Understanding conversion


With all of the talk about the technicalities of conversion and the alleged abuse of the system, the core of what conversion is and why the process seems so convoluted has been lost. For any intelligent discussion to take place, it is essential that this be clarified.

What is conversion? On the one hand, the idea of hereditary belonging – which runs counter to the concept of choosing one’s religious identity – lies at the very core of Judaism.

As recorded in the Torah, the Jewish people came into existence as the result of two hereditary covenants. “And I will establish my covenant between Me and you, and your children after you for all generations,” God tells Abraham in the Book of Genesis. Later on, in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses, speaking for God, says, “Not with you alone do I make this covenant. … It is with you who stand here this day … and with those who are not with us.”

Put simply, if you are born Jewish, you are Jewish, irrespective of what you may do or what you may profess; you are irrevocably Jewish. In light of this, the fact that someone does not possess direct biological descent from one of our ancestors should imply their exclusion from the covenantal relationship that defines the Jewish people.


But detailed analysis of scriptural sources reveals the inclusion of various types of “strangers” in the fabric of ancient Jewish society, one of which is the “ger tzedek,” the righteous stranger who is indeed considered to be a full-fledged Jew.

To become part of the Jewish people, this righteous ancestor must go through the same process that our ancestors went through when the covenant establishing their peoplehood was transacted. By doing so, they join a spiritual legacy that, like hereditary transference, cannot be severed.

The power of the Jewish covenant is superior even to the covenant of marriage, because a marriage can be abrogated through a divorce. The covenant establishing our peoplehood, however, can never be broken.
No one would enter a marriage before getting to know their intended spouse for an extended period of time. Should we expect anything less for conversion?

As we can see in the world around us, belief systems lie at the very foundation of how people live their lives. Changing this foundation in midlife – as, indeed a convert must do – is like trying to straighten the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It requires planning and preparation, as well as
delicate execution.

Our sages determined that this process consisted of immersion in a proper ritual bath known as a mikvah, circumcision for male converts and acceptance of the Torah by the same declaration used when it was given at Mount Sinai, na’aseh v’nishma, “we will do and we will learn.” After signaling the unequivocal acceptance of all of the Torah, both the written and oral law, before a valid rabbinical court – known as a beit din, it acts as the agent of God – the convert is accepted as a full-fledged Jew.

How does the court ensure the absolute sincerity of the candidate?

The clearest way to accomplish this is to initially mildly discourage the candidate and then be deliberate in the process, in order to test a convert’s resolve. Furthermore, the court must insist on the convert adopting and adapting to a proper Torah-observant lifestyle. Anything less simply makes a mockery of the enormity of the transformation that needs to take place and the seriousness of joining a legacy stretching back thousands of years.

The “price” that is charged for entrance into the covenant is exactly the same
as the one our forebears paid to enter it. Giving in to the pressure of the moment and expediency is not only dishonest but also a recipe for disaster.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan is the regional director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Maryland.

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