What Motivates People to Become Jewish?

Although many converts today are motivated by an impending marriage to a Jew, their motivations often change over time as they learn and live as Jews.

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Although traditionally, conversion for the sake of marriage to a Jew is not acceptable according to Jewish law, even some traditional rabbis have begun to realize that conversion is an evolving commitment. Exposure to Jewish life within the context of a Jewish family inspires many converts--who may have originally converted purely to accommodate a Jewish spouse or in-laws--to become wholehearted Jews. Excerpted with permission from Becoming a Jew (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

The genuine desire to embrace Judaism for its own sake, "for the sake of Heaven," was considered the sole legitimate ground for conversion permitted by the rabbis. Historically, it is the only motivation that "worked" for the Jewish people. The authorities rejected conversion for ulterior motives as unworthy, and indeed harmful, to the religious development of the Jewish people. They cite examples through the ages that amount to a litany of troubles. Those ulterior motives range from materialism to marriage, but they were all rejected as grounds for becoming a Jew. The Torah, even as God Himself, was not to be used as a means, only a goal.

Convenience or Conviction?

While it is true that many convert out of conviction--more than most people think--they are vastly outnumbered by those who convert for convenience or accommodation. Once the convenience was material: conversion for the sake of more food, a better job, or entering into a higher social class. Today this accommodation is mostly associated with prospective marriage, when conversion serves the purpose of appeasing volatile in-laws and also prevents future children from seeing more conflict in their parents' home than is necessary. Conversion to another faith, in this sense, is a marriage of convenience to facilitate the convenience of marriage.

The western world is fertile ground for such conversions. Blended communities have, in some ways, made mixed marriages commonplace, whereas [not that long ago] they were anomalies to be ignored or barely tolerated.Jewish star necklace

Mixed Motivations Common

How does modern Judaism deal with the often mixed motivations behind so many of the conversions confronting American rabbis today? Must Judaism even today accept only converts of conviction but not of accommodation?

The good news is the startling possibility that the very complexity of the social and religious situation of our day might hold not only great fear, but great hope. When we search deeply into the nature of today's convert, we often find authenticity even in converts of accommodation. There is the prospect of his or her growth in Judaism, despite his own belief to the contrary, perhaps even becoming a "returnee" to Jewish observance; the great opportunity for keeping families together and also close to the tradition; the hope of a child of this union turning to the serious study of Torah; even the possibility that a convert's enthusiasm, or that of his or her children, will reinvigorate a sometimes somnambulant Jewish community.

A growing number of contemporary rabbis, in reviewing the state of modern society in light of the age-old halakhic [Jewish legal] requirements, are coming to believe that perhaps the marriage motivation should not be classified in the category of ulterior motive. There are a number of halakhically valid reasons that are prompting a reconsideration of opening the doors to Judaism wider despite the obvious risks attendant upon such a policy.

Moving from Accommodation to Conviction

Not the least of these considerations is that people in our open society can grow from accommodation to conviction. Experience today teaches us not to be cavalier with those who adopt a new religion without what we consider to be the right reason. Often, they begin the long road of conversion for reasons of accommodation, yet, in the end, arrive at remarkably deep levels of spiritual conviction.

Conversion generally will result from a complex of multiple motivations: to marry, to raise children in a one-faith family, to avoid conflict with parents. A desire to establish a home in a unified religious commitment for the purpose of bringing up children as Jews obviously savors more of sincerity than of personal gain, and must be for Heaven's sake.

The Jewish people searches for converts of conviction. But it recognizes the great potential in those who are sincere, who are family-oriented, who love God, who work "for the sake of Heaven," and who are therefore candidates for moving from accommodation to conviction.

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.