Few issues epitomize the tensions among the different branches of Judaism as much as conversion. The question–commonly known as “Who is a Jew?”– swirls beneath the surface of every debate among the branches like the lava of a volcano waiting to erupt. That eruption often occurs when the topic of conversion arises.
Traditional Judaism holds that a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism in a halakhic manner [that is, according to Jewish law]. Complicating this seemingly simple formula are two relatively modern phenomena:
1. Changes in the conversion process itself as performed by some rabbis, and
2. Recognition by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements of “patrilineal descent,” which considers as Jewish anyone who is born of a Jewish parent (mother or father) and raised as a Jew.
Although each branch maintains its own official policies regarding conversion and recognition of conversions performed by other branches, rabbis have considerable leeway to adjust the official stance to fit individual circumstances. Interviews with thousands of converts around the country indicate that there is, in fact, more flexibility within all the branches than is readily discernible at first glance.
The Reform Approach
Reform Judaism takes a liberal approach to Jewish law, maintaining that it is no longer binding but must be changed or developed to meet the needs of the modern Jew. Rooted in an ethical approach, the practices associated with the Reform movement vary from place to place depending on the particular rabbi and synagogue. Many traditional observances and rituals were eliminated or modified in keeping with Reform philosophy. In recent years, however, some Reform Jews have attempted to bring back certain rituals and traditions in a number of areas.
Given the liberal nature of the Reform movement, it is not surprising that the movement has taken a liberal approach to conversion. This branch of Judaism was the first to institute an outreach program for people considering conversion. Although the movement strongly encourages conversion of a non-Jewish spouse, its synagogues do accept as full members those non-Jews who have not undergone formal conversion but agree to maintain a Jewish home and provide their children with a Jewish education. Reform conversion programs are usually called “Introduction to Judaism” classes. Jewish partners are encouraged to participate along with the potential convert. The course of study usually lasts about 18 weeks.
Completion of this course does not obligate conversion. In fact, I often urge non-Jews who have Jewish mates but feel they cannot convert, or are not ready to convert, to take this course as a first step toward understanding the ethnic and religious background of their Jewish partners. Since it is not billed as a conversion class per se, the enrollment often includes some born Jews who are taking the class purely for self-edification.
As for the conversion itself, the individual rabbi must decide whether the mikveh (immersion in a ritual pool, for men and women) and the brit milah (circumcision, for men) will be required, strongly encouraged, or presented as optional. A convert who has undergone a Reform conversion will be welcome as a member in any Reform or Reconstructionist congregation, but perhaps not in an Orthodox or a Conservative one. However, religious services in all synagogues are open to anyone who wishes to attend.
The Reform policy of admitting non-Jews to synagogue membership has been widely criticized, even within the Reform movement itself. Critics believe that acceptance without conversion diminishes the individual’s motivation to convert. Why bother if they can enjoy the same status as the born Jews in their synagogue?
This argument is compounded by the Reform movement’s controversial decision on patrilineal descent [in which the child of a Jewish father is considered a Jew if he or she is raised in a Jewish home and educated as a Jew], which negates the traditional rule that only a child born of a Jewish mother is considered Jewish. In the past, the desire to have Jewish children may have motivated many women to convert. Now that their children can be considered Jewish anyway, they themselves may be less likely to ever decide to convert.
Others respond to the criticism with the argument that lack of pressure to convert, combined with a warm welcome and the opportunity to become familiar with Judaism at a slower pace, leads to more and better committed converts. Those who have worked closely in programming for Reform converts report this to be the case.
The Conservative Approach
Conservative Judaism, sometimes described as a middle ground between Reform and Orthodox Judaism, accepts the authority of the Written and Oral Law of the Torah and the Talmud and believes that adherence to these laws strengthens the Jewish community both socially and spiritually. But the movement also maintains that modern-day realities necessitate certain modification in the laws, as long as the decisions are made by authorized scholars and rabbis and supported by halakhic (Jewish law) arguments. Among the changes over the years have been granting equal status to women as members of a minyan [a quorum of 10 for prayer] and in the practice of ritual; permitting Jews to drive a car on the Sabbath or holidays in order to attend services; allowing men and women to sit together in synagogue; and altering the text of the prayerbook.
Non-Jews are not accepted as members of Conservative synagogues, nor are the children of non-Jewish mothers considered Jewish. Although Conservative rabbis understand that many converts choose Judaism for the sake of marriage rather than out of deep personal conviction, they maintain that Conservative converts emerge from the conversion process with a basic understanding of Judaism and usually go on to become sincere Jews.
The Conservative movement requires a specific course of study for the prospective convert, usually about 18 weeks, conducted in a private or classroom setting. If a Jewish mate is involved, he or she is expected to attend the course as well. The conversion requires mikveh for men and women, and brit milah for men, or hatafat dam brit [ritually taking a drop of blood] for men already circumcised. The convert-to-be then appears before a beit din (a tribunal of three rabbis–in this case, Conservative rabbis), whose members ask questions to determine the emotional, spiritual, and academic readiness of the potential convert.
Some Conservative rabbis do not accept conversions performed by Reform rabbis if the mikveh or brit milah was not required or if a certain level of Jewish knowledge was not attained. This can also become significant if a couple wants to be married by a Conservative rabbi, but the non-Jewish partner was converted by a Reform rabbi who did not require the traditional rituals. In such cases, the Conservative rabbi may accept the conversion if the convert completes the rituals that were omitted. In some instances, Conservative rabbis have not recognized conversions done under Orthodox auspices because the rabbis believed the convert failed to attain a sufficient level of Jewish knowledge. The fact is that there are few absolutes in determining what is acceptable and what isn’t. Much depends on the rabbi, the convert, and the individual situation.
The Reconstructionist Approach
The Reconstructionist movement, Judaism’s smallest and newest branch, defines Judaism as an evolving religious civilization whose essential unity derives from its peoplehood, not from its laws and theology. Founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who was a professor at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary before he established the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Reconstructionism holds that traditional laws guiding practice and rituals should be observed but are not binding.
Reconstructionist rabbis report a certain degree of flexibility in performing conversions and in accepting conversions by rabbis from other branches of Judaism. For the most part, Reconstructionist synagogues accept non-Jews as members if they are committed to Jewish living and to raising their children as Jews. In most congregations, the non-Jew can have voting privileges, but some rabbis do not permit a non-Jew to be called for an aliyah [literally, going up] to the Torah.
With regard to conversion, the official movement policy requires a course of study–often conducted on an individual basis because of the movement’s small size–as well as a beit din, mikveh, and hatafat dam brit. In actuality, however, many Reconstructionist converts I counsel do not undergo all of the requirements. Some say that the mikveh was an option, and others say there was no beit din present.
The majority of Reconstructionist synagogues and rabbis recognize and accept conversions performed by rabbis outside of their own movement. Likewise, Reform and Conservative rabbis generally accept Reconstructionist conversions, although there have been cases in which Conservative rabbis did not accept them as valid.
The Orthodox Approach
Orthodox Jews, believing that the Torah was given by God, maintain strict adherence to the laws of the Torah as they were interpreted by the rabbis in the Talmud and in other works of Jewish law. Both Written and Oral Law are immutable in the Orthodox view. Many Orthodox Jews strongly oppose the practices of all other branches of Judaism, viewing them as violations of the Torah that God revealed to the Jewish people.
Under Orthodox Judaism, the only acceptable reason for a person to convert is personal conviction. The vast majority of those who seek Orthodox conversions are serious people who genuinely want to commit themselves to a traditional Jewish life. Conversion simply for the sake of marriage is, at least according to official policy, neither condoned nor permitted among the Orthodox. The Orthodox movement does not provide courses that are designed, much less advertised, as leading to conversion. To do so could be seen as condoning the existence of the kind of interfaith relationships that are unacceptable in the Orthodox community. But in some communities one may find, through word of mouth, one or two rabbis who will conduct small organized classes for prospective converts or provide individual instruction.
The Orthodox conversion process always requires mikveh and brit milah or hatafat dam brit. Acceptance of all the applicable mitzvot, the commandments of Jewish law, is expected. The beit din must consist of three Orthodox legal authorities, usually rabbis.
However, a few converts have told me that they obtained their Orthodox conversions under less than ideal circumstances, having undergone what they considered to be quick and superficial conversions that seemed to them little more than formalities. Others, who converted for less than ideal motives–such as to appease family members or to be accepted as Jews in Israel–later confessed to me that they felt compelled to tell the rabbis what they wanted to hear regarding their intentions to practice traditional Judaism rather than to be honest about the less than traditional life-style that they felt they could more realistically commit to.
Although it might be expected that Orthodox rabbis are more stringent and scrupulous than rabbis of other branches in their screening of converts, they often tend to appear more lenient, believing that what the convert does or does not do is between the convert and God. As one Orthodox rabbi who supervises conversions put it, “It is not for the rabbi to delve into the heart to determine if the convert is sincere. I must accept what he is telling me. The rest is between him and God.”
Orthodox Jews typically do not accept or recognize conversions performed under the auspices of any other branch of Judaism, even if the traditional rituals were performed.
Reprinted with permission from Your People, My People: Finding Acceptance and Fulfillment as a Jew By Choice (www.intermarriages.com).
© Lena Romanoff, 1990. First edition published by Jewish Publication Society (JPS). Second edition published by Identity Plus [http://www.intermarriages.com/]. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be stored, transmitted, retransmitted, lent, or reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of Lena Romanoff.
For more on this topic, read Conversion to Judaism: Denomination by Denomination.
Pronounced: breet mee-LAH, Origin: Hebrew, literally “covenant of circumcision,” the Jewish circumcision ceremony for an 8-day-old boy, marking the covenant between God and the Jews. Also known as a bris.
Pronounced: MICK-vuh, or mick-VAH, Alternate Spelling: mikvah, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish ritual bath.
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.