Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Conversion Question

Dear Tanta Golda,
I just learned that several people have approached our rabbi about converting. I’ve heard that Jews are supposed to discourage someone from converting - three times! What’s with that? I thought we made a big deal about praising Ruth as a convert?
Transmutedly Challenged

My darling Challenged,
I understand your confusion! Over the centuries there have been times when the Jewish community was less accepting of converts, but this was largely a matter of survival. Sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. There were times, especially during the Middle Ages, when to become a convert or to aid someone in the process, was punishable by death! So, before undertaking such a risky process, potential converts were informed of the dangers and discouraged, and only the most steadfast were accepted. Fortunately we live in more accepting times. So my dear, no need to be rude to your new aspirants!

The Talmud itself praises the convert “The convert is dearer to God than Israel. When the nation assembled at the foot of Mt Sinai, Israel would not have accepted the Torah without seeing the thunders and lightning and the quaking mountains...Whereas the proselyte, without a single miracle, consecrated himself...and puts upon himself the yoke...Can anyone be deemed more worthy of God’s love?” Tenachuma Buber.
Whoa, pretty high praise indeed!

My budding Talmud student, you mention Ruth who is considered the preeminent convert. She says to Naomi, her mother-in-law: “...Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” We study the book of Ruth on Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate accepting the Torah at Sinai, because she symbolizes all who choose Judaism. She accepted the Torah the way that our ancestors did at Sinai. In this way, we are all Jews by choice.

Now you may be asking, ‘Tanta Golda, how does one convert?’ This seems to vary a little from rabbi to rabbi, but usually the process involves a course of study that includes beliefs, practices, and some liturgy. When the rabbi determines that the potential convert is ready to commit to living a Jewish life, the convert submerses in a mikveh - a body of water, as a symbol of ritual purity, and if they are male they are circumcised* (if they were circumcised at birth a symbolic nick is made where the foreskin was to draw a drop of blood.) Finally they come before a Bet Din “house of law” - Jewish court, comprised of three rabbis. The petitioner is questioned about their knowledge of basic Judaism and their sincerity. Viola, they are now as Jewish as any Jew by birth!

Tanta Golda does need to try to clarify the Reform position on immersion and circumcision. Back in the day when I was a wee little girl, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) declared that “the initiatory rites were no longer required for conversion” and wrote a report outlining three general arguments. Over time, the Reform movement has moved back into accepting more of the forms of ritual practice shunned in the movement’s early days. While this statement about circumcision for converts has never been rescinded, many Reform rabbis do now require it. So, your potential converts will want to discuss this with the rabbi.

I hope that your band of potential converts finds the process meaningful, and I look forward to welcoming them into the community! Love as always - TG

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