How Does Someone Convert to Judaism?
When our ancestors accepted responsibility to observe the Torah, they did so by performing bris milah, immersing themselves in a mikveh, and offering korbanos. In the same way, a non-Jew who chooses to join the Jewish people is entering the same covenant and must follow a similar procedure (Gemara Kerisus 9a).
The privilege of becoming a ger tzedek requires very exact and exacting guidelines. On a technical level, the ger is accepting responsibility to perform mitzvos. Through the geirus procedure, he creates an obligation upon himself to observe mitzvos (Birchas Shmuel, Kiddushin #15).
DEFINITION OF A JEW
To the non-Jewish or non-observant world, the definition of a Jew is based on sociological criteria. But to the Torah Jew, the definition of a Jew is someone who is a member of a people who are obligated to fulfill all of the Torah’s commandments. For this reason, it is axiomatic that no one can become Jewish without first accepting the responsibility to observe mitzvos (kabbalas mitzvos). This concept, so obvious to the Torah Jew, is almost never appreciated by the non-observant. Someone who does not (yet) observe mitzvos himself usually does not appreciate why observing mitzvos is imperative to becoming Jewish. This is why a not-yet-observant Jew often finds our requirements for giyur to be “unrealistic” or even “intolerant.” However in true reality, attempting to bend the Torah’s rules reflects an intolerance, or more exactly, a lack of understanding. The Torah Jew realizes that the basic requirement for becoming a Jew is accepting Hashem’s commandments, since a Jew is by definition someone who is bound by the Torah.
As we all know, when someone requests to be converted to Judaism, we discourage him. As the Gemara (Yevamos 47a) says, if a potential convert comes, we ask him, “Why do you want to convert? Don’t you know that Jews are persecuted and dishonored? Constant suffering is their lot! Why do you want to join such a people?”
Why do we discourage a sincere non-Jew from joining Jewish ranks? Shouldn’t we encourage someone to undertake such a noble endeavor!
The reason is that even if the potential convert is very sincerely motivated, we still want to ascertain that he or she can persevere to keep the mitzvos even under adversity. Although we can never be certain what the future brings, by making the path to conversion difficult we are helping the potential convert who might later regret his conversion when the going gets hard. Because of this rationale, some batei din deliberately make it difficult for a potential convert as a method of discouraging him.
I have used a different method of discouragement, by informing potential converts of the seven mitzvos bnei Noach. In so doing, I point out that they can merit olam haba without becoming obligated to keep all the Torah’s mitzvos. In this way, I hope to make them responsible moral non-Jews without their becoming Jewish. As the Gemara explains, we tell him, “Until now you received no punishment if you failed to keep kosher. There was no punishment if you failed to observe Shabbos. If you become Jewish, you will receive very severe punishments for not keeping kosher or Shabbos!” (Yevamos 47a).
I once met a woman who was enthusiastically interested in becoming Jewish. Although she was living in a town with no Jewish community – she was already keeping a kosher home!
After I explained the mitzvos of bnei Noach to her, she insisted that this was not enough for her. She wanted to be fully Jewish.
Because of her enthusiasm, I expected to hear from her again. I was wrong. I never heard from her again. It seems that her tremendous enthusiasm petered out. This is exactly what Chazal were concerned about. Therefore they told us to make it difficult for someone to become Jewish and see whether his or her commitment survives adversity. It was better that this woman’s enthusiasm waned before she became Jewish than after she became Jewish and had no way out.
The following story from my personal experience is unfortunately very common. A gentile woman, eager to marry an observant Jewish man, agreed to fulfill all the mitzvos as a requirement for her conversion. (As we will point out shortly, this is not a recommended procedure.) Although she seemed initially very excited about observing mitzvos, with time she began to lose interest. In the end, she ended up giving up observance completely. The unfortunate result is that she is now a chotei Yisrael (a Jew who sins).
MOTIVATION FOR CONVERTING
We must ascertain that the proposed convert wants to become Jewish for the correct reasons. If we discern or suspect that there is an ulterior reason to convert, we do not accept the potential convert even if he is committed to observing all the mitzvos.
For this reason converts are not accepted at times when there is political, financial, or social gain in being Jewish. For example, no converts were accepted in the days of Mordechai and Esther, nor in the times of Dovid and Shlomoh, nor will geirim be accepted in the era of the Moshiach. During such times, we suspect that the convert is somewhat motivated by the financial or political advantages in being Jewish (Gemara Yevamos 24b). This applies even if we are certain that they will observe all the mitzvos.
Despite this rule, unlearned Jews created “batei din” during the reign of Dovid HaMelech and accepted converts against the wishes of the gedolim (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Biyah 13:15).
The Rambam explains that the “non-Jewish” wives that Shlomoh married were really insincere converts. In his words, “In the days of Shlomoh converts were not accepted by the official batei din…however Shlomoh converted women and married them…and it was known that they converted for ulterior reasons and not through the official batei din. For this reason, the pasuk treats them as non-Jews…furthermore the end bears out that they worshipped idols and built altars to them” (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Biyah 13:15-16).
Because of this rule, we do not accept someone who is converting because he or she wants to marry someone who is Jewish, even if the convert is absolutely willing to observe all the mitzvos (Gemara Yevamos 24b). I have seen numerous instances of non-Jews who converted primarily for marriage and who agreed to keep all the mitzvos at the time of the conversion. Even in the instances where mitzvos were indeed observed, I have seen very few situations where mitzvos were still being observed a few years (or even months) later.
GEIRUS WITH IMPROPER MOTIVATION
What is the halachic status of someone who went through the geirus process for the wrong reasons, such as they converted because they wanted to marry someone?
If the convert followed all the procedures including full acceptance of all the mitzvos, the conversion is valid even though we disapprove of what was done. If the convert remains faithful to Jewish observance, we will treat him with all the respect due to a Jew. However, before reaching a decision on his status, the beis din waits a while to see whether the convert is indeed fully committed to living a Jewish life (Rambam, Issurei Biyah 13:15-18).
However, someone who is not committed to mitzvah observance and just goes through the procedures has not become Jewish at all.
Jim was interested in “converting to Judaism” because his wife was Jewish and not because he was interested in observing mitzvos. At first he went to a Rav who explained that he must observe all the mitzvos, and certainly they must live within the frum community. This was not what Jim had in mind, so he went shopping for a “rabbi” who would meet his standards. Is there any validity to this conversion?
How does a non-Jew become Jewish? As mentioned above, Klal Yisrael joined Hashem’s covenant with three steps: bris milah (for males), immersion in a mikveh, and offering a korban (Gemara Krisus 9a). Since no korbanos are brought today, the convert becomes a ger without fulfilling this mitzvah. (We derive from a pasuk that geirim are accepted even in generations that do not have a Beis HaMikdash.) However, when the Beis HaMikdash is iy”h rebuilt, every ger will be required to offer a korban olah which is completely burnt on the mizbayach (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Biyah 13:5).
Besides these three steps, the convert must accept all the mitzvos, just as the Jews accepted to keep all the mitzvos.
Preferably, each step in the geirus procedure should be witnessed by a beis din. Some poskim contend that the bris and tevilah are valid even if not witnessed by a beis din. But all poskim agree that if the kabbalas (accepting) mitzvos does not take place in the presence of a beis din, the conversion is invalid (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:3). Thus, a minimal requirement for proper giyur (conversion) is that the ger’s commitment to observe all the mitzvos and practices of a Jew be made in the presence of a kosher beis din. Any “conversion” with no commitment to mitzvos, or where the commitment is made without observant Jews present, is by definition invalid and without any halachic foundation.
Unfortunately, some well-intentioned converts have been misled by people purporting to be batei din for geirus. I know of a woman who underwent four different conversion procedures until she performed a geirus in the presence of a kosher beis din!
As mentioned above, kabbalas mitzvos is a verbalized acceptance to observe all the Torah’s mitzvos. We do not accept a convert who states that he is accepting all the mitzvos of the Torah except for one (Gemara Bechoros 30b). Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses a woman who was interested in converting and was willing to fulfill all the mitzvos except that she did not want to dress in the halachically-required tzniyus way. Rav Moshe rules that it is questionable if her geirus is valid (Shu”t Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah 3:106).
If the potential convert states that he/she accepts kabbalas mitzvos, we usually assume that the geirus is valid. However, what is the halacha if a person declares that he accepts the mitzvos but his behavior indicates the opposite? For example, what happens if the convert eats non-kosher or desecrates Shabbos immediately following his conversion procedure? Is he considered Jewish?
Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that if it is clear that the person never intended to observe mitzvos, his conversion is invalid. The person remains a non-Jew since he never undertook kabbalas mitzvos, which is the most important component of geirus (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:157; 3:106).
As mentioned before, conversion is an act that requires a proper beis din, meaning minimally three fully observant male Jews.
Since a beis din cannot perform a legal function at night or on Shabbos or Yom Tov, conversions cannot be performed at these times (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:4).
Until now we discussed the conversion of adults. A child can also be converted to Judaism (Gemara Kesubos 11a). There are two common reasons why this is done: Either when the child’s parents are converting to Judaism, or when a non-Jewish child is adopted by Jewish parents.
The conversion of a child involves an interesting question. As we explained above, the convert’s acceptance of the mitzvos is the main factor that makes him into a Jew. However, since a child is too young to assume legal obligations and responsibilities, how can his conversion be valid when it is without a legal accepting of mitzvos?
The answer is that we know that children can be converted from the historical precedent of Sinai where the Jewish people accepted the Torah and mitzvos. Among them were thousands of children who also joined the covenant and became part of klal Yisrael. When these children became adults, they became responsible to keep mitzvos (Tosafos Sanhedrin 68b).
There is, however, a qualitative difference between a child who becomes part of the covenant together with his parents, and an adopted child who is becoming Jewish without his birth parents. In the former case the parent assumes responsibility for the child’s decision (Gemara Kesubos 11a; Rashi Yevamos 48a s.v. eved), whereas an adopting parent cannot assume this role in the conversion process. Instead, the beis din supervising the geirus acts as the child’s surrogate parents and accepts his geirus. This same approach is used if a child comes of his own volition and requests to be converted (Mordechai, Yevamos 4:40).
CAN THE CHILD REJECT THIS DECISION?
Yes. If the child convert decides on reaching maturity that he does not want to be Jewish, he invalidates his conversion and reverts to being a gentile. The age at which a child can make this decision is when he or she becomes obligated to observe mitzvos, twelve for a girl and thirteen for a boy (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:162).
CAN HE CHANGE HIS MIND LATER IN LIFE?
No. Once the child achieves maturity and is living an observant lifestyle, this is considered an acceptance of the conversion that cannot be rejected afterwards.
WHAT IF THE CHILD CONVERT WAS UNAWARE THAT HE WAS A GER AND DID NOT KNOW THAT HE HAD THE OPTION?
Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses the case of a couple that adopted a non-Jewish child but did not want to tell him that he was adopted. (Not telling the child he is adopted may be inadvisable for psychological reasons, but this is an article on halacha, not psychology.) Rav Moshe raises the following halachic reason why the parents should tell the child that he is a convert. Assuming that the child knows he is a child convert, he has the option to accept or reject his Judaism when turning bar mitzvah (bas mitzvah for a girl), which is a time that the parents have much influence on their child. Subsequent to this time, he cannot opt out of Judaism. However, if he does not discover that he is a convert until he becomes an adult, he would have the option at that time to accept or reject his Judaism, and the parents have limited influence on his decision.
WHAT IF THE CHILD WANTS TO BE A NON-OBSERVANT JEW?
What is the halacha if the child at age thirteen wants to be Jewish, but does not want to be observant?
There is a dispute among poskim whether this constitutes a rejection of one’s conversion or not. Some contend that not observing mitzvos is not the same as rejecting conversion; the conversion is only undone if the child does not want to be Jewish. Others contend that not observing mitzvos is considered an abandonment of one’s being Jewish.
Many years ago I asked my rebbe, Rav Yaakov Kulefsky zt”l, about the following situation. A boy underwent a giyur katan and was raised by non-observant “traditional” parents who kept a kosher home but did not observe Shabbos. The boy wanted to be Jewish without being observant, just like his adopted parents. The family wanted to celebrate his bar mitzvah in an Orthodox shul and have the boy “lein” the Torah. Was this permitted or was the boy considered non-Jewish?
Rav Kulefsky zt”l paskined that the boy could “lein” and was considered halachically Jewish. Other poskim disagree, contending that being halachically Jewish requires acknowledging the mitzvos we must perform. Someone who rejects the mitzvos thereby rejects the concept of being Jewish.
GERIM ARE SPECIAL
Once a potential ger persists in his determination to join the Jewish people, the beis din will usually recommend a program whereby he can learn about Judaism and that sets him on track for giyur. A ger tzedek should be treated with tremendous love and respect. Indeed, the Torah gives us a special mitzvah to “Love the Ger,” and we daven for them daily in our Shmoneh Esrei!
Throughout the years, I have met many sincere gerim and have been truly impressed by their dedication to Torah and mitzvos. Hearing about the journey to find truth that brought them to Judaism is usually fascinating. What would cause a gentile to join the Jewish people, risk confronting the brunt of anti-Semitism, while at the same time being uncertain that Jews will accept him? Sincere converts are drawn by the truth of Torah and a desire to be part of the Chosen People. They know that they can follow the will of Hashem by doing seven mitzvos, but they insist on choosing an all-encompassing Torah lifestyle.
One sincere young woman, of Oriental background, stood firmly before the Beis Din. “Why would you want this?” questioned the Rav.
“Because it is truth and gives my life meaning.”
“There are many rules to follow,” he cautioned.
“I know. I have been following them meticulously for two years,” came the immediate reply. “I identify with the Jews.”
After further questioning, the beis din authorized her geirus, offering her two dates convenient for them. She chose the earlier one, so she could keep one extra Shabbos.
We should learn from the ger to observe our mitzvos every day with tremendous excitement – just as if we just received them for the first time!