The process of conversion penetrates a person’s innermost character and spiritual being, demanding an examination of self and other that may culminate in the adoption of a new identity.
Because of the potential consequences both to the convert’s psyche and to the Jewish people–particularly at times when conversion to Judaism was banned by the ruling powers–rabbis have always urged conversion candidates to carefully consider their own motivations. The Talmud, in fact, states that the first question that the beit din–the rabbinic court that rules upon a conversion–must ask of a potential convert concerns motivation, “Why should you wish to become a proselyte; do you not know that the people of Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions?”
Conversion candidates are urged to learn as much as possible about Jewish religion and culture, to seek out Jewish experiences, and to talk to a rabbi early in the process. When both candidate and rabbi agree that the time for conversion has arrived, and the candidate is ready, the formal conversion procedure begins.
Because the different movements have such different visions of what constitutes a “good Jew,” the requirements for conversion can vary significantly among them. A traditional beit din, for example, expects a conversion to be based entirely upon the desire to become a Jew, whereas the liberal movements permit more latitude in a candidate’s initial motivation. Many liberal rabbis will perform a conversion for the sake of an upcoming marriage, reasoning that exposure to Judaism in the context of an intimate relationship is likely to inspire such a convert to eventually accept Judaism for its own sake. Even the process of conversion is a matter of contention among the movements. Whereas traditional rabbis expect the candidate to undergo all rabbinically prescribed rituals, liberal rabbis may use rituals more selectively (although circumcision is a nearly universal requirement).
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