Conversion to Judaism

A work in progress

For over 2,000 years Jews have been unified by identify: One is a Jew if their mother is a Jew, or if they convert to Judaism. Basic conversion requirements are that a bet din (court of 3) witness that a convert has been instructed in the basics of Jewish faith and practice, and then:

  • Immersion (t’vilah) in a mikveh (ritual bath)
  • For men, circumcision (Brit milah, or a Brit-dam)
  • Understanding and acceptance of the Jewish faith.

The beth din then issues a Shtar Giur (“Certificate of Conversion”), certifying that the person is now part of the Jewish people. Also see The mikveh as a way to solve conversion problems

“It is thus the Halakhah dealing with ‘personal status’ which guarantees the underlying unity of the ‘holy community’…They must be prepared to conform to law at least in this respect. For, only if the ‘holy community’ remains undivided on the basic level of its existence…there can be an unqualified acceptance of one another as fellow Jews.”

Judaism “Plural Models within the Halakha”, Volume 19, No.1 (Winter, 1970) p.85-86. Reform Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski

An Interview with Rabbi Chuck Davidson by Yoel Schaper

Can conversion be revoked? Mi Yodeaa StackExchange

Conversions to Judaism not centralized

Rabbi Chuck Davidson writes

The 13 Principles of Conversion

Following are 13 principles regarding the Halakhic requirements of conversion. As in most areas of Halakha there are disagreements in the normative rabbinic community about these requirements. That said, the following points represent, in my opinion following more than 10 years of research, a solidly-based mainstream Halakhic approach.
1) Halakhic conversion requires kabbalat mitzvot, generally translated as “acceptance of the commandments”, on the part of the proselyte.
2) There is disagreement among the poskim (leading scholars of Halakha) regarding the Halakhic definition of kabbalat mitzvot.
3) A mainstream position among many poskim is that kabbalat mitzvot means nothing more than non-coercive conversion, that is consensual conversion; in other words the proselyte is converting of his or her own free will (see here, here, and here).
4) Le-khatchila (ab initio), the consent of the proselyte to convert should be informed consent. That is, the proselyte should know that Judaism includes mitzvot (commandments) that bind all Jews, whether by birth or via conversion, as well as reward for those who observe the commandments and punishment for those who transgress them (however we might theologically understand this reward and punishment). But, according to this opinion, kabbalat mitzvot does not mean that the convert is committing to observe the commandments in practice (see here, here, here, and here.)
5) Some poskim claim that the above position is a minority position (I humbly disagree), but do admit that this position was widely practiced in the past (see here).
6) Many poskim who reject the above position le-khatchila, do accept it be-diavad (post facto). That is, if the proselyte was converted despite a lack of intent to observe the mitzvot in practice, the conversion is nevertheless Halakhically valid be-diavad (see here). Of particular interest is the position of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (one of the greatest poskim of the 20th century) regarding a proselyte who did not intend to observe even as central a mitzvah as Shabbat (see here).
7) A proselyte who ceases to observe the commandments, no matter how immediate or extreme (including going back to his/her previous religion), remains Jewish according to Halakha (see here, here, and here).
8) The Talmud states that a proselyte who is prepared to accept the entirety of Halakha with one exception is not to be accepted. That said, the Shulkhan Aruch (primary code of Jewish law) does not rule according to this statement. Moreover, the Talmud’s statement applies only if the proselyte converts on condition that s/he will not be obligated by Jewish law to observe this one Halakhic point s/he does not accept (see here). Further, the statement of the Talmud prohibits the conversion court from accepting such a proselyte only le-khatchila. But if the court performed the conversion, it is Halakhically valid be-diavad (see here and here).
9) If three laymen (i.e., non-rabbis) perform a conversion, it is Halakhically valid at least be-diavad (see here, here, and here).
10) In converting a proselyte who will likely not be observant and who will transgress the commandments, the conversion court is not guilty of lifnei iver (placing a stumbling block in front of the blind, i.e., aiding and abetting) if it is performing the conversion in order to prevent intermarriage (see here).
11) If a proselyte converts for the purpose of marrying a Jew, the conversion is Halakhically valid at least be-diavad (see here and here).
12) Conversion is the first step a gentile takes in his/her Jewish journey. The Talmud, Rambam, and Shulkhan Arukh describe a conversion process which is almost immediate, with no study or preparation beforehand. Standard practice in the 1950’s was a one-month course in the basics of Judaism (see here). At least one leading posek (scholar of Halakha) rules that it is entirely prohibited to teach a proselyte Torah before the conversion (see here).
13) There are those who contend that the implementation of traditional Halakhic conversion must change from what was practiced in the past. They reason that prior to the phenomenon of secularization when most Jews observed the Halakha, it was presumed that a proselyte would be observant. But nowadays, since most Jews are not Halakhically observant, we must be careful to convert only those who we firmly believe will be observant.
It is, however, incorrect that before the phenomenon of secularization it could be presumed that a proselyte would be observant (see here, here, here, and here). To the contrary, in an era marked by widespread secularization (such as the contemporary era), there is yet more room to convert proselytes who will likely not be observant (see here).
The Halakhic parameters of conversion are, of course, much more complex than can be covered in a Facebook post. For further Halakhic sources on the relevant issues, see here.
I can be reached at cpdtorah@gmail.com

 

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