Conversion to Judaism means more than simply adopting a new way of relating to God. It requires an identification with the Jewish people, and Jewish peoplehood itself encompasses both Jewish religious practice — the mitzvot, or commandments, that Jews are required by God to do — and a sense of national destiny in which all Jews are responsible one for the other.
Because being a Jew is not a side issue that can be compartmentalized into weekly attendance at Sabbath services but rather a life-defining commitment, conversion to Judaism requires a transformation of personal identity. The prospective Jew-by-choice is embarking on an evolutionary journey that involves the adoption of new values, cultural norms, and mythological understandings as well as holiday and lifecycle rituals that transform daily life. This personal metamorphosis is embodied in the traditional definition of a convert as a newborn.
The process of conversion created by the rabbis is modeled upon the “conversion” of the Jewish people from an amorphous group of slaves in Egypt with shared ancestral memories to a people defined by a covenant with God–expressed through their acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Just as the Hebrews were circumcised in preparation for leaving Egypt –distinguishing themselves with a ritual sign that united them as a single people — the new convert’s circumcision is a physical identification with the Jewish fate. And just as the people had to cleanse themselves at Sinai in preparation for receiving the Torah (the document that specifies the mutual obligations between God and the Jewish people), similarly the new convert immerses to signify acceptance of this covenant with God.
Motivations for Converting
Both aspects of conversion — the national and the religious identifications as a Jew — were expressed by the biblical prototype for the convert, Ruth, who said to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
Because the decision to become a Jew demands such a fundamental change in individual identity, rabbis since the Talmudic era have been concerned about the motivations of potential converts. Motivations of convenience, whether personal or economic — for example, the desire to marry a Jew or to get a better job — were rejected as insufficient. The only acceptable motivation fueling the changes demanded of a convert was a pure desire to become a Jew “for the sake of Heaven.”
Today some rabbinical authorities, particularly within the liberal Jewish community, recognize that becoming Jewish is an evolution, and what may have been originally a conversion out of convenience — for example, to appease Jewish in-laws–often evolves into a conversion of commitment.
Treatment of Converts
Although, generally, the rabbis were favorably disposed toward converts, some authorities opposed conversion. The variance in rabbinic attitudes reflected both personal idiosyncrasy and contemporary historical conditions. Over time, however, the Jewish experience of persecution turned the community inward, emphasizing survival and observance of the mitzvot over outreach to the majority culture and conversion of the non-Jew.
Although Jews are enjoined never to treat converts differently than other Jews, sometimes converts experience ambivalence, distrust, and suspicion from born Jews. Although such responses are religiously unacceptable, they are not unknown. In some cases, they reflect a distrust of the surrounding gentile culture, born of anti-Semitism. In others, they represent an unfortunate misunderstanding of Judaism as a racial rather than a religious identify, one accessible only via a mother’s milk. Another common source of ambivalence involves Jews who project their own ambivalence about being Jewish onto the new convert, wondering why anyone would choose to be Jewish.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.