fairly straightforward, it has been subjected to considerable interpretation and controversy. Circumcision and ritual immersion are clear enough in their meaning. But what exactly constitutes "acceptance of the commandments"? Is this requirement satisfied by an affirmation that one has been informed of the commandments? Or by a general consent to be bound by the commandments? Or by a commitment to observe each and every commandment to the last detail? At what stage in the study of Judaism may a convert claim to "accept the commandments"? Can acceptance take place fairly early in the process, once the candidate has a general sense of the obligations of the commandments? Or can it only take place at a later point, when the candidate has studied more thoroughly? Or must it wait until a comprehensive knowledge of all the mitzvoth has been attained, a process that may take years?
Another area of controversy surrounds the definition of what constitutes a proper Beth Din. According to classic halakha, a person may serve on a Beth Din only if he himself is religiously observant. It is expected that one who officiates at a conversion should be well versed in Jewish law, especially including the laws relating to conversion.
The Orthodox Jewish community, with very rare exceptions, will recognize conversions only if conducted under the auspices of an Orthodox Beth Din. The rationale for this is clear: only an Orthodox Beth Din insists that its members be qualified according to halakha as codified in the classic halakhic works of the Jewish people. All the members of an Orthodox Beth Din are themselves religiously observant, accept the Divine nature of Torah, and recognize the authority of halakha and the classic codes of halakha. Since an Orthodox Beth Din functions according to the dictates of halakha, it has the authority to perform halakhically valid conversions.
To be sure, even within Orthodoxy there are variations of halakhic interpretation: not every Orthodox Beth Din functions with identical halakhic guidelines. Nevertheless, the overarching truth is that all the members of any Orthodox Beth Din are themselves believers in the Divine nature of Torah and in the binding authority of halakha-and they live their own lives in consonance with these principles.
In contrast, the Reform movement long ago abandoned the belief in the Divine nature of Torah and repudiated the binding authority of halakha. It has deviated sharply in belief and practice from the norms of halakhic Judaism. The Reform movement makes no claim that its conversions are conducted according to halakha; it holds that it need not to adhere to halakha in the first place. Even if Reform rabbis were to insist (and some do) that their converts undergo circumcision and ritual immersion in a mikvah, the rabbis themselves are not authorized to conduct halakhic conversions. Their beliefs and observances are not in accord with halakha, so ipso facto they cannot produce converts who are recognized by halakha.
Years ago, I participated in a public discussion of conversion among rabbis of different movements. I presented a range of halakhic opinions on the topic, in the hope of opening a reasonable conversation between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox on this touchy issue. The Reform rabbinic participant, though, quickly put an end to hopes for some sort of rapprochement between the Orthodox and the Reform. He stated: "l don't believe God gave the Torah: how can I ask my converts to believe this'? I don't accept the authority of halakha; how can I teach converts to accept it'? I don't observe the Sabbath or dietary laws or ritual purity laws in line with the halakha; how can I expect my converts to accept these observances? I only ask of the converts that they adopt a Jewish identity."
By self-definition, then, Reform conversions are not conducted within the guidelines of halakha, and thus understandably lack halakhic approval. The issue of the halakhic status of Conservative conversions is more complicated. The Conservative movement does claim to adhere to halakha, albeit to a halakha subject to revision based on the opinions of its own rabbinic authorities. Since the actual rulings and practices of the Conservative movement-including the permission to drive to synagogue on Shabbat, the seating of men and women together in mixed pews during synagogue services, and the ordination of women are in sharp contrast to halakha as understood by the Orthodox, conversions performed by Conservative rabbis are generally not recognized by the Orthodox. But since there is a broad spectrum within the Conservative movement, with some rabbis being very close to Orthodoxy in belief and observance, it is possible that some conversions under Conservative auspices might receive de facto acceptance from the Orthodox.
For many years, the State of Israel sanctioned only Orthodox conversions. The rabbinate in Israel is overwhelmingly made up of Orthodox rabbis, and the Chief Rabbinate has always been an Orthodox institution. Yet, with the increasing complaints of the non-Orthodox movements-especially those in the United States-the State of Israel has been under pressure to revise its definition of conversion to include conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. The non-Orthodox movements in Israel have strongly advocated recognition of their rabbis to perform all religious functions, including conversions.
The debate over conversion engenders considerable emotion because it involves the very definition of Jewishness and the authority to receive non-Jews into the Jewish fold. For the Orthodox, non-Orthodox conversions are simply not valid. Those undergoing a non-Orthodox conversion remain non-Jewish according to halakha. To call them Jews and allow them to marry Jews is a travesty that undermines the integrity of the Jewish people. For the non-Orthodox, the halakha (as interpreted by the Orthodox) is not the criterion for making a valid convert. As long as their rabbis approve of a convert, then that person is Jewish-regardless of the objections of the Orthodox.
While many prospective converts to Judaism apply to non-Orthodox rabbis, many others prefer to undergo conversion according to halakha as propounded by Orthodoxy. They understand that only an Orthodox conversion meets the classic halakhic requirements, and that only halakhically valid conversions can hope for universal acceptance within the Jewish community.
Excerpted from Choosing to Be Jewish by Marc D. Angel Copyright © 2005 by Marc D. Angel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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