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Conversion to Judaism

2019-08-27 18:22:03

In 2008, a Haredi-dominated Badatz in Israel annulled thousands of conversions performed by the Military Rabbinate in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is the only state-recognized authority on religious matters, backed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, ruled against this, making the anullment legally invalid for purposes of Israeli law.[34]

Canadian Orthodox program

There are two orthodox conversion programmes in Montreal. One is made up of a Bet Din (Jewish Court) of congregational member rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of America, Montreal region (RCA). This 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. The second program is supervised by the Jewish Community Council of Montreal, the Vaad Hair.

All conversion candidates—who could include singles, non-Jewish couples and adoption cases—must have a sponsoring rabbi and undergo a rigorous screening process. Conversions stemming from both programs are recognized in Israel and around the world.

Karaite views

As of 2006, the Moetzet Hakhamim (Council of Sages) began to accept converts to Karaite Judaism through the Karaite Jewish University. The process requires one year of learning, circumcision (for males), and the taking of the vow that Ruth took.

כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ, וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין—עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי, וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי. בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּמוּתִי אָמוּת, וְשָׁם אֶקָּבֵר; כֹּה יַעֲשֶׂה יְהוָה לִי, וְכֹה יוֹסִיף—כִּי הַמָּוֶת, יַפְרִיד בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵךְ.

"For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me." Ruth 1:16-17

Attempts to resolve the "Who is a Jew?" issue

1950s: proposed joint beth din

In the 1950s Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and other members of the Rabbinical Council of America engaged in a series of private negotiations with the leaders of Conservative Judaism's Rabbinical Assembly, including Saul Lieberman; their goal was to create a joint Orthodox-Conservative national beth din for all Jews in the United States. It would create communal standards of marriage and divorce. It was to be modeled after the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, where all the judges would have been Orthodox, while it would have been accepted by the larger Conservative movement as legitimate. Conservative rabbis in the Rabbinical Assembly created a Joint Conference on Jewish Law, devoting a year to this effort.[citation needed]

For a number of reasons, the project did not succeed. According to Orthodox Rabbi Louis Bernstein, the major reason for its failure was the Orthodox rabbis' insistence that the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly agree to expel Conservative rabbis for actions they took prior to the formation of the new beth din, and the RA refused to do so.[35] According to Orthodox Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former president of the RCA, the major reason for its failure was pressure from haredi Orthodox rabbis, who held that any cooperation between Orthodoxy and Conservatism was forbidden. In 1956, Rabbi Harry Halpern, of the Joint Conference wrote a report on the demise of this beth din. He writes that negotiations between the Orthodox and Conservative denominations were completed and agreed upon, but then a new requirement was demanded by the RCA: The RA must "impose severe sanctions" upon Conservative rabbis for actions they took before this new beth din was formed. Halpern writes that the RA "could not assent to rigorously disciplining our members at the behest of an outside group". He goes on to write that although subsequent efforts were made to cooperate with the Orthodox, a letter from eleven Rosh Yeshivas was circulated declaring that Orthodox rabbis are forbidden to cooperate with Conservative rabbis.[36]

1978–1983: Denver program, patrilineal descent

In Denver, Colorado, a joint Orthodox, Traditional, Conservative and Reform Bet Din was formed to promote uniform standards for conversion to Judaism. A number of rabbis were Orthodox and had semicha from Orthodox yeshivas, but were serving in synagogues without a mechitza; these synagogues were called traditional Judaism. Over a five-year period they performed some 750 conversions to Judaism. However, in 1983 the joint Beth Din was dissolved, due to the unilateral American Reform Jewish decision to change the definition of Jewishness.[37]

The move was precipitated by the resolution on patrilineality adopted that year by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. This decision to redefine Jewish identity, as well as the designation of Denver as a pilot community for a new Reform out reach effort to recruit converts, convinced the Traditional and Conservative rabbis that they could no longer participate in the joint board...the national decision of the Reform rabbinate placed the Traditional and Conservative rabbis in an untenable position. They could not cooperate in a conversion program with rabbis who held so different a conception of Jewish identity. And furthermore, they could not supervise conversions that would occur with increasing frequency due to a Reform outreach effort that was inconsistent with their own understanding of how to relate to potential proselytes.

— Wertheimer, A People Divided, [37]

Specifically, in 1983, the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution waiving the need for formal conversion for anyone with at least one Jewish parent who has made affirmative acts of Jewish identity. This departed from the traditional position requiring formal conversion to Judaism for children without a Jewish mother.[38] The 1983 resolution of the American Reform movement has had a mixed reception in Reform Jewish communities outside of the United States. Most notably, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism has rejected patrilineal descent and requires formal conversion for anyone without a Jewish mother.[39] However, in 2015 the majority of Britain's Assembly of Reform Rabbis voted in favor of a position paper proposing "that individuals who live a Jewish life, and who are patrilineally Jewish, can be welcomed into the Jewish community and confirmed as Jewish through an individual process".[40] Britain's Assembly of Reform Rabbis stated that rabbis "would be able to take local decisions – ratified by the Beit Din – confirming Jewish status".[40]

The end of the joint Beth Din program was welcomed by Haredi Orthodox groups, who saw the program as illegitimate. Further, Haredi groups attempted to prevent non-Orthodox rabbis from following the traditional requirements of converts using a mikveh. In the Haredi view, it is better to have no conversion at all than a non-Orthodox conversion, as all non-Orthodox conversions are not true conversions at all according to them.[41]

1980s: proposed Israeli joint beth din

In the 1980s Modern 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 spearheaded an effort to find a way to resolve the impasse.[citation needed]

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 beth din that would convert the candidate following traditional halakha. All negotiating parties came to agreement:[citation needed]

  1. Conversions must be carried out according to halakha
  2. the beth 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 beth 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".[42]

Rabbi 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.[42]

1997: Neeman Commission proposal

In 1997 the issue of "Who is a Jew?" again arose in the State of Israel, and Orthodox leaders such as Rabbi Norman Lamm publicly backed the Neeman commission, a group of Orthodox, Conservative and 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.[43]

The committee recommended the establishment of a joint institute for Jewish studies, which would be a joint effort by all three streams of Judaism. The Committee also recommended that conversion proceedings themselves be held in special conversion courts, to be recognized by all denominations in Judaism. The purpose of the proposal was to prevent a rift in the Jewish people, while at the same time bringing about a state-sponsored arrangement for conversion. On September 7, 1998, the government adopted the Ne'eman Commission Report.

A year later, the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies was established, and since then it has been the official state operator of conversion courses in Israel, including the military conversion courses. In 2015 the institute's name was changed to Nativ – The National Center for Jewish Studies, Identity and Conversion.

Conversion annulments

A recent development has been the concept of annulling conversions to Judaism, sometimes many years after they have taken place, due to a reduction in religious observance or change of community by the convert. This is unknown in rabbinic literature, where conversion is considered irreversible. Chuck Davidson, a Modern Orthodox expert on this conversion crisis explains "From the Middle Ages onwards, the greatest of the rabbis wrote explicitly that even if immediately after the conversion the convert goes off to worship idols, the person is still considered Jewish".[44] The justification given for the change in approach is that the original conversion must never have been valid in the first place as it is clear from the convert's subsequent actions they were insincere at the time of conversion.

A situation of confusion and instability in Jewish identity in Israel was made worse when Haredi Rabbi Avraham Sherman of Israel's supreme religious court called into question the validity of over 40,000 Jewish conversions when he upheld a ruling by the Ashdod Rabbinical Court to retroactively annul the conversion of a woman who came before them because in their eyes she failed to observe Jewish law (an orthodox lifestyle).[45][46]

This crisis deepened, when Israel's Rabbinate called into question the validity of soldiers who had undergone conversion in the army, meaning a soldier killed in action could not be buried according to Jewish law.[47] In 2010, the rabbinate created a further distrust in the conversion process when it began refusing to recognize orthodox converts from the United States as Jewish.[48] Indeed, the great-niece of the renowned Zionist Nahum Sokolow was recently deemed "not Jewish enough" to marry in Israel, after she failed to prove the purity of Jewish blood for four generations.[49]

Following a scandal in which U.S. Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested on charges of installing hidden cameras in a mikveh to film women converts undressing, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate said it would review the validity of all past conversions performed by Freundel, then quickly reversed its decision, clarifying that it was joining the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America in affirming the validity of the conversions.[50]

In December 2014 an Israeli court decided that a conversion could be annulled. In his decision Justice Neal Hendel wrote: "Just as the civil court has the inalienable authority to reverse — in extremely rare cases — a final judgment, so too does the special religious conversion court. For otherwise, we would allow for judgments that are flawed from their inception to exist eternally."[44]


Once undergone, a valid religious conversion to Judaism cannot be overturned. However, a Beth Din may determine that the conversion is void as it was never undertaken correctly in the first place. For example, if the rite of mikveh was performed incorrectly.[51] In recent years many Orthodox conversions have been overturned. In 2008 Israel's highest religious court invalidated the conversion of 40,000 Jews, mostly from Russian immigrant families, even though they had been approved by an Orthodox rabbi.[52] Debate on what constitutes a valid Beth Din for conversion and for annulling conversions has caused divisions in the Orthodox world. It is an implicit judgment on the character and uprightness of the rabbis in that religious court. For example, when Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested on charges of voyeurism for filming women converts at the mikveh he supervised, Israel's Chief Rabbinate initially threatened to review and possibly invalidate the conversions Freundel had been involved in approving. A crisis between American and Israeli rabbis was averted when the Chief Rabbinate agreed that all conversions completed by Freundel would be considered valid.[53]

Relations between Jews and proselytes

Judaism is not currently an openly proselytizing religion. Judaism teaches that the righteous of all nations have a place in the afterlife.[54] Much like in the other Abrahamic faiths, Jewish law requires the sincerity of a potential convert, but takes it to a much more serious and formal level. In view of the foregoing considerations, most authorities are very careful about it. Essentially, they want to be sure that the convert knows what they are getting into, and that they are doing it for sincerely religious reasons. However, while conversion for the sake of love for Judaism is considered the best motivation, a conversion for the sake of avoiding intermarriage is gaining acceptance also.[55]

There is a tradition that a prospective convert should be turned away three times as a test of sincerity, though most rabbis no longer follow the tradition.[56] Neither the Rabbinical Council of America nor the Rabbinical Assembly, the leading American Orthodox and Conservative organizations suggest taking this action in their conversion policies,[57][58] with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) actively opposing its practice.[59][60]

Halakhic considerations

Halakha forbids the mistreatment of a convert,[61] including reminding a convert that he or she was once not a Jew.[citation needed] Hence, little to no distinction is made in Judaism between those who are born Jewish and those who are Jewish as a result of conversion. However, despite Halakha protecting the rights of converts, some Jewish communities have been accused of treating converts as second-class Jews. For example, many communities of Syrian Jews have banned conversion and refuse to recognise any Jewish conversion, including those done under Orthodox auspices (possibly influenced by sects in Syria like the Druze which do not accept converts).[62]

According to Orthodox interpretations of Halakha, converts face a limited number of restrictions. A marriage between a female convert and a kohen (members of the priestly class) is prohibited and any children of the union do not inherit their father's kohen status. While a Jew by birth may not marry a mamzer, a convert can.[63] Converts can become rabbis. For instance, Rabbi Meir Baal Ha Nes is thought to be a descendant of a proselyte. Rabbi Akiva was also a very well known son of converts. The Talmud lists many of the Jewish nation's greatest leaders who had either descended from or were themselves converts. In fact, King David is descended from Ruth, a convert to Judaism.(Ruth 4:13–22) In Orthodox and Conservative communities which maintain tribal distinctions, converts become Yisraelim (Israelites), ordinary Jews with no tribal or inter-Jewish distinctions. Converts typically follow the customs of their congregations. So a convert who prays at a Sephardi synagogue would follow Sephardi customs and learn Sephardi Hebrew.[citation needed]

A convert chooses his or her own Hebrew first name upon conversion but is traditionally 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 "Imenu" (our mother). Hence, a convert named Akiva would be known, for ritual purposes in a synagogue, as "Akiva ben Avraham Avinu"; in cases where the mother's name is used, such as for the prayer for recovery from an illness, he would be known as "Akiva ben Sarah Imenu".[64]

Talmudic opinions on converts are numerous; some positive, some negative. A quote from the Talmud labels the convert "hard on Israel as a scab". Many interpretations explain this quote as meaning converts can be unobservant and lead Jews to be unobservant, or converts can be so observant that born Jews feel ashamed.[65]

Jews by choice

The term "Jew by choice" is often used to describe someone who, with no ancestral connection to the Jewish people, chose to convert to Judaism. It is often contrasted with such terms as "Jew by birth" (or "Jew by chance"). The practice of conversion to Judaism is sometimes understood within Orthodox Judaism in terms of reincarnation. According to this school of thought in Judaism, when non-Jews are drawn to Judaism, it is because they had been Jews in a former life. Such souls may "wander among nations" through multiple lives, until they find their way back to Judaism, including through finding themselves born in a gentile family with a "lost" Jewish ancestor.[66]

Bnei Anusim

In recent decades, there has been a renewed Jewish conversion interest with some Bnei Anusim, that is, the descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to other faiths.

The Hebrew term for forced converts is "Anusim" (lit. "[the] forced [converts]"), while the descendants of said converts are called "Bnei Anusim" (lit. "[the] children [of the] forced [converts]").

In the modern era, the single most notable and numerous group of Bnei Anusim converts are the Sephardic Bnei Anusim, descendants of those Sephardic Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition. They are found throughout Iberia (Spain and Portugal) and Iberoamerica (the Hispanic countries of the Americas plus Brazil). There has been a continuous steady growth among them who are now prospective converts, actively seeking conversions back to Judaism.[citation needed]

Since many Bnei Anusim (i.e. descendants of forced converts) lack an unbroken matrilineal Jewish line of descent or lack satisfactory documentary evidence to that effect (even if they can prove Jewish ancestry along one or all other of their lineages besides their direct matrilineal lineage), conversion has been a growing option for them to return to Judaism.[67]

See also

  • Abraham ben Abraham
  • Chuck Davidson
  • Lord George Gordon
  • Kuzari
  • List of converts to Judaism
  • Machon Meir
  • Miller Introduction to Judaism Program
  • Outreach Judaism
  • Proactive conversion
  • Religious conversion


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Further reading

  • Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben and Jennifer S. Hanin (foreword by Bob Saget) Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011, 272 pp. - Jointly written by a rabbi and a convert to Judaism, this book provides a modern, comprehensive overview of the reasons, practices, and results of Jewish conversion. It addresses all denominations of Judaism and covers topics as varied as how to tell family and friends to antisemitism, to pop Kaballah.
  • Menachem Finkelstein,Conversion: Halakhah and Practice, Bar-Ilan University Press, 2006, 784 pp. - this is the most comprehensive and complete compilation of laws covering giyur in English. Authored by a sitting Israeli judge, this groundbreaking volume examines entire halakhic literature on the subject, from the time of Mishnah and Talmud until today.
  • Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement 1927–1970, Vol. II, Ed. David Golinkin, The Rabbinical Assembly, 1997
  • 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
  • Moshe Lavee, The Tractae of Conversion, EAJS 4, 2010, pp. 169-213
  • Moshe Lavee, Converting The Missionary Image of Abraham: Rabbinic Traditions Migrating from the Land of Israel to Babylon, in: George H. Kooten, Martin Goodman and J.T.A.G.M. Ruiten, Abraham, the Nations, and the Hagarites: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Perspectives on Kinship with Abraham,( Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 203 - 222.
  • Mayer E. Rabinowitz Comments to the Agunot Conference in Jerusalem, July 1998, and on the Learn@JTS website.
  • Emmanuel Rackman, letter in Jewish Week 8 May 1997, page 28.
  • Joseph Soloveitchik Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews in the United States: Second article in a series on Responsa of Orthodox Judaism in the United States, 1954
  • Jack Wertheimer, Ed., Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Vol. II, p. 450, 474, JTS, NY, 1997
  • Rabbi Josef Lifland Converts and Conversion to Judaism. Gefen Publishing House. ISBN 965-229-235-4

External links

  • Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, Los Angeles
  • Fifth Anniversary of the Mikveh of East Denver, by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg and Yated Ne'eman Staff
  • Lazarus, David. New 'modern Orthodox' conversion program launched, Canadian Jewish News
  • Darshan Yeshiva - Conversion to Judaism online and education
  • Conversion to Judaism homepage— beginner's information on conversion within all branches of Judaism in North America.
    • Articles about conversion to Judaism published by major newspapers
  • Should I Convert to Judaism? on
  • Zimmerman, Rav Binyamin. Virtual Beit Midrash, How to Treat a "Ger"
  • Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, Thou Shalt Not Oppress the Ger
  • Heilman, Uriel. Conversion to Judaism: Denomination by denomination. Haaretz. 9 October 2014
  • Nativ – The National Center for Jewish Studies, Identity and Conversion - official website