Converting to Judaism

Converting to Judaism is not easy.
It involves at least 1-3 years of study & preparation, and many lifestyle changes.

Becoming a Jew is not just a religious change: the convert not only accepts the Jewish faith, but becomes a member of the Jewish People and embraces Jewish culture and history.

Conversion and Jewish law
Conversion to Judaism is a process governed by Jewish religious law. Conversions are overseen by a religious court, which must be convinced that the convert:

  • is sincere
  • is converting for the right reasons
  • is converting of their own free will
  • has a thorough knowledge of Jewish faith and practices
  • will live an observant Jewish life

There are also two ritual requirements:

  • a male convert must undergo circumcision – if they are already circumcised, a single drop of blood is drawn as a symbolic circumcision
  • the convert must undergo immersion in a Jewish ritual bath, a mikveh, with appropriate prayers

Judaism and conversion
Judaism is not a missionary faith and so doesn’t actively try to convert people (in many countries anti-Jewish laws prohibited this for centuries).

A person who converts to Judaism becomes a Jew in every sense of the word, and is just as Jewish as someone born into Judaism. There is a good precedent for this; Ruth, the great-great grandmother of King David, was a convert.

Note: Not all Jewish conversions are accepted by all Jews.
The more Orthodox a community is the less likely it is to accept a conversion done in a more liberal movement.

Orthodox Jews usually don’t accept the validity of conversions done by non-Orthodox institutions – because many Orthodox Jewish communities do not accept that non-Orthodox rabbis have valid rabbinical status.

Why convert?
The most common reasons put forward are:

  • because the person believes the faith and culture of the Jewish people is right for them
  • in order to marry someone Jewish
  • in order to bring up children with a Jewish identity

But only the first of these should be accepted as the true reason for conversion – the convert must have an overpowering wish to join the Jewish people and share in their destiny, and be committed to loving God and following his wishes as expressed in the Torah.

There is no other reason that can enable a person to truly enter the covenant between God and the Jewish people, and do it freely, without reservation, forever, and to the exclusion of all other faiths.

How to convert
Different forms of Judaism have different conversion mechanisms, but this outline of what is involved covers the basics for all:

  • discuss possible conversion with a rabbi
  • study Jewish beliefs, history, rituals and practices
  • learn some Hebrew
  • get involved with Jewish community life
  • believe in G-d and the divinity of the Torah
  • agree to observe all 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah
  • agree to live a fully Jewish life
  • circumcision (men only)
  • immersion in a mikveh or ritual bath
  • appear before a Bet Din (a religious court) and obtain their approval

Talking to the rabbi
Conversion to Judaism is not something to be done lightly. The rabbi will want to make sure that the person really wants to convert, and that they know what they’re doing.

Some rabbis used to test would-be converts by turning them away three times, in order to see how sincere and determined they are. This is unusual nowadays.

If a person doesn’t know any rabbis to discuss conversion with, they probably haven’t got close enough to Judaism and Jewish life to be thinking of converting. They should start by talking to Jewish people, and attending some synagogue services.

The rabbi asks the would-be convert a lot of questions – not just as a test of their sincerity, but in order to help the convert form a clear understanding of what they want to do:

  • Why do you want to convert?
  • What do you know about Judaism?
  • Are you converting of your own free will?
  • Have you discussed conversion with your family?
  • Will you accept Judaism as your only religious faith and practice?
  • Will you enter into the covenant between God and the Jewish people?
  • Will you bring up your children as Jews?
  • Are you willing to study in order to convert?
  • Will you live as a member of the Jewish people?

Studying
Would-be converts study Jewish beliefs, rituals, history, culture (including some Hebrew) and customs.

They do this through courses, or by individual study with a rabbi. At the same time they will start going to services, joining in home practices (with members of their local community) and taking part in synagogue life.

More information about Orthodox Conversion:
http://www.theus.org.uk/article/conversion-2

More information about Reform Conversion:
http://www.wls.org.uk/conversion-2/
http://www.reformjudaism.org/practice/lifecycle-and-rituals/conversion

This article was originally published on the BBC website