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How Does a Person Convert to Judaism?

Understanding the meaning of Gerus, reasons, the process of Giur, important aspects, the very speacial status of a Ger Tzedek.
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When our ancestors accepted responsibility to observe the Torah, they did so by performing bris milah, immersing themselves in a mikveh, and offering korbanos. A non-Jew who chooses to join the Jewish people is entering the same covenant and must follow a similar procedure (Kerisus 9a).

The privilege of becoming a ger tzedek requires one to follow very exacting guidelines. On a technical level, the ger is accepting responsibility to perform mitzvos. Through the gerus 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 that is obligated to fulfill the Torah’s commandments. For this reason, it is axiomatic that one cannot become Jewish without accepting the responsibility of observing 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 does not usually comprehend why observing mitzvos is imperative to becoming Jewish. This is why a not-yet-observant Jew often finds the requirements for halachically acceptable giyur (conversion) to be "unrealistic" or even "intolerant." However, in reality, attempting to bend the Torah’s rules reflects an intolerance, or more precisely, a lack of understanding. The basic requirement for becoming a Jew is accepting Hashem’s commandments, since a Jew is, by definition, someone who has a covenant with G-d to observe the Torah.

DISCOURAGE CONVERTS

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 in keeping 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 may later regret his conversion when the going gets rough. Because of this rationale, some batei din deliberately make it difficult for a potential convert, as a method of discouraging him or her.

Another method of discouraging someone from conversion is by informing potential converts of the seven mitzvos bnei Noach. In so doing, we point out that a non-Jew can merit olam haba without becoming obligated to keep all the Torah’s mitzvos. They can become responsible, moral non-Jews, without their becoming Jewish. As the Gemara explains, we tell him, "Until now, you were not punished if you neglected keeping kosher. There was no penalty for not observing Shabbos. If you become Jewish, you will receive very severe punishments for violating any of the mitzvos!" (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 passion, I expected to hear from her again. I was wrong. She never contacted me again. It seems that her tremendous fervor petered out. This is exactly what Chazal were concerned about. Therefore, they told us to discourage someone who wants to become Jewish, to see whether her commitment survives adversity. Better that for her enthusiasm to wane before she becomes Jewish than afterwards when she has 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 initial she seemed very excited about observing mitzvos, with time she began to lose interest. In the end, she gave up observance completely. The unfortunate result is that she is now a Yisrael chotei (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 or in the times of Dovid and Shlomoh; nor will gerim be accepted in the era of the Moshiach. During these times, some of the motivation to convert is suspected of being due to the financial or political advantages in being Jewish (Yevamos 24b). This applies, even if we are certain that the potential convert will observe all the mitzvos.

Despite this rule, some Jews created "batei din" during the reign of Dovid Hamelech and accepted converts against the wishes of the gedolim (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 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… . 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 -- they worshipped idols and built altars to them" (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 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 (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, initially observed, I have seen very few situations where mitzvos were still being observed a few years (or even months) later.

GERUS WITH IMPROPER MOTIVATION

What is the halachic status of someone who went through the gerus process for the wrong reasons, such as when they converted because they wanted to marry a Jew?

If the convert followed all the procedures, including full acceptance of all the mitzvos, the conversion is valid, even though we disapprove of the individuals who facilitated this procedure. Assuming that the convert remains faithful to Jewish observance, we will treat him or her with all the respect and rights due to a Jew. However, before accepting the gerus, the beis din waits to see whether the convert is, indeed, fully committed to living a Jewish life (Rambam, Issurei Bi’ah 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?

CONVERSION PROCESS

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 (Kerisus 9a). Since no korbanos are brought today, the convert becomes a ger without fulfilling this mitzvah. (We derive from a pasuk that gerim 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 Bi’ah 13:5). Until the convert offers this korban, he or she will not be permitted to partake of the meat of korbanos that other Jews may (Mishnah, Kerisus 8b; Rambam, Hilchos Mechusarei Kapparah 1:2).

In addition to these three steps, the convert must accept all the mitzvos, just as the Jews did at Har Sinai.

Preferably, each step in the gerus procedure should be witnessed by a beis din. Some poskim contend that the bris and immersion in a mikveh 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 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 gerus. I know of a woman who underwent four different conversion procedures, until she performed a gerus in the presence of a kosher beis din!

KABBALAS MITZVOS

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 (Bechoros 30b). Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses a situation where a woman interested in converting was willing to fulfill all the mitzvos with the exception of dressing according to the halachically-required rules of tzeni’us. Rav Moshe rules that it is uncertain if her gerus is valid (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 3:106).

If the potential convert states that he accepts all mitzvos, we usually assume that the gerus is valid. However, what is the halacha if a person declares that he accepts the mitzvos, but his behavior indicates the opposite, such as eating non-kosher food or desecrating Shabbos immediately following the 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 gerus (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:157; 3:106).

BEIS DIN

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).

CHILD CONVERSION

Until now, we have discussed the conversion of adults. A child can also be converted to Judaism (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, accepting the observance of mitzvos is the main factor that transforms the gentile 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 performed without his accepting to observe mitzvos?

Yet we have the historical precedent of Sinai, where the Jewish people accepted the Torah and mitzvos, and this included many thousands of children who also joined the covenant and became part of klal Yisrael. When these children became adults, they became responsible for keeping mitzvos (Tosafos, Sanhedrin 68b). Thus, we see that a child can become converted to Judaism, notwithstanding his inability to make a legal decision to observe mitzvos.

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 biological parents. In the former case, the parent assumes responsibility for the child’s decision (Kesubos 11a; Rashi, Yevamos 48a s.v. eved), whereas an adoptive parent cannot assume this role in the conversion process. Instead, the beis din supervising the procedure acts as surrogate parents for the child’s gerus. This same approach is used if a child of his own volition requests to be converted (Mordechai, Yevamos 4:40).

CAN THE CHILD LATER REJECT THIS DECISION?

Yes. If the child convert decides, on reaching halachic 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 RESCIND HIS CONVERSION LATER IN LIFE?

No. Once a child achieves maturity and chooses not to reject being Jewish, he cannot rescind his status afterwards.

WHAT IF THE CHILD CONVERT WAS UNAWARE THAT HE WAS A GER AND DID NOT KNOW THAT HE HAD THE OPTION?

If the child does not discover that he is a convert until he becomes an adult, he has the option at that time to accept or reject his Judaism. 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 only finds out that he is a convert after becoming an adult, he would have the option of not accepting his Judaism, and the parents would 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 adoptive 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 paskined that the boy could "lein" and was considered halachically Jewish. Other poskim disagree, contending that accepting being Jewish requires observing the mitzvos.

GERIM ARE SPECIAL

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 one of the rabbonim.

"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," was the immediate reply. "I identify with the Jews."

After further questioning, the beis din authorized her gerus, 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 have just received them for the first time!

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
Was the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Greater Buffalo, the Congregation Darchei Tzedek and also served as a dayan on the Beis Din of Baltimore. Now is a Rabbi in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem. His Shiurim and Q&A can be found on his site: www.rabbikaganoff.com
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