The laws and rituals of conversion are among the most vehemently disputed issues in the Jewish community today. In the following article, Rabbi Gold–a Conservative rabbi–explains this difficult topic, making explicit the points on which he is expressing his own opinions and the policies he sets for his congregants. However, authorities from different denominations would disagree even with some of Rabbi Gold’s characterizations of who needs a conversion and how the conversion is done. These differences are made explicit wherever possible.
The bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies come week after week in my synagogue. But every month or so there is a bar/bat mitzvah that takes on a special meaning for me–one where the celebrant was converted to Judaism as a child. He or she may have been born of a non-Jewish mother and then adopted into a Jewish home, or perhaps he or she is the product of a mixed marriage where the mother was not Jewish. (Jews consider a child Jewish only if his or her mother is Jewish or if he or she underwent a formal conversion. In the Reform movement, it is left to the discretion of each rabbi whether they recognize a child born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jewish or only a child born of a Jewish mother as Jewish.)
For such a converted child, bar/bat mitzvah then takes on particular importance. It is not simply a ceremony for the coming of age; it becomes the completion of a conversion procedure often done more than a decade before.
Is Conversion a Requirement for Bar/Bat Mitzvah?
What happens when a child born of a non-Jewish mother reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah without a proper conversion? In the more liberal Reform and Reconstructionist movements, such a conversion is not always necessary. Being raised as a Jew is sufficient and the bar/bat mitzvah can go ahead (unless your particular rabbi requires one). But this lenient approach may lead to problems later when the child would not be permitted to join a more traditional synagogue or to marry someone Conservative or Orthodox.
In my synagogue, I require a proper conversion, with mikveh (immersion in a ritual bath), brit (circumcision, for boys) or symbolic brit (literally, hatafat dam, or the extraction of a drop of blood), and a beit din (court) of three rabbis. Several times in my career I have had to rush down to the ocean a few months before a scheduled bar/bat mitzvah for a ritual dunking.
Occasionally I have had a family protest the requirement of conversion; they tell me that being raised a Jew should be sufficient. One family angrily cancelled their bar mitzvah in my synagogue and instead joined the local Reform temple. But most families go ahead with the conversion.
Even when the family is comfortable with the conversion, it is not always easy to explain to a 12-year-old why he or she must be immersed in the ocean before I can allow the bar/bat mitzvah to take place–after all, the youngster has usually been raised as a Jew since infancy. I tell the truth: that technically to be Jewish there must be a formal conversion, and we waited until he or she was old enough to understand and consent to the procedure. Most go ahead willingly or even enthusiastically.
Conversion Easiest in Infancy or Early Childhood
Yet life is far gentler when such a conversion takes place in infancy or when the child is very young. As I finalize bar/bat mitzvah plans with students converted as young children, I recall for them the day I helped bring them into the Jewish faith.
One could use a formal mikveh, a ritual bath often found in synagogues and maintained by the local Jewish community. But a natural body of water can serve as a mikveh as well, and I generally use the ocean, the world’s largest mikveh. There is something deeply moving about immersion in the original mayim hayim (living waters) that God made on the second day of creation.
The children range from mere infants to near bar mitzvah age. Most are Caucasian, but some are Hispanic or black. More and more often they come from Asia. Some are born of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers. Sometimes the mother is also converting, but for me this is not a requirement. My only requirement is a commitment to raise this child as a Jew. I admire non-Jewish women willing to commit to raising their children as Jews. Usually these women take their commitment very seriously and bring their children to religious school and Shabbat services, sometimes more regularly than their Jewish husbands. Sometimes, a few years later, the woman herself will convert.
Most of the children I convert were adopted into Jewish families, either by Jewish homosexual or heterosexual couples or by mixed-marriage couples. The deciding factor is that the woman who gave birth to the child was not Jewish at the moment of the child’s birth. In this case, Jewish law requires that the child be converted.
Requirements for Conversion of a Child
For a valid conversion, there are three requirements:
1. Three rabbis must be present to form a beit din, a court of Jewish law to accept the conversion.
2. Every boy must show proof that he had a brit, or if already circumcised, a symbolic brit. (One of our rabbis has become the expert at performing such a symbolic brit right at the ocean.)
3. The child must be immersed in a mikveh or a natural body of water such as the ocean.
When the beit din is assembled and a brit or symbolic brit confirmed (for boys), we are ready for the symbolic dunking. During immersion, the child must be absolutely naked– no clothes, jewelry, diapers, bandages, nail polish, or anything that will prevent the water from touching every part of the body. The parents bring the child out into the water. If he or she is an infant, I recommend the parent blow on the child’s face so that the breath is held. The first dunk is quick. I say two blessings, and the parent dunks the child two more times.
After the child and parent dry off, I say a prayer giving the child a Hebrew name, ending with the words from the traditional brit ceremony, "As this child has entered the Jewish faith today, so may these parents raise their son/daughter to a life of Torah, the marriage canopy, and good deeds." Then I share some brief thoughts with the parents, but my key point is that this entire ceremony is conditional on the children receiving a Jewish education and reaffirming their commitment at the bar/bat mitzvah.
Conversion Without Consent?
What gives me the right to take children, often in their infancy, and convert them to Judaism? Does not conversion require some kind of consent? The Talmud asks this same question (Ketubot 11a). It answers with the Hebrew phrase zachin leadam shelo befanav, meaning that we can act in a way that benefits someone without his or her consent.
However, the Talmud adds that upon reaching the age of consent, (by Jewish law, 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy), the child is permitted to protest. In other words, the entire conversion is conditional. The child has the right to protest when he or she reaches the age of bar/bat mitzvah. Some rabbis formalize this, and actually ask the child upon reaching majority if he or she wishes to protest the conversion. Some rabbis even require re-immersion in a mikveh.
I respectfully disagree. I consider the act of going through the training for a bar or bat mitzvah as a reaffirmation of the conversion, which was often done years earlier. By standing before the congregation, being called to the Torah, reading a haftarah (selection from the Prophets), giving a speech, and participating in synagogue life, the now young adult is giving his or her consent to live life as a Jew. The bar/bat mitzvah becomes the final step in the conversion process.
And so the bar/bat mitzvah day arrives, and with it the reaffirmation of a ceremony performed long before. Some youngsters speak about their conversion, particularly if they have memories of going to the beach. Occasionally a child will say explicitly, "Today I reaffirm the conversion done long before." Most simply speak of their Torah portion and express their appreciation to their parents, their teachers, the cantor, and myself. They are proud to have reached this stage on their way to Jewish adulthood. And I am proud of my role in creating more committed Jewish souls.
Pronounced: bar MITZ-vuh, also bar meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish rite of passage for a 13-year-old boy.
Pronounced: baht MITZ-vuh, also bahs MITZ-vuh and baht meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish rite of passage for a girl, observed at age 12 or 13.
Pronounced: MICK-vuh, or mick-VAH, Alternate Spelling: mikvah, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish ritual bath.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.