Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why Does Anyone Convert to Judaism?

One of the most controversial issues in Orthodoxy today is conversion. This issue blew up not long ago where many conversions of Russian immigrants by a special Beis Din in Israel were invalidated by Charedi Rabbanim on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. The debate has turned rancorous with bitter accusations flying on both sides. Many observers took sides on the issue and a public debate ensued on many websites and blogs – including this one.

That caused many sincere converts to fear that their own conversions might at some point be challenged and even invalidated.

The truth of the matter is that most people do not have a clue about what a valid conversion really is.

What are the requirements of becoming a Jew? Interestingly the Shulchan Aruch does not have that much to say about it. To be brief, conversion involves acceptance of the Mitzvos, a Bris Milah for a man, and Tevilah - immersion in a Mikvah for both a man and a woman. The latter two requirements are rather easy to perform. To the best of my knowledge - there is little if any controversy in the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy about Milah and Tevilah .

However the requirement to do Mitzvos is where the controversy lies. There is currently no dispute about the requirement to accept observance of the Mitzvos. The question arises about what level of observance is required. And what post conversion activities invalidate the conversion – if they do at all.

Halacha does not state that a convert must know all the Halachos of Judaism before converting. It only requires the Beis Din to inform a potential convert of some basics in a general way and to elicit from them a sincere commitment to follow Halacha. They must continue to learn about them and do them post conversion. In other words, they need not be fully obseravant at the time of conversions. They only need to commit to it.

Once a convert accepts that commitment and goes through the Milah (Bris) and Tevilah (Mikvah) - they are Jewish in every sense of the word. Halacha then dictates that even if he changes his mind a moment after the conversion and doesn’t keep a sinlge Halacha, he is considered a Yisroel Mummar – a Jew who violates Halacha.

Rav Moshe Feinstein rightly saw a problem with a relatively new set of conversions going on in America in his day - considering many of them Sham conversions. These were generally conversions of people who wanted to marry non Jews and for appearance and family reasons - needed to convert. Many rabbis – even Orthodox ones – were pressured by the Jewish parents to convert the non Jewish spouse. In many if not most cases those ‘converts’ never really intended to observe any Mitzvos at all. They simply went along just to please their fiancées and future in-laws.

Rav Moshe held that pre conversion sincerety can be tested post conversion. And If the convert ‘failed’ the test, it invalidated the conversion. If the convert never changes from their past behavior and ‘celebrates’ their conversion with a cheeseburger at MacDonald’s there is no greater proof than this that his sincerity was feigned - making the conversion a sham and invalid. This test is apparently now widely accepted. On a practical level it makes a lot of sense.

One question that arises is - how much observance is necessary? Must one be fully Shomer Shabbos? What if they commit to observance are publicly observant but have not yet fully accepted it into their private lives. What if they turn in a light in their home? Is that an automatic disqualifier? Should they be accepted? If a Beis Din converts them - are their conversions valid?

Another question arises. Why would anyone want to put themselves through this? Why does one choose to become not only Jewish, but Orthodox? Does it matter Halachicly what motivates them? Should that be a factor for a Beis Din considering one’s application for entry into our faith?

Should motivations play a part? Should certain motivations be automatically disqualified? If so which ones?

There are of course many reasons why one may chose Judaism as their path in life among them the following.

It may be intellectual. One may simply be seeking Truth and find it in the tenets of Judaism finding it in the rich treasure trove of religious literature.

Others may seek the beauty of the lifestyle. They might see the way we live our lives, the relative peace and tranquility we have via our lifestyles, the focus and attention to family we tend to have – and want all of that for themselves.

Other may see Judaism as the most ethical way to live – noting for example the behavior of a great rabbinic figure and believe that is the right way to live.

Some will look at Jewish marriages which seem to be better and last longer - having better chances for success. I have even heard non Jewish women say that Jewish men make the best husbands.

Sometimes it is a sense that Judaism organizes one’s life better. Fewer decisions need to be made about behavior. Halacha dictates much of that for us.

In yet other cases, there is a spirituality that is sought that has been experienced in other religions – but found lacking and they find it in Judaism which they find spiritually very enriching.

There are of course less noble reasons. Some may see the warm and fuzzy simplicity of Judaism as expressed in movies like Fiddler on the Roof and think that is what Judaism is all about.

Sometimes it may even be someone with a serious mental disorder.

Others may find Kabbalah attractive and the answer to their lives. They might convert for purposes of seeking the secrets of Kabbalah.

Still others may have nostalgic reasons - looking to a Jewish ancestor in their lineage that they admire and want to emulate them.

Sometimes it is for political and national reasons as is the case with the Russian immigrants in Israel with questionable lineage.

Some seek conversion in order to marry a Jewish spouse. I should add that contrary to popular belief that is not an automatic disqualifier. Although one should certainly be suspect and investigate whether the person would convert even if they would not end up marrying their Jewish fiancée.

There are in short many reasons why one may convert to Judaism whose many laws are very difficult to follow. But in light of the fact that Judaism is a religion whose people have been persecuted throughout the ages and continue to be persecuted to this day in many parts of the world it is a tribute to those who know all of this and do it anyway.