Converting to Judaism doesn’t have to be so hard
Jewish communities around the world celebrated the festival of Shavuot over the weekend, commemorating the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. During this holiday, it is customary to chant from the biblical Book of Ruth, at least in part because the eponymous character’s decision to become part of the Jewish people mirrors ancient Israel’s decision to accept God’s Torah. Indeed, the early rabbis of the Midrash and Talmud saw in Ruth the paradigmatic convert, the model by which a person of another background could formally become Jewish.
The biblical text details Ruth’s conversion process, which consisted entirely of a short statement. Speaking to her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, the newly widowed Ruth says: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” Through this statement, Naomi, and later the Jewish tradition, sees Ruth’s commitment to the Jewish people, and accepts her conversion.
Ruth’s conversion process is striking for what seems to be missing, at least in comparison to the prevalent practices in today’s Jewish world: She is not turned away at all, much less several times, before she can even be considered a conversion candidate. She is not told that she must basically live as a Jew for a while (perhaps a year or more) before she can formally convert. She isn’t required to undertake a lengthy and intensive course of study, culminating in tests and essays, before she converts. Her conversion is not even supervised by a rabbi, isn’t overseen by a rabbinic court, and doesn’t include immersion in a mikveh.
All that was apparently required of Ruth to convert was a declaration of intent, an affirmation of her sense of belonging to the Jewish people. The words of her mouth and the meditations of her heart were sufficient; her knowledge of Jewish facts, her familiarity with Jewish practices, her fluidity with Jewish language and concepts were beside the point.
The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Yevamot 47a-b) attempted to regulate and formalize this personal, and largely emotional, process by adding the requirements of immersion in a mikveh before witnesses (and, for men, circumcision as well), and an extremely cursory Jewish education. They instituted these rules not to make conversion more laborious or cumbersome, but, according to Shaye J.D. Cohen in “The Beginnings of Jewishness,” “to ensure that the ceremony was witnessed, that the convert received at least some modicum of instruction in the Jewish way, and that the rituals of circumcision and immersion were performed with the proper intent of both the convert and the persons supervising the conversion” (pp. 236-7).
According to Talmudic law, the conversion should work like this: the prospective convert’s sincerity is ascertained with some very basic questions, and is to be accepted “immediately” with no intrusive cross-examination. S/he is informed of a handful of Jewish laws and practices, but the supervising rabbis are instructed not to speak “too much” or be “too detailed” in this instruction. If s/he accepts in principle to the requirements of Jewish life, the supervising rabbis are to perform the conversion rituals “immediately.”
Again, as with Ruth, there are no tests, no essays, and no cross-examinations. And if Ruth’s conversion process took only a few minutes from start to finish, the rabbinic process adds at most a day or two for women, and a couple of weeks for men who need circumcision.
Even with these additional requirements, the Talmudic conversion process is still a far cry from that which is mandated by most rabbis today across the denominational spectrum. Today, the predominant model for conversion to Judaism is less welcoming, more arduous, and substantially longer than the process detailed in the Talmud. Prospective converts are turned away (sometimes repeatedly), then required to undertake a formal course of Jewish study and live as a Jew for at least 6-12 months, and then must face a skeptical and judgmental rabbinic court before finally being allowed to undergo the conversion rituals.
The rationale for these practices is presumably ascertaining candidates’ sincerity and commitment, ensuring their purity of intent, and/or providing them with the tools necessary for Jewish life after conversion. But even the most stringent posture cannot keep away those with imperfect motives. And even the most rigorous course of study cannot on its own teach someone all there is to know about Judaism, or fully prepare them for all aspects of Jewish living.
Certainly, though, these practices make the conversion process stressful, cumbersome and even painful; result in less people converting to Judaism than might want to; and reinforce a widely held misconception that Judaism does not allow conversion at all.
This is precisely the wrong approach in an age, like ours, when born Jews are leaving Judaism behind in alarming numbers. And while rates of conversion to Judaism are high, with one in six American Jews saying they were brought up with a different religious background, the numbers could and should be much higher. In our time, religious identity is seen as more fluid, boundaries are porous, and Jews are viewed more warmly than any other religious group in America. These conditions should make for an unprecedented influx of new Jews. And given the fact that Jews-by-choice are commonly sources of great strength – often becoming passionate and engaged members of the Jewish people and leading Jews-by-birth to grow in their relationships with Jewish wisdom and practice – Jewish leaders should be eagerly and actively bringing people into the tent, not standing outside, guarding its entrance.
Personally, this rabbi is done with the stiff-arming and door-slamming; the long, ambiguous waits; and the unnecessary hurdles. If it was good enough for the Bible and the Talmud, it’s good enough for me.