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The Basics of Conversion to Judaism

Return to A Resource Guide to Jewish Conversion.

Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. Conversion, in Judaism, is about becoming a Jew and joining the Jewish people. The person who converts takes on the obligation to perform God's commandments (mitzvot)--whatever that means to the community she wants to join. In some communities it means something very specific about what you eat and wear and what you do on Shabbat and in others, it means working to be a more ethical person. Either way, becoming Jewish isn't only, or even mainly, about what you believe.

In some periods of Jewish history it has been easier to become a Jew than in others. Right now is not the easiest it's ever been. Ideological differences have made the Jewish identity of converts highly politicized. In Jewish law, once a person has undergone conversion, they are Jewish, period, and it's a sin to trouble converts. Some Jews use the term Jews by choice instead of converts as a way to downplay the differences between people born Jewish and people who choose Judaism. The current divisions in the Jewish community which have groups of Jews not accepting each other's conversions are particularly distressing taking these religious imperatives into account.

The basic outline of the conversion process is:

1. The person declares his or her intention to become a Jew and to live in a Jewish way. At this stage, in order to convert, the person must prepare by studying Judaism and participating in the Jewish community. Usually, a rabbi helps the potential convert co-ordinate learning. It is a custom in some communities to turn away converts three times, but not all rabbis follow this.

Beginning to study never means you have to convert. You do not have to feel obligation to follow through if you change your mind.

2. When the guiding rabbi thinks the potential convert is ready, a rabbinical court (beit din) of three observant Jews examines the person by asking questions to ascertain their commitment to living as a Jew--according to mitzvot, in the Jewish community, as part of the Jewish people. Usually a beit din has at least one rabbi. In some communities, there is an established beit din of qualified rabbis that handles all conversions.

3. If the person is male, he undergoes a circumcision. Historically, it was not common for men who were not Jews or Muslims to be circumcised. Now that the majority of adult men in the US are circumcised in infancy, some converting rabbis do another ritual on men to give a previous medical circumcision Jewish religious significance. This ritual, called hatafat dam brit or shedding of covanental blood, involves shedding a single drop of blood from the site of the circumcision cut.

4. The person performs a ritual immersion, a tevilah, in a ritual bath called a mikveh to mark becoming a Jew.

But, as we'll explore in this guide, there is a lot of variation in this basic program, both among Jewish movements and in studying with individual rabbis.

Hebrew for "drop of blood covenant," it is a ritual circumcision for those already circumcised. (Usually men who are converting to Judaism.) Rabbinic court involved in matters of Jewish law, including conversion and traditional divorce procedures. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

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