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Archive for September, 2007

Here’s the column I posted for a day once before, then realized it hadn’t actually been published and took down. Now it has been published, so I’m putting it back up. I am doing a three-part feature for our local Jewish newspaper on conversion. This first piece is a basic overview. The second one was a lot more fun, looking at why people convert. I got to ask people all kinds of personal questions. But as that one hasn’t been published yet, I have to wait to post it.

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Conversion to Judaism is as old as the religion itself, but beyond the Biblical period, it has only recently had any impact on Jewish life. That being said, in the past few decades, the impact of conversion has been significant. Opinions on it range from viewing conversion as a realistic way to help save the Jewish people from extinction to the belief that it is actually one of the primary threats to the continued survival of the religion. As with most contentious issues, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

In biblical times, conversion was common and easy. All it required was joining a Jewish household (through marriage or as a servant) or merely deciding to be Jewish. Nothing special had to be done. The convert simply had to start behaving as a Jew and following Jewish law.

Talmudic times saw the establishment of a conversion process and ceremony. Author Lawrence J. Epstein writes in his book Conversion to Judaism that most comments in the Talmud on conversion are positive, none more so than one made by Rabbi Johanan, who said that God exiled Jews from Israel for the express purpose of increasing the number of converts. While this seems to be absurdly extreme, Epstein points out the converts must have been viewed as very valuable, to have someone use their increase as a justification for Jewish exile.

However, with the rise of Christianity and anti-Semitism (from Christians and Muslims), the Jewish view of conversion became less positive. Proselytizing and forced conversions were fundamentally un-Jewish and cast a negative light on conversion in general.

Further, with the rise of anti-Semitism, conversion to Judaism became increasingly dangerous, both to converts and the community accepting them. Those expressing a desire to convert were understandably viewed by rabbis with great suspicion.

Given that anyone converting to Judaism would have to give up their family completely and live in relative isolation with a persecuted community, and risking death to do so, it isn’t surprising that Jewish conversions were few and far between in this period.

This essentially remained the status quo until after the second World War, when Jews began to really integrate into mainstream society. With integration, we see the beginnings of the significant tread of conversion to marry someone Jewish, but also greater conversions of gentiles who were otherwise unconnected to the religion.

That’s when things got complicated.

The problem stems from the question: who is a Jew? The process of conversion itself isn’t really that difficult. The prospective converts must go in front of a beit din – a court made up of three judges. If male, he must be circumcised (and if he is already circumcised, a ritual drop of blood must be drawn). Converts must be informed of the mitzvot, and accept and agree to abide by Jewish law. Finally, they must be immersed in the mikvah.

Those are the basics. Of course, most hopeful converts are put through a course of study that varies depending on who is converting them, and must demonstrate to the beit din a satisfactory understanding and knowledge of Jewish life, holidays and traditions.

The difficulty arises between the differing branches of Judaism and how they interpret these fundamental requirements.

For the Orthodox, Jewish law and practice have remained unchanged and cannot be changed. These are the words of God and it is not the job of humans to second-guess them. Therefore, someone wishing to convert must accept the laws and do their best to follow all of them.

The other large Jewish streams – Reform, Conservatives and Reconstruction – are more liberal to differing degrees, as they all consider Jewish law (halacha) to be more flexible that the Orthodox do. From the Orthodox point-of-view, anyone converting in these movements has not been instructed properly and has not truly accepted God’s law. The conversion isn’t valid.

Of course, to further complicate the issue, the different streams of within Orthodoxy don’t necessarily agree with each other’s interpretation of halacha and won’t always accept each other’s conversions. The most extreme case of this involves the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which currently accepts no conversion done in North America as legitimate, including those performed by Orthodox rabbis. (In contrast, the Israeli government grants all Jews by choice the right of return.)

So, who is a Jew? That entirely depends on who you ask.

The truth is, it wouldn’t really matter so much if it weren’t for the problem – many call it a crisis – of a dwindling number of Jews, primarily through intermarriage. The latest statistics show that when a Jew marries a non-Jew, only about 30 percent of their children consider themselves Jewish.

While everyone’s preferred response to this would be to have Jews simply chose to marry other Jews, that is not a realistic solution in today’s world. The liberal response is outreach. By welcoming the non-Jewish partner into synagogue life, they hope to encourage the non-Jewish partner towards conversion, or at least that any children will be raised in a more actively Jewish home.

For the Orthodox, of course, this is an invalid response, and there are some Orthodox rabbis who won’t even convert someone for the sake of marriage, as it casts doubt upon the potential convert’s sincerity.

Marriage is still the primary reason for conversion, but as we will explore in next month’s issue, there are many other motivations for choosing to becoming Jewish. And readers might be surprised to discover that even when people convert for marriage, many believe that Judaism was always their destiny and meeting the Jewish partner just made their path a little smoother.

In November’s Bulletin, we will take a look at the community response to conversion. The Torah instructs us to “love the stranger (‘ger’ – also the word for convert), for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:18-19) But there are still those who have not quite shaken off the legacy of hundreds of years of suspicions about a gentile’s desire to join the Jewish people. How welcoming is our community towards those who chose to be Jewish?

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