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Conversion to Judaism (Hebrew גיור, giur, "conversion") is the religious conversion of a previously non-Jewish person to the Jewish religion. The procedure for conversion depends on the sponsoring denomination, and hinges on meeting the ritual and substantive requirements for such conversion. A convert to Judaism is referred to as a ger tzedek (Hebrew: "righteous proselyte" or "proselyte [of] righteousness") or simply ger ("stranger" or "proselyte"). Template:Jew
In Biblical Hebrew, the word ger denotes a proselyte (and גר הגר —"sojourning stranger"—is interpreted as ger tzedek by the Talmud) or a half-convert—a non-Jewish inhabitant of the Land of Israel who observes the seven Noahide Laws and has repudiated all links with idolatry. The word ger tzedek was used to denote a full convert. In post-Talmudic times, the word ger has become synonymous with ger tzedek, likewise its English counterpart (proselyte), has come to mean a convert to Judaism.
Motivations for conversion
In general terms, anyone who commits to living a religiously observant life is an acceptable candidate for conversion. For a variety of reasons, rabbis have traditionally discouraged people from converting to Judaism, and most will insist that the candidate for conversion demonstrate his/her commitment in word and deed before the conversion is undertaken.
A number of reasons for converting exist: some have theological convictions consistent with Judaism; others are attracted to elements of Jewish religious life; some wish to belong to a particular Jewish community. A significant portion wish to convert because they want to marry someone who is Jewish. This latter reason (see secondary conversion) is in itself considered to be insufficient by most rabbis.
- Circumcision (Brit milah or a Brit-dam) for men
- Immersion (t'vilah) in a mikveh (ritual bath)
- Understanding and acceptance of the obligations of being a religiously observant Jew.
After confirming that all these criteria have been met, the beth din issues a Shtar Giur ("Certificate of Conversion"), certifying that the former gentile is now a Jew.
Someone who was converted to Judaism as a child has an option of rejecting this after reaching the age of majority. The only thing he or she needs to do is publicly violate a Jewish commandment, or conversely publicly state, or demonstrate his commitment to remaining a Jew. See the book the Bamboo Cradle for a true example of this.
Variations and controversy
The requirements for conversion to Judaism are intended to avoid any uncertainty about a convert's true status. The certification by a beth din was based on events the completeness of which were carefully defined.
Both the Conservative and Orthodox movements require that all halakhic requirements be met, but they differ on what constitutes a competent beth din. Orthodox rabbis generally do not accept the authority of non-Orthodox rabbis. And because Orthodox rabbis are reluctant to accept the credentials of non-Orthodox rabbis, there is a presumption that a person who converts under the guidance of a non-Orthodox rabbi will have an incomplete or erroneous understanding of the law he or she is taking upon him or herself.
Therefore, Orthodox rabbis generally do not accept conversions under Conservative (or Reform, or Reconstructionist) auspices. In suburban areas where there is not a very high Jewish population, cooperation between Modern Orthodox and Conservative rabbis is somewhat more common. Many Conservative rabbis report cooperation in joint conversions with both Orthodox and Conservative rabbis.
Since the Orthodox movement is not unified, Orthodox rabbis often will not automatically accept each other's authority. This has led to a general reluctance in the Orthodox communities to prepare and perform conversions.
This issue recently released a crisis point when the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate of Israel changed its requirements for conversion without informing American Orthodox rabbis, and began systematically rejecting most Orthodox Jewish conversions done outside of Israel. Also, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel now rejects all American Orthodox Jewish conversions done by any Orthodox rabbi except those on a short list of rabbis, numbering less than 50, and this list includes deceased rabbis.
- Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, an organization in Israel that helps potential converts navigate the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate, said that body “is marginalizing the American Modern Orthodox rabbinate. “By not recognizing the legitimacy of conversions approved by the Beth Din of America, they’re intimating that the Beth Din of America has no legitimacy whatsoever,” Rabbi Farber continued. “It’s a slap in the face to American converts and American Orthodox rabbis.”
- (Chief Rabbinate Barring Conversions From Top U.S. Orthodox Rabbis, The Jewish Week)
One of the major groups behind this change is “The Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur”. They believe that Orthodox Judaism has not had a unified standard of conversion, and that many Modern Orthodox and Haredi Orthodox conversions done in the last century are suspect, and not in accord with halakha. They have strongly criticized as being too lax the Chief Rabbinate of Israel; the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, and many others. Most of their complaints are directed against Modern Orthodox Jews; they attack them as "so-called Orthodox". Orthodox rabbis who attempt to cooperate with non-Orthodox Jews are labeled as "orthodox", in quotes with a lower case "o", while Haredi rabbis are called Orthodox rabbis, with no quotes and no lower case letters. (About Cooperation with Conservative, Reform -- and So-called Orthodox)
In contrast, the Modern Orthodox community in Canada has been increasing opportunities for people to convert to Judaism. All Orthodox conversions to Judaism have until now been supervised by the Jewish Community Council of Montreal, the Vaad Hair. However, with the cooperation of the Vaad and Rabbinical Council of America potential converts now have a second way to convert
- potential converts have had the option since earlier this year of using another geirut (conversion) committee made up of four congregational member rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of Canada, Quebec region (RCC). The 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
- ...at a religious level, the “standards and expectations” regarding conversion procedure are the same as the Vaad’s. The differences lie in curriculum and delivery of the program....All conversion candidates – who could include singles, non-Jewish couples and adoption cases – must have a sponsoring rabbi and undergo a rigorous screening process.
- (New modern Orthodox conversion program launched, Canadian Jewish News)
Attempts to solve the "Who is a Jew?" issue
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 speaheaded 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 bet din that would convert the candidate following traditional halakha. All negotiating parties came to agreement:
- (1) Conversions must be carried out according to halakha
- (2) the bet din (rabbinic court) overseeing the conversion would be Orthodox, perhaps appointed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and
- (3) there would be three-way dialogue throughout the process.
Many Reform rabbis took offense at the notion that the bet 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." (Landau, p.320)
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. (Landau, p.320)
In 1997 the issue of "Who is a Jew?" again arose in the State of Israel, and Orthodox leaders such as Lamm publicly backed the Neeman commission, a group of Orthodox, Masorti (Conservative) and Progressive (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.
- (Source: Cohen, 1997)
The plan has been effectively rendered non-existent due to denunciations from haredi rabbis, causing some other Orthodox rabbis to back out, and causing the Israeli Chief rabbinate to not support this program.
Reform Jewish views
In America, Reform Judaism rejects the concept that any rules or rituals should be considered necessary for conversion to Judaism. In the late 1800s, 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 whatever." (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. As such, all Reform conversions are rejected as not being conversions by Orthodox Judaism.
Progressive and Reform Judaism in Israel and a few other countries reject this approach; many Reform rabbis in these countries hold that it is absolutely necessary for a man to have a brit milah or brit dam, that both men and women require immersion in a mikveh, and that the conversion must only be allowed at the end of a formal course of study, before a Bet Din. This is a common view of many Reform rabbis in Canada, as well as a small but growing number of Reform rabbis in the USA.
In response to the tremendous variations that exist within the Reform community, the Conservative Jewish movement has attempted to set a nuanced approach. Their Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has issued a responsum (legal opinion) stating that Reform conversions may be accepted as valid when they include the minimal halachic requirements of milah and t'vilah, appearance before a Bet Din, and a course of study. (Proceedings of Committee on Jewish Law and Standards: 1980-1985, p.77-101.)
Consequences of conversion
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 deceptive during the conversion process. In such cases—which are exceedingly rare—a beth din may determine that the conversion was void.
A public and clear violation of Jewish law immediately following the formal conversion may give grounds for considering such an annulment if it can be demonstrated that such a violation proved that the conversion was fraudulent to begin with. A few isolated cases of annulments have been vigorously debated within the Jewish community, with several rabbinical authorities holding the practice to be in violation of halakha.
Place in religious life
Halakha forbids reminding a convert that he/she was once not a Jew and hence little distinction is made in Judaism between "Jews by birth" and "Jews by choice".
According to Orthodox interpretations of halakha, converts face a limited number of restrictions, e.g. female converts cannot marry Kohanim (members of the priestly caste). These restrictions apply only to the converts themselves; children of a female convert born after conversion are not affected by them in any way. Converts can become rabbis (and some have).
A convert chooses his or her own Hebrew first name upon conversion but is always 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 "imanu" (our mother). Hence, a convert named Akiva would be known as "Akiva ben Avraham Avinu" for ritual purposes in an Orthodox synagogue and "Akiva ben Avraham Avinu v'Sarah Imanu" in egalitarian non-Orthodox congregations.
(It should be noted that for purposes of a prayer for recovery from an illness, the mother's name is traditionally used, so in an Orthodox congregation one would hear "Akiva ben Sarah Imanu").
"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."
For purely rhetorical purposes, some polemicists elicit that every Jew is a Jew by choice, because the worldwide Jewish community is so small and the pull of assimilation is so great. So it is very easy for someone who was born Jewish to abandon Jewish traditions and customs in adulthood, absent a conscious choice to stay Jewish. This perspective is not part of Jewish law or social custom.
For purely philosophical purposes, a convert is not considered by many to be a "Jew by Choice" at all. In fact, many traditional Jews take offense not only at the word "convert" but also at this more politically-correct term. The reasoning for this is the notion that everyone has a Jewish soul, and that those who were not born Jewish, and elect to go through the conversion process, have returned to the nature of their soul through true teshuva. Therefore, this person is not to be known as a convert, or any derivation of the term.
- Norman Lamm, Seventy Faces: Divided we stand, but its time to try an idea that might help us stand taller, Moment Vol. II, No. 6, June 1986 - Sivan 5746
- Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Orthodox leader speaks out on Jewish unity, breaking long silence, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, December 5, 1997
- David Landau Piety & Power, 1993, Hill & Wang, NY
- Chief Rabbinate Barring Conversions From Top U.S. Orthodox Rabbis. Move stuns RCA rabbis. Michele Chabin, The Jewish Week 5/5/2006
- Conversion to Judaism homepage— beginner's information on conversion within all branches of Judaism in North America.
- Conversion to Judaism on the Itim site (practical information on Orthodox conversion through the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and its recognized conversions in the diaspora).
- About converting to Judaism (Chabad).
- Choosing Judaism
- Intermarriage and Conversion Reading List Introduction
- Practical Tips on how to convert Orthodox reasonably quickly
- Frequently asked questions: