HMS 5765-23: Judaism and Conversion

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

February 28, 2005 – Number 5765-23

Judaism and Conversion

While Judaism often acts as if it is a nation and a civilization, it is still, at its core, a religion. As a religion, it is only natural that some people will abandon their faith and some will join us from other faiths. On both sides Jewish law is very clear. Judaism recognizes no conversion out of our faith. A Jew who adopts another religion is still a Jew, a sinner perhaps, but still a Jew. Under the “Law of Return” of the State of Israel, it is my understanding that anyone who meets the definition of a Jew, no matter their actual faith at this time, is accepted as Jewish under the Law. The only exception is someone who is actively a part of that faith, for example, a born Jew who is now a religious leader in another faith. I will leave the definition of “who is a Jew” to a future lesson.
Judaism permits conversion into Judaism. At various times in our history, other governments have forbidden conversion into Judaism (I believe that some South American countries still prohibit conversion into Judaism, and there may be others) Jews have taken to keeping conversion into our faith quiet. We are not evangelical about our faith in spite of calls in the United States to promote conversion to offset losses from assimilation. There is a custom of turning away the prospective convert up to three time in order to be certain of their commitment to Judaism. Today it is more common to prolong the conversion process allowing ample time for the prospective convert to quit and return to their faith. There are also many reasons why a non-Jew would come for conversion. Perhaps they wish to marry a Jew, or maybe they have good friends that are Jewish and they wish to join them in worship. The reason really doesn’t matter. Judaism only accepts one reason for becoming Jewish, that Judaism is the religion they wish to practice for the rest of their life. Any reason is a good reason to study Judaism, but to finish a conversion, the convert must be ready to accept Judaism as his or her own religion.
Therefore, the first stage in conversion is the study of Judaism. Before one can proclaim that this is the religion I wish to practice, one must know what Judaism is all about. To learn all about Judaism may take 80 years or more (after all, we born Jews are still learning!) We can only begin to set up the framework of a lifetime of Jewish learning. This frame will take about a year to accomplish. The student must experience a year of celebrating the Jewish Holidays. Must learn rituals, customs and ceremonies, must understand Jewish History and learn basics of Hebrew Language. Many communities have 15-18 week courses in Basic Judaism that all candidates must take. A Rabbi must sponsor them in the class to answer their questions and to make sure they are comfortable and understand the process. When this class is over, there may be more sessions with the sponsoring Rabbi on issues of prayer, and the structure of Jewish Law. The candidate should also be attending services on Shabbat or weekdays on a regular basis and getting to know the other members of the community. When this education phase is nearing an end, the sponsoring Rabbi will ask if the student still wants to proceed with the conversion. If so a second part of the conversion begins.
The sponsoring Rabbi calls a bet din, a Rabbinic Court to assess the convert. They will ask the candidate about why he or she wishes to convert, what they have learned about Judaism and if they know enough about Judaism to make this decision. Since the candidate is seeking to enter that which he or she can never leave, we make sure that the desire to be Jewish and the understanding of Judaism is sufficient so that the decision to become Jewish is made with clear intention and full understanding of the meaning of the conversion. Once the Bet Din is satisfied that the candidate is making an informed decision to become Jewish, they ask three questions. 1. “Are you doing this of your own free will?” 2. “Do you understand that there may be times and places where, as a Jew, you will be despised and hated, and perhaps your life could be in danger?” and 3. “Do you understand that you are making this decision not only for yourself, but for any children you may have who will be born Jewish and will need, in the case of a boy, a brit milah, and for all children and Jewish education and you are prepared to provide this to all your children?” If the answer is yes to all three, the Bet Din is concluded and the third phase begins.
The convert must be fully immersed in a mikva or other proper body of living water. The immersion is done in the nude with a proper attendant of the same gender to oversee the immersion. After the immersion the candidate recites two blessings, one for the immersion and the shehechiyanu. At that point the student is Jewish (not a convert). Often there will be a ceremony back at the synagogue and there are certificates to sign and distribute. Such a Jew is a full Jew in every manner and it is improper and illegal in Jewish Law to recall at anytime their life before their conversion. They receive a Hebrew name and carry the name of the patriarch Abraham and the matriarch Sarah.

Next week: Jewish Divorce

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