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The following is a look at the traditional practices regarding a potential convert’s acceptance of the commandments; contemporary practices may differ, depending on the community, denomination, and personal beliefs of individual rabbis who are working with potential converts. Excerpted with permission from Becoming a Jew (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).
The prospective convert’s commitment to practice Judaism must be articulated at two stages in the conversion protocol: in the initial statement of intent to enter the Jewish covenant–prerequisite to the total process–and in the declaration recited at the climax of the conversion ceremony, immediately prior to immersion in the ritual pool.
Joint Commitment to Belief and Action
Because the Jews constitute a covenant-community rather than a faith-community, the decision to convert is a decision not only to believe in the Jewish idea of God, but to act on that belief. When one “enters into the covenant”–the convert’s personal Sinai [the mountain where the Jewish people accepted the covenant]–one accepts the divine mandate requiring distinctive behavior. This is called “acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.”
What does this entail as a practical program? First, it necessitates acknowledgment of the authority of Torah, the five books of Moses, and the oral interpretation of that law by the sages of the Talmud and the codes of the halakhah [Jewish law]. These two components are called the “Written Torah” and “Oral Torah” and together they comprise the body of Jewish law.
The rabbis rule that the candidate for conversion may not willfully reject even one of these laws. By this they mean, basically, that the convert may not deny the rabbis’ authority to establish a particular law. Thus, the commitment to practice is referred to as kabbalat ol ha’mitzvot the “acceptance of the yoke of the commandments,” rather than by the more tepid phrase “observance of the mitzvot [commandments].” It is a recognition that, although the laws may sometimes be restrictive, they need to be accepted as authoritative notwithstanding any difficulty in keeping them.
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