I am a religiously-unaffiliated philosophy professor seriously considering conversion to Judaism, and am currently learning as much as I can in order to make a decision. My reasons for wanting to convert are entirely my own - I find myself drawn to the religion's beliefs and practices and feel it may be where I belong. In my research I have found numerous books on the subject of conversion, however they normally focus on the process of conversion itself - the 'how'. Whilst this is certainly important, I feel I first need to tackle the question of 'should' on a deep and careful level. I would like to make a sincere spiritual and moral commitment, and I know that converting to Judaism is not a small or trivial commitment to make. Are you able to recommend any reading material that explores the question of 'should I convert?' in a deep and contemplative way? Something that explores not just the practicalities of the decision, but its deeper meaning in terms of one's moral commitments and relationship with God? I am particularly interested in the pros and cons in this respect, as I have sometimes encountered dire warnings that "It is better to be a righteous Gentile than to make a commitment that you cannot keep". I feel I will need to study and contemplate the pros and cons of conversions very deeply in order to choose wisely. Thank you for your time (and feel free to edit this overly-long question for clarity).
You touch upon numerous issues in your question and I will not be able to respond to all of them within this answer (albeit that it is still a long one). What I hope to do, though, is to focus upon what I consider to be the initial concerns that you have to first address. I also hope to provide some direction for you on how to go from there.
The first question you must ask is what you mean by – or what is generally meant by -- conversion to Judaism. This may seem to be a trivial question but, in fact, it is a most significant one for the exact nature and goal of the transformation that is represented by the term ‘conversion to Judaism’ is understood differently by different people. This, thus, yields a problem in discussing the issue for what one person may mean by this term could be vastly different than what another person means. It is, therefore, important for you to fully understand what you mean by this term, both personally and within the context of others, before you determine the path to meet your goal.
This investigation must begin with the concept of the group. The starting point is that there is a group of individuals defined as Jews and the simplest understanding of conversion is that it is the method by which a person becomes a member of this group. But what exactly is the nature of this group? Since the term ‘conversion’ generally has religious connotations, there is a basic assumption that the nature of the group would be theological, i.e. Jews are individuals with a shared theology of a certain type. Is this, though, a proper way of defining the Jewish group?
There are actually two major difficulties with this definition. The first is that defining the Jewish group solely by theology would yield difficulties for Jewishness seems to also cover a nationalistic/ethnic/cultural dimension. The recent Pew Report on Jewish Americans even included a category entitled ‘Jews of no religion’ for it found that over 20% of American Jews “say they have no particular religion although they have direct Jewish ancestry (at least one Jewish parent) and consider themselves Jewish or partly Jewish.” In defining themselves as members of the Jewish group, such individuals clearly do not see this group as being defined by shared theology. The fact is that one of the essential elements of the Jewish group, within the consciousness of most Jews, is shared nationality or peoplehood. To many who stress this aspect of Jewishness, conversion is actually the term for how one not born Jewish can become part of this peoplehood, almost, regardless of theology. The very fact that Jewishness is even tied to birth would actually seem to give weight to this factor of Jewishness. So is the Jewish group a collection of individuals with a shared theology or a peoplehood or, somehow, both? If one argues both, how do these two elements of group identity come together to define the nature of this group? In wishing to convert, you must ask: what exactly is the nature of this group with which you wish to join?
This leads to the second basic difficulty that you must consider in tackling this issue of the group’s nature and that concerns the theological distinctions within Judaism. The branches of Judaism actually reflect major differences in theology that many Jews, unfortunately, do not even recognize. Further on this, please see my Adjective and Non-Adjective Jews, Nishma Introspection 5761-2. While there may be certain elements of theology that are shared by the variant branches, the reality is that in any conversion process that would be undertaken by an individual, the theology that would be taught would be specific to one of the branches of Judaism. In solely theological terms, it would be more correct for an individual to state that he/she is converting to or has converted to Orthodoxy Judaism or Reform Judaism, for example, rather than just state that he/she is converting to or has converted to Judaism. That would be a clearer representation of the shared theology. As such, in theological terms, you have to also determine with which theological grouping you wish to connect, i.e. which branch of Judaism you wish to join. This actually also leads us back to the first difficulty for while the theological distinctions between the branches of Judaism, by definition, splinter the broad group, the peoplehood aspect of Jewishness connects individuals within the broad group beyond the theological distinctions. As such, we do not talk of converts to Conservative Judaism or Orthodox Judaism but people wishing to become part of the overall group of Jews – which again brings in the peoplehood aspect.
So the first thing you have to do on this path of conversion is to truly decide the nature of the Jewishness which you wish to pursue. As conversion is in the hands of the branches of Judaism, you have to make a decision as to which branch of Judaism you wish to consider – at least, as a starting point. This would mean that you have to get in touch with a rabbi within the branch with which you wish to start this process. It may also mean that you will have to discuss the issue with rabbis of different branches in order to find the path that you wish to follow. As a philosophy professor, I am sure you can understand that the process of conversion is really an investigation of truth and your place within it. What I am simply presenting is the process of investigating this specific truth regarding Jewishness. It is then within the branch, or understanding of truth, that you have accepted that you will have to further investigate your questions and the one I am posing regarding the relationship between theology and peoplehood in Jewish identity.
It is actually with this issue that I would like to conclude. Since I brought up the issue of whether Jewishness reflects peoplehood or religious commitment or, somehow, both, I think that I should explain how Orthodoxy approaches the matter. This may also provide a basis for how to approach your further questions from an Orthodox perspective.
Jewishness actually reflects, within Orthodoxy, a nationalistic identity. A Jew is a member of the Jewish nation and one is either a member of this nation through birth (born to a Jewish mother) or through gerut, generally translated as conversion. In general terms (without entering into a discussion of technicalities), in order for one to become part of this nation, though, one must accept the faith of Orthodox Judaism as a pre-requisite. Simply, gerut is how one becomes a member of the Jewish nation but before being considered a candidate for becoming a member of the Jewish nation, the person must already be a believer in the universal theology of Orthodox Judaism. While Jews are expected to have a shared theology, the fact is that shared theology is not a defining factor of Jewishness. One may be Jewish without sharing the theology of Orthodox Judaism and sharing the theology of Orthodox Judaism does not make one Jewish. This demands further explanation.
As a universal religion, Orthodox Judaism’s theology actually applies to all humanity. The ideal within Orthodoxy – and this is found in the presentation of various Messianic ideals – is that all of humanity will adopt the theology and understanding of God as presented within Orthodoxy. What Orthodoxy presents, though, is a distinction in Divine expectations between the Jewish nation and the rest of humanity. God distinguished the Jewish nation and gave them the Torah which consisted of 613 commandments. For the rest of Mankind, God solely demanded observance of the 7 Laws of Noach, the Noachide Code. So being designated at birth as a Jew -- meaning that one is designated thereby as a member of the Jewish nation – simply defines an individual as subject to the Torah commandments. This is a designation that is inherent and cannot be lost. Non-observance of these commandments, even a rejection of basic theological principles including belief in God, does not result in a person losing the national status of being a Jew. The person is still part of the nation and still obligated in the Torah. Still, the essence of Jewish national identity is that it is the nation designated by God to receive the gift of the Torah and be bound by these additional Divine responsibilities with their further Divine benefits.
The wish to join the nation by someone not Jewish is thus understood to be, within this theological perspective, a wish by this person to be bound by the Torah commandments and not solely the Noachide Code. Gerut is thus designated as the process by which a non-Jew can become a Jew, enter into the covenant between God and the Jewish People, and thereby be bound by the laws incumbent upon a Jew. Given that national identity specifically concerns this commitment, fundamental to gerut, as such, is the acceptance of this commitment, kabbalat mitzvot, the acceptance of the Torah commandments. This commitment is obviously built upon an acceptance of the underlying theology so, theoretically, the process of conversion within Orthodoxy is one whereby an individual, who believes in this universal theology, wishes to join the Jewish nation because of a wish to be bound by the Torah Code. The process confirms this commitment.
A non-Jew, however, does not have to become a member of the Jewish nation and, pursuant to the universal theology of Orthodox Judaism, can be a Righteous Gentile through the observance of the Noachide Code. It is within this context that the question of ‘why convert?’ really exists. What are the proper motivations for one to want to become a member of the Jewish nation with its greater obligations? (In regard to Righteous Gentiles, you may wish to look at the life of Aime Pailliere (19th century) who is generally presented as the first modern Noachide.)
You are correct to state that you “will need to study and contemplate the pros and cons of conversions very deeply in order to choose wisely.” This study must begin with the above questions and your choice of the person to further instruct you, not only in the nature of the theology you wish to pursue but also in terms of your personal connection to it. Please feel free to contact me through www.nishma.org if you think I can be of further assistance.
Your thoughtful question is so very relevant precisely because in Jewish thought and belief there is no imperative for a non-Jew to convert to Judaism. Deeply embedded in our faith, and grounded in the Biblical story of creation, is the belief that all people are created in God's image.
As a corollary to that basic belief, our Rabbis have taught us that all good people may merit a place in the world to come, whether they are Jewish or not! So, as you ask for help in exploring the excellent question: “Should I convert?” Or, to put it another way: “Why become Jewish”?
When exploring this question, it is important to note that, from the earliest time, there has not been unanimity among the rabbis in regard to the question of the significance of the conversion candidate’s motivation in regard to the process of conversion.
In early Talmudic sources, the rabbis drew distinctions between someone whose desire to convert stemmed from purely religious or spiritual motivations (who was seen as the ideal candidate for conversion) and someone who may have expressed a desire to convert based on many other motivating factors (see Tractate Gerim; Baraita in Tractate Gerim 24b).
However, in Tractate Yevamot 47 a-b there is a description of the process of evaluating a potential candidate for conversion. There, we see a view that the Rabbis were routinely expected to ask a potential convert: “What motivated you to desire to convert?” Interestingly enough, immediately following the statement of that question, the same source continues by saying that the Rabbis were to discuss with the potential convert the implications of becoming part of a people whose history has included great suffering, emphasizing the importance of the “peoplehood” aspect of conversion. And, if the candidate says: “I understand and am still interested in converting”, the candidate should be accepted immediately.
In the Geonic period (post Talmudic period), and thereafter, there are Jewish texts that specifically state that not only the purely religious or spiritual motivations are acceptable, but other motivations as well (e.g. wanting to convert in order to marry a Jewish person) may be perfectly acceptable motivations for one who wanted to complete a journey toward conversion.
On its website, www.rabbinicalassembly.org, The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement has published resources on conversion, which you may wish to explore.
I, myself, have been privileged to accompany the journeys of many people who chose a route that eventually led to conversion to Judaism. And, it has been my experience that their presence in community has been inspiring and invigorating!
I have also learned that although each person's spiritual journey is unique, and that people convert for a variety of reasons, there are common threads of sacred connection between each of those stories and the story of the Jewish people.
In your question, you say you have your reasons for being interested in exploring the process of conversion, and at the same time you desire to deepen your understanding of the question of “Should I convert?”
This, in and of itself, sounds like a very Jewish quest, since Jewish tradition encourages us to deepen our understanding, to continually study, and to ask questions. And, you ask specifically about reading material that might help you explore the question.
In response to your question, I suggest the following books that might be helpful to you:
Why Be Jewish by David Wolpe.
Embracing the Covenant: Converts to Judaism Talk About Why & How by Rabbi Allan L. Berkowitz and Patti Moskovitz..
Embracing Judaism by Rabbi Simcha Kling, revised by Rabbi Carl M. Perkins.
Judaism: Embracing the Seeker by Rabbi Harold Schulweis. This book includes first person testimonials by more than 50 people who chose to convert to Judaism, as well as comments by rabbis.
One should never rush into conversion, especially as there is no imperative to convert. Your desire to delve deeply into the question of “Should I convert” is very apt, as conversion should only be undertaken with a full heart.
I encourage you to discuss your excellent question with a rabbi, or with a study partner, who will help you process the question and absorb the wisdom to be found in the written texts in a way that relates to your specific situation.
Jewish tradition encourages Jews to study holy texts in chevruta, that is: not alone, but with another person, with a study partner, whose unique and individual perspectives, when brought to bear on the issue we are exploring, serve to sharpen our focus and to bring new dimensions of wisdom into our spiritual conversation.
This highlights the fact that, although the root of any conversion rests with the individual who undertakes that journey, the process of conversion to Judaism is not simply an individual's spiritual search. It is also the process of associating oneself with the people Israel. Hence, the power of the words of Ruth to Naomi, in the biblical book of Ruth: "Your people are my people, and your God is my God."
When one contemplates conversion, questions should be explored over time, and in depth, until a sense of clarity of purpose and direction emerges.
May you be blessed as you continue on your spiritual journey!
Your question goes to the heart of the Jewish understanding of the world. We understand the Book of Genesis to teach that God created the entire world and all of the peoples who populate the earth. Later God entered into a covenant with Abraham, which becomes the bond between God and the Jewish people. Implicit in this understanding is that God remains the God of all Creation. Even though the Jewish people have a particular relationship with God defined by the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, God remains in relationship with all peoples who enter into a relationship with God that the Torah calls the Noahide laws. The prophet Amos declares: (9:7) “To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, But also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” As you suggest in your question, Judaism teaches that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come.
Based on this understanding one of the questions classically posed to those who wish to convert is, “do you understand that until now you were obligated only to the commandments given to Noah, but once you convert you will be obliged to observe the 613 commandments given at Mt. Sinai.” While individual rabbis may present the question in different ways, the implication is that you may serve God as effectively from outside the Jewish community as from within. Conversion fits those who wish to join their destiny with this particular people Israel.
But that may not address the core of your question. I don't hear you asking the general question, should one convert to Judaism, but the personal question of whether this is right for you. That is a question that cannot be answered for you, but requires you to listen carefully to the song of your soul. Is Judaism the path that allows you, in your most essential self, to serve God (however you understand that) or to bring holiness into the world? If Judaism is more effective than other paths for you, then I would counsel you to pursue your conversion.
There are no books that I know of that will address this question for you; the answer is to be found in your experience. Most rabbis require both study and practice as part of the process toward conversion. It may take a year or more – and often is keyed to your personal sense of readiness. You have obviously invested time and concern in exploring the question this far. I would suggest that you take the next step. Find a rabbi who understands your quest and enter into a process of exploration. Regardless of whether you decide that conversion to Judaism is the right path for you, or if you discover that it does not fit for you, your life will be enhanced. You will gain more self-knowledge. You will discover ways to bring holiness into the world, to promote righteousness and to serve God. You have everything to gain, I wish you many blessings along your path.
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