Jewish by Choice: The Ins and Outs of Halakhic Conversion

Prefer to listen? This letter was featured on this episode of the Jewish Geography Podcast:

Dear Josep,

So, this blog’s been quite a downer the past couple of weeks. What can I say, it’s that time of year! We are in the midst of the Nine Days, leading up to the fast of Tisha B’Av, and I tend to experience these days as being… I dunno. Things just don’t seem to go right. Everything seems gloomier and more bleak. (…This may explain some things about a conversation we had recently, BTW. ūüėõ ) I don’t know if other Jews experience it this way.

Anyway, I thought I’d brighten things up a bit with a… less depressing topic ūüėõ I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine who¬†was adopted as a baby and was raised in a Reform Jewish family in the USA. When she participated in Jewish events at college, she was dismayed to find¬†that the Orthodox Jewish rabbis there welcomed her as a “good friend to the Jews,” but not as an actual Jew. I expressed that I was sorry to hear that she felt they were looking down on her, and described how¬†Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law makes things tricky; that it’s hard to hold the paradox of believing 100% in the authority of Jewish law, but also believing 100% in one’s¬†right to define oneself, and 100% honoring one’s¬†upbringing as a Jew.

She expressed interest in hearing more about the halakha on the matter, and I thought, “I feel a letter to Josep coming on…..” ūüėȬ†I did touch, very briefly, on the topic of Orthodox/halakhic conversion to Judaism on my post about the mikveh, but conversion definitely deserves its own letter.

So, let’s take it from the top:

Who Is A Jew by Birth?

This is the subject of much controversy, especially relevant in a country where your eligibility to citizenship depends on whether you are officially defined as a Jew. The Law of Return, which defines who is considered Jewish for Israeli citizenship purposes, is not a halakhic definition. You can become an Israeli citizen if you have a Jewish parent or grandparent, or if you are married to someone who falls under that definition. You cannot become an Israeli citizen if you were born to a Jewish parent or grandparent, but voluntarily changed your religion.

The halakhic definition for a Jew by birth is someone who was born to a Jewish mother. According to halakha, it does not matter if you convert to another religion–once you are Jewish, you are a Jew forever. But in order to be considered a Jew, you must either be born to a Jewish mother, or convert.

While I know it’s¬†not very politically correct, I see it as great wisdom (Divine or rabbinic, whichever you think the law came from) to¬†invest the responsibility of carrying on Jewish heritage specifically in the hands of mothers. You see very clearly in crypto-Jewish families that it was the women who passed on the traditions and raised their children as secret Jews. Think about it: almost all of those strange remnants of Jewish traditions you find in crypto-Jewish families are practices upheld primarily by women. Practices to do with cooking, like checking eggs for blood,¬†burning a small amount of dough when baking bread, separating milk and meat, etc.; sweeping towards the center of the room;¬†lighting Shabbat candles in secret–these are all part of a woman’s domain historically. It is not the only time¬†the Torah¬†acknowledges women as having more of a natural tendency¬†to be faithful to God and the Torah.

This Awesome Stuff Is Mine

There is a cartoon on The Oatmeal called “How to Suck at Your Religion.” While I’m¬†not a particular fan of the condescending attitude or the crude humor, it has some good points, and there is one part that is relevant to our discussion: “This is why I’m a fan of Buddhists and Jews. Their attitude is more like ‘I’m Jewish and this s*** is awesome. I don’t give a raging crap if you’re joining or not. In fact, you’re not¬†allowed in. This awesome s*** is¬†mine.’

LOL. Well, some might feel the opposite about the exact same thing, and claim that we are elitist snobs who think we are in some kind of special club that nobody can join. But that’s¬†not true. You can join. We just don’t see any reason you should. ūüėõ¬†We believe that all nations and religions¬†have their own place in the world and their own special mission, and we have no problem with them as long as they observe the 7 Noahide Laws, which are the most basic laws of moral conduct (banning murder, sexual immorality, cruelty to animals, theft, idolatry, and cursing God, and requiring establishing a justice system to uphold the previous six). We don’t believe that keeping the Torah and all the obligations required of us as Jews is relevant to most of humanity, and we don’t think it makes sense to take on all these extra obligations when they are not required of you. Moreover, we’d rather not make someone into a Jew, only to have him not keep the Torah. So unlike the other major religions, we do not actively encourage conversion; we actually discourage it.

Basically, according to Orthodox law, you can only convert to Judaism if you absolutely cannot see yourself living any other way. And we have a specific policy to discourage converts–we call it “dissuasion”–which often manifests in making things more¬†difficult than they have to be. You have to really, really want it.

What Does a Halakhic Conversion Entail?

First of all, living as a halakhically observant Jew, as I certainly hope you have gathered by now ūüėõ requires a¬†lot of knowledge. You have to know how to properly observe Shabbat, getting into the minute details of the actions that are and are not forbidden. You have to know how to properly observe kashrut (about which I had to write¬†three blog posts to list the very basics!). You have to know how to pray, what blessings to say on what, how to observe each of our bajillion holidays… the list goes on and on. My husband was not raised Orthodox, and he can attest to the difficult learning curve he went through after deciding to become religious. So the first thing you need to do when contemplating conversion, is¬†study.

A lot.

The duration of studying for conversion depends on the individual. For some, it can take a few months; for some, more than a year or even two. But it’s not enough to study in classes; you have to be immersed in a Jewish community and learn through practice, by seeing and experiencing life as a halakhically observant Jew. So potential converts usually have “adoptive families” in the community that take them in, host them for Shabbat and holidays, and generally teach them organically the way a child learns to observe the mitzvot from his family.

When the potential convert reaches a level of knowledge that would allow her¬†to observe halakha fully, she appears before a panel of rabbinic judges,¬†a¬†beit din, who “drill” her¬†on her¬†knowledge of Judaism and halakha. If they rule that she is knowledgeable and sincere, she then goes to immerse in the mikveh, after which she is considered a full Jew.

I used “she” in the previous paragraph even though it applies to men as well, because¬†for men, there is an extra step. Before immersing in the mikveh, male converts¬†also must undergo circumcision. Obviously, this is not as simple a procedure as it is for an eight-day-old baby; it is done in a medical setting with local anesthesia. Well, you ask, what about men who were already circumcised?¬†After all, many non-Jewish parents choose to circumcise their sons for medical or aesthetic reasons. The problem is that the circumcision must be performed by a Jew, with the intent of fulfilling the mitzvah.¬†So if the original intent of the circumcision was medical or aesthetic, the male convert undergoes a ritual procedure of drawing a drop of blood from the area. This spiritually “repurposes” the procedure as a mitzvah.

What About Children?

The rule about the maternal line determining whether a child is a Jew applies at the moment of birth. So if a woman converts while pregnant, the child she gives birth to as a Jew¬†is considered Jewish. However, if she converts after she has already¬†had children, even tiny babies, they¬†must undergo conversion, too. But because a child is not obligated in the mitzvot yet, there is no requirement to appear before a beit din. Moreover, a Jewish conversion has to be completely voluntary, but a child is not considered by halakha to have moral agency until he or she comes of age (bar/bat mitzvah–13 for a boy, 12 for a girl).¬†So¬†the conversion of a child is basically this: he or she is ritually immersed in the mikveh, and raised as¬†a Jew. But when bar or bat mitzvah,¬†he or she can choose whether s/he wants to “accept the yoke of Torah” or not. If the child decides s/he is Jewish, the symbolic conversion as a child stays in effect and the child is considered completely Jewish. If s/he doesn’t want to be Jewish, the conversion¬†is retroactively annulled.

“I hereby accept upon myself the insanity that my parents accepted for me. And I’m lovin’ it.”

In terms of adoption, a child who was not born to a Jewish biological mother is not considered Jewish by halakha, even if s/he is adopted and raised by a committed Jewish family. So in this case s/he needs to undergo conversion, as above.

Gray Areas

I heard of a case recently where an entire family of ultra-Orthodox Jews found out that they were not actually halakhically Jewish because their maternal ancestor had not undergone what their rabbinic authority considered a proper conversion. Since it was clear that they intended to keep halakha and had adequate knowledge of it, they did not have to appear before a beit din, they just immersed in the mikveh.

In cases where there is some doubt about whether a conversion was performed properly, the person may choose to undergo a¬†giur l’chumra, a “conversion for the sake of stringency.” It would basically be a condensed version of the conversion process, without the “dissuasion.”

What about Conservative and Reform Conversions?

The Conservative movement has a similar process of conversion, and in the past, since many times the people who sat on the Conservative¬†batei din (rabbinic panels) kept Shabbat and kosher to Orthodox standards, some Orthodox authorities considered those conversions to be valid. Nowadays it’s trickier,¬†and usually if someone underwent a Conservative conversion and wants to become Orthodox, he or she may choose to undergo another conversion under Orthodox supervision.

Reform conversions are different, varying from community to community on the exact procedure. They are generally not recognized by the Conservative movement, and are definitely not recognized by the Orthodox.

All Is Not Rosy

I have to add, from first-hand accounts, that the rabbinic courts can make life very, very difficult for converts or for¬†adoptive parents, and unnecessarily so. There are sometimes a lot of ugly politics, and this problem is tenfold in Israel, where the Rabbinate holds the authority over marriage, divorce and conversion, and can be picky about whose conversions they accept as valid. (Marriages among people of other religions are handled by their religious authorities.) If¬†the Rabbinate does not consider you Jewish, you can’t marry a Jew in Israel. Couples like this often travel to Cyprus or elsewhere to get married.

On the one hand, I believe that the Rabbinate has good intentions and is trying to prevent¬†major rifts in the Jewish people. On the other hand, I believe that given that¬†Israel is a secular state, there should be an option for civil marriage for people who do not wish to go through the Rabbinate. I don’t think that the situation as it is now prevents intermarriage or other unions that the Rabbinate disapproves of; I think all it does is make people hate the Rabbinate and the religion they represent. And I already went on a rant about my views on gay marriage in a secular state, so I don’t have to run off on that tangent here.

The issue of who is considered halakhically Jewish, especially in a world where a majority of Jews do not follow halakha and accept a more liberal definition of Judaism,¬†is a¬†very sensitive and sticky issue for all involved. The point of conflict for the friend who I mentioned at the top of the post is that she was born to a non-Jewish biological mother, and adopted by a Reform family that did not believe there was any need to convert her. So her family, her community, and of course she herself define her as Jewish, but halakha does not. I can only imagine how infuriating and demeaning¬†it must feel to have somebody tell you that according to their beliefs, you are not what¬†you have always known you are. ūüôĀ I wish there were¬†a more comfortable middle ground.

…Ugh, I can’t end on another a sad note! I think we need a puppy.





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