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.
The basic requirements for gerut (conversion to Judaism) are that a beit 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 beit din then issues a Shtar Giur (“Certificate of Conversion”), certifying that the person is now part of the Jewish people.
Who sits on a Beit Din? Who is a rabbi?
In theory, the Beit din doesn’t need to be all rabbis; in halakhah (traditional Jewish law) there is the option for three observant and knowledgable Jewish men to sit on the Beit Din. This was generally done in an environment where a person was joining an observant Jewish community. In today’s world, post Enlightenment, most people converting are not joining a a community where most Jews are observant. The social shifts since the Enlightenment have been tremendous. As such, all mainstream Jewish denominations have conversions overseen by rabbis, to avoid any doubt.
Who is a rabbi? There are several types of rabbinical ordination within Judaism, but one of the most common themes is that a rabbi is trained in good faith by other rabbis, and has an extensive background in Torah, Talmud, halakhah (Jewish law), tefila (prayer), and Jewish theology. However, one can’t trust just any individual they meet through the internet. One should make sure that they have real rabbinical ordination, and is widely recognized within their own denomination as legitimate. See the article on fake rabbis.
Should a conversion follow halakhah?
All of rabbinic Judaism followed halakhah as a way of maintaining community. Halakhah is normative – what one actually ought to do – as opposed to a suggestion – in all of Conservative/Masorti Judaism and Orthodox Judaism (even if occasionally interpreted differently.) However since the development of Classic German Reform Judaism, some have held that conversions may be done in any way, even not following halakhah. As such, from the late 1800’s until the 1970’s, a huge number of conversions overseen by Reform rabbis didn’t even attempt to be halakhic. Thus those can not be accepted by the rest of the Jewish community. Note that many Reform/Progressive rabbis in Israel and the UK rejected the anti-halakhic attitude of Classic German Reform.
Since the 1970’s there has been a subtle but important shift in Reform Judaism, holding that for such matters halakhah was helpful in creating unity. As such, some Reform rabbis today do run conversions which, in their view, fulfill halakhic requirements, and when those criteria are met, they are accepted as valid by Conservative/Masorti rabbis. For details see Proceedings of The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards: 1980–1985, pp. 77–101.
Here is a common, but by no means official, American Reform perspective.
“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
Attempts towards Jewish unity
On several occasions rabbis in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism worked to heal rifts in the Jewish community. If more people know about these hopeful enterprises, it may inspire our own generation to restore Jewish unity.
Does a matrilineal Jewish person, who was raised as a non-Jew, need to convert?
There are a tremendous number of people who are halakhically Jewish because their mother, or maternal grandmother, was halakhically Jewish, yet they were raised in another faith (usually Christian.)
Historically, most people in this category never found out that they were Jewish, Still, in each generation some people do find out, and they want to observe Judaism as their religion. In cases like these, do they need to convert to Judaism? The specific answer generally depends on the specific situation. Here is one paper on the topic from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS.)
CJLS Responsa: The return of second generation apostates
(more resources to be added)
May a conversion obtained through deceit be annulled?
This topic is discussed in May A Conversion Obtained Through Deceit Be Annulled, Rabbi Steven Saltzman, CJLS of the Rabbinical Assembly, 1989
An answer to these questions must take into consideration the notion of intentionality within the conversion process. Can the prospective convert’s intentions nullify a conversion when those intentions are flawed or fraudulent? Let us, however, begin our inquiry by trying to ascertain, if possible, the precise point in the conversion process when a Gentile becomes a Jew. Once we have determined the ritual(s) or act(s) which transforms the Gentile into a Jew, then we can investigate the importance of intentionality in that specific ritual or act. [The paper then goes into a deep analysis] …. [After the analysis, the conclusion is ]… Should it be clear to the Bet Din of review from what they said and did prior to the mikveh ceremony that their petition for conversion was a lie, and that the rabbi involved in this case was diligent in his investigation of the proselytes’ intentions and his instruction in Jewish practice and thought was thorough, but he was no match for this very sophisticated scam, then there was no conversion, because there is no valid mikveh ceremony without proper intentionality. In such a case the triggers to mikveh were flawed.
Rabbi Chuck Davidson 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 firstname.lastname@example.org