HISTORY OF JEWISH CONVERSION David Aberbach, Professor of Jewish studies, McGill University, Montreal
The unprecedented growth of Islam in the West, despite prejudice and hatred, contrasts with the demographic stagnation of the Jewish people - several million fewer now than in 1939. Conversion to practically every other religion remains considerably easier than conversion to Judaism. Why is traditional conversion to Judaism so hard?
There is a close link between Tishah b'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and rabbinic discouragement of gentiles from conversion after the Roman-Jewish wars (66-70, 115-17, 132-35 CE). Roman concern with Jewish conversion began prior to the destruction of the Temple. Though not a missionary religion (early Christians such as Paul, Barnabas and Peter are the only first-century Jewish missionaries known by name), pre-70 Judaism was highly varied and expanding in the Roman empire. It attracted sympathisers and adherents among the underprivileged, powerless, persecuted classes of the empire, especially slaves and women.
The Oxford scholar, Martin Goodman has written that conversion to Judaism was unique in the ancient world as converts were accepted as equals by Jews.
Many spiritually hungry pagans, drawn to Judaism by its moral code, its valuation of human life and charity, and hope of messianic salvation, adopted Jewish customs, particularly the Sabbath and the dietary laws; but Judaism spread also among upper-class Romans. Privileges granted to the Jews by Julius Caesar encouraged proselytisation: freedom from emperor worship and army service as well as the right to congregate as a religious group. According to the historian, Louis Feldman, conversion was the single most important issue on which the emperors legislated in the entire history of Roman-Jewish relations.
The Midrash takes pride in legends that famous Romans such as Nero converted to Judaism. Some of the most eminent talmudic rabbis, including Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir, were allegedly descended from converts; their Jewishness was not questioned. In any case, many biblical characters, including the children of Moses and Solomon, were born to foreign women. Acceptance of Judaism was a private matter for the convert, not a public process fixed by religious authorities. The Temple was a site of pilgrimage and sacrifice not just for Jews but also for many others who were drawn to Jewish religious and national distinctiveness.
Prior to the destruction of the Temple, there seems to have been no unified standard of conversion, no refusal to accept conversions or prolongation of the process. On the contrary, the often-violent rivalry between Judaism and Greco-Roman culture meant that conversion to Judaism could be seen as a sign of its superiority.
Judaism reached the peak of its expansion in the years prior to the 66 CE revolt. Salo Baron, in his monumental A Social and Religious History of the Jews, points out that the Jews - comprising as many as 10 percent of the Western Roman empire and 20 percent of the Eastern Roman empire - were seen by Rome as a threat to the unity of the Roman empire, whose universal culture was Greek, not Jewish. Too-rapid expansion, concludes Baron, had endangered Judaism, for it had "made too many compromises, and flirted with too many alien ways of life and thought. The results were those sharp sectarian and political divisions which had almost brought it to the brink of extinction."
The Roman-Jewish wars led to depopulation of Jews both in the Land of Israel and in the diaspora and transformed the Jews into a homeless, persecuted, semi-pariah people until the modern period.
The Jewish perception of conversion changed as the forces which brought about the expansion of Judaism also contributed to Greco-Roman antisemitism and, ultimately, the destruction of the Jewish state.
After the final, disastrous Jewish war against Rome, the Bar Kochba revolt (132-5 CE), Jewish leaders were no longer kings and politicians, Temple priests and messianic warriors, but rabbis dedicated to the survival of the Jewish people and Judaism in the Roman empire. The Romans approved organised rabbinic authority as the rabbis regarded Torah study - not proselytisation and anti-Roman messianic militancy - as the highest good, essential to Jewish survival.
The rabbis dealt with the Roman ban on Jewish proselytisation and the continued attraction of Judaism by making the process of conversion harder and warning of the hazards of Judaism: "What is your motive?" they would ask the prospective convert. "Don't you know that Israel is suffering, persecuted, oppressed, harassed and beaten down with a multitude of sorrows?"
The Talmud tells of a nephew of Titus, destroyer of the Temple, who raises Titus from the dead to ask if he should convert to Judaism: "Their laws are so hard," Titus replies, "You won't be able to keep them."
Judaism survived by turning inward, strengthening its laws and customs, retaining its universalist outlook but leaving missionary monotheism to Christianity and, later, Islam. Only since the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, when German Reform began, has Judaism regained some of its variety, and become again attractive to converts. Yet, the memory of national vulnerability survives in Tishah b'Av - together with ancient wariness of conversion. Tishah b'Av reminds us that communal disunity and strife can be fatal, and converts might justly be warned as in the past: Judaism remains a target for antisemites, and Jews continue to suffer vilification, though not on the scale of the past.
Converting to Judaism is not easy. It involves many lifestyle changes and about a year of studying (Editor: sometimes more!)..
Becoming a Jew is not just a religious change: the convert not only accepts the Jewish faith, but becomes a member of the Jewish People and embraces Jewish culture and history.
Conversion and Jewish law
Conversion to Judaism is a process governed by Jewish religious law. Conversions are overseen by a religious court, which must be convinced that the convert:
Is converting for the right reasons
Is converting of their own free will
Has a thorough knowledge of Jewish faith and practices
Will live an observant Jewish life
There are also two ritual requirements:
A male convert must undergo circumcision - if they are already circumcised, a single drop of blood is drawn as a symbolic circumcision
The convert must undergo immersion in a Jewish ritual bath, a mikveh, with appropriate prayers
Judaism and conversion
Judaism is not a missionary faith and so doesn't actively try to convert people (in many countries anti-Jewish laws prohibited this for centuries).
Theo Heser, a Jewish convert, on his wedding day Theo Heser, a Jewish convert, on his wedding day.
Despite this, the modern Jewish community increasingly welcomes would-be converts.
A person who converts to Judaism becomes a Jew in every sense of the word, and is just as Jewish as someone born into Judaism. There is a good precedent for this; Ruth, the great-great grandmother of King David, was a convert.
Note: Not all Jewish conversions are accepted by all Jews. The more Orthodox a community is the less likely it is to accept a conversion done in a more liberal movement.
Orthodox Jews usually don't accept the validity of conversions done by non-Orthodox institutions - because many Orthodox Jewish communities do not accept that non-Orthodox rabbis have valid rabbinical status.
Heart and Soul spoke to people who chose to take the difficult path to convert to Judaism. Among those interviewed were Theo Heser, a former member of the Hitler Youth, who sees his conversion as an act of atonement.
The most common reasons put forward are:
Because the person believes the faith and culture of the Jewish people is right for them
In order to marry someone Jewish
In order to bring up children with a Jewish identity
But only the first of these should be accepted as the true reason for conversion - the convert must have an overpowering wish to join the Jewish people and share in their destiny, and be committed to loving God and following his wishes as expressed in the Torah.
There is no other reason that can enable a person to truly enter the covenant between God and the Jewish people, and do it freely, without reservation, forever, and to the exclusion of all other faiths.
How to convert
Different forms of Judaism have different conversion mechanisms, but this outline of what is involved covers the basics for all:
Discuss possible conversion with a rabbi
Study Jewish beliefs, history, rituals and practices
Learn some Hebrew
Get involved with Jewish community life
Believe in G-d and the divinity of the Torah
Agree to observe all 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah
Agree to live a fully Jewish life
Circumcision (men only)
Immersion in a mikveh or ritual bath
Appear before a Bet Din (a religious court) and obtain their approval
Talking to the rabbi
Conversion to Judaism is not something to be done lightly. The rabbi will want to make sure that the person really wants to convert, and that they know what they're doing.
Some rabbis used to test would-be converts by turning them away three times, in order to see how sincere and determined they are. This is unusual nowadays.
If a person doesn't know any rabbis to discuss conversion with, they probably haven't got close enough to Judaism and Jewish life to be thinking of converting. They should start by talking to Jewish people, and attending some synagogue services.
The rabbi asks the would-be convert a lot of questions - not just as a test of their sincerity, but in order to help the convert form a clear understanding of what they want to do:
Why do you want to convert?
What do you know about Judaism?
Are you converting of your own free will?
Have you discussed conversion with your family?
Will you accept Judaism as your only religious faith and practice?
Will you enter into the covenant between God and the Jewish people?
Will you bring up your children as Jews?
Are you willing to study in order to convert?
Will you live as a member of the Jewish people?
Would-be converts study Jewish beliefs, rituals, history, culture (including some Hebrew) and customs.
They do this through courses, or by individual study with a rabbi. At the same time they will start going to services, joining in home practices (with members of their local community) and taking part in synagogue life.
CONVERTING TO JUDAISM
Judaism is divided into groups depending upon belief. At one end are the ultra orthodox who have very strict rules as to what is allowed. At the other end are the Liberals who say that many things the ultra orthodox forbid are permissible. There are many variations between these groups. As part of this variation are the requirements to converting to become a Jew so that a variation by one group will not be recognised by another group. This is clearly explained by clicking on Conversion to Judaism from Wikipedia ’Is Judaism a Proselytizing Religion?’ by Shlomo M. Brody • Friday, October 19, 2012 in ‘Jewish Ideas Daily’ and Why Is Conversion to Judaism So Hard? By Tzvi Freeman.
Start your studies at ANY TIME and proceed at your own pace. All of our courses can be accessed online.
Study from wherever you are (in the United States only), all you need is Internet. No travel is required (except to visit a Mikvah)!
Our program is mostly self-directed and self paced. There are 8 online courses you will need to complete. Topics of discussion include but are not limited to:
*Torah *Shabbat *Holidays and Festivals *Kashrut (Kosher Law) *Jewish Symbols and their Meaning ^Jewish History *Life Cycle Events
You will also attend a minimum of 4 monthly online group sessions (led by a facilitator) where you may ask questions you may have about the courses.
Fees for the course are:
$118.00 per each unit – there are 8 in total (you will need to pay this fee before gaining access to each unit)
$250.00 for the Bet Din (the Rabbis who oversee the final conversion process)
Required books will need to be purchased (approximately $75)
If you would like to proceed please contact Sim Shalom by emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us directly at 201-338-0165.
We will then send you a Letter of Understanding, set up a “navigation” session to show you how to access your online coursework and your journey begins!
Denominations and the Sim Shalom Conversion Process
There is controversy within the Jewish Community over Conversion. You cannot count on an any particular Denomination’s Conversion to satisfy everyone. Our conversion, or a Reform or even Conservative conversion would typically not be acceptable in the Orthodox Jewish world.
Sim Shalom’s Jewish Conversion course of study is traditional in it’s process- study, Mikvah and Bet Din- but liberal in that we do not require men to undergo a circumcision or Hatfat HaDam Brit (exacting a drop of blood).
It is most important that you are comfortable within your Jewish Community. We are certain that G-d is pleased to welcome anyone to the Jewish faith regardless of their level of observance or denominational affiliation.
And please understand, if in the future you life’s journey leads you to a more traditional path of observance- additional study leading to a more traditional conversion would only be a blessing!
In June 2004 Rabbi Yosef Garcia (a Hispanic Sefardi from Panama) and Rabbi Joshua Stampfer (Co-founder of The Society For Crypto Judaic Studies) with the counsel of long-time friend Rabbi Samuel Lerer zt”l created The Association of Crypto-Jews of the Americas or the ACJA. Designed to finally bring to reality what the rabbinical court of Sefad once ruled, The ACJA is NOT affiliated with any movement. The ACJA recognizes, educates and enables the Hispanic Sephardi to re-enter World Jewry and to confront the vast complex issues facing these people today. It is also the first organization of its kind to unite the millions of Hispanic Sephardi people of the Americas together as one.
The ACJA is the only Organization offering a Ceremony of Return including a Certificate and confirmation of a Jewish name. Recognized by the Ministry of the Interior of the State of Yisrael. The Bet Din of the ACJA follows strict guidelines in determining the qualification of each candidate.
While the Certificate of Return has been accepted by the Ministry of the Interior of Israel and DOES assist one in making aliyah, it may NOT enable you to be accepted by Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Many Orthodox conversions both in the USA and throughout the world have been rejected in Israel since they were not performed by jaredi-approved Orthodox rabbis. If this is your goal, then you may choose to make aliyah to Israel and then to contact the jaredi Ultra-Orthodox community there in order to under go Ultra-Orthodox conversion under their supervision. If you seek an Ultra-Orthodox conversion anywhere in the world and you want your conversion to be accepted in Israel by the jaredi community, be sure to ask the Rabbi if he is on the jaredi list of approved rabbis for performing conversions.
MY ANCESTOR WAS JEWISH, SO HOW DO I RETURN TO JUDAISM?
The growth of Islam and Christianity, contrasts with the demographic stagnation of the Jewish people - several million fewer now than in 1939. Conversion to most religions is far easier than to Judaism. Why is traditional conversion to Judaism so hard?
Tishah b'Av is the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and rabbinic discouragement of gentiles from conversion after the Roman-Jewish wars (66-70, 115-17, 132-35 CE). Roman concern with Jewish conversion began prior to the destruction of the Temple. Though not a missionary religion (early Christians such as Paul, Barnabas and Peter are the only first-century Jewish missionaries known by name), pre-70 Judaism was highly varied and expanding in the Roman empire. It attracted sympathisers and adherents among the underprivileged, powerless, persecuted classes of the empire, especially slaves and women.
Judaism was unique in the ancient world as converts were accepted as equals by Jews. Many biblical characters, including the children of Moses and Solomon, were born to foreign women. Acceptance of Judaism was a private matter for the convert, not a public process fixed by religious authorities. The Temple was a site of pilgrimage and sacrifice not just for Jews but also for many others who were drawn to Jewish religious and national distinctiveness.
Judaism reached the peak of its expansion in the years prior to the 66 CE revolt when 10 percent of the Western Roman empire and 20 percent of the Eastern Roman empire - were seen by Rome as a threat to the unity of the Roman empire, whose universal culture was Greek, not Jewish.
The Roman-Jewish wars led to depopulation of Jews both in Israel and the diaspora (the external area settled by Jews)and transformed the Jews into a homeless, persecuted, semi-pariah people until today
The Jewish Bar Kochba revolt (132-5 CE) which was put down by the Romans meant that Jewish leaders were no longer kings and politicians, Temple priests and messianic warriors, but became rabbis dedicated to the survival of Judaism in the Roman empire.
Judaism survived by turning inward, strengthening its laws and customs, retaining its universalist outlook but leaving missionary monotheism to Christianity and, later, Islam. Only since the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, when German Reform began, has Judaism again become attractive to converts. This included the fear of being discovered a Jew in a Christian state, usually by the Inquisition, attitudes have changed.
Lengthy conversion procedures have become established. All conversions are not the same within Judaism so some do not have recognition throughout Judaism. For example a Reform conversion would probably not be recognised by an Orthodox group.
Converting to Judaism is not easy. It involves many lifestyle changes and about a year of studying (Editor: sometimes more!). There is an on-line course in the USA..
This is because becoming a Jew is not just a religious change: the convert not only accepts the Jewish faith, but becomes a member of the Jewish People and embraces Jewish culture and history. One example of change is food. What can and cannot be eaten either by itself or with other foods and the cooking utensils used (known as kosher or kashrut) is clearly specified. So someone who ate ham or bacon would find that this was not kosher and is called ‘treif’ so could not be eaten.
Conversion in Jewish Law YeshivaUniversity (2.06.24)
Converting to Judaism Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly (8.23)