How to become a Jew is perhaps almost as contentious as the question of “Who is a Jew?” because the two questions are not mutually exclusive. The one informs the other.
Halakhically – that is, according to Jewish law – one becomes a Jew when one follows a certain process. This involves:
1. Learning about Judaism with a rabbi. This is not as easy as it may sound. Learning the history of the Jewish people is indeed important. The history of Jewish people will hopefully teach the potential convert what the future may be for his/her potential future people and himself/herself – he/she learns what he’s/she’s getting into. But this is only part of the picture. One must also learn the many rules, rituals, and laws that will pertain to the potential Jew. Examples of issues one must become familiar with are the rules of kashrus, the Jewish calendar, the Jewish festivals (and the rituals in each), Jewish prayer, the rules on ritual purity (taharah), and the rules of “family purity” (taharas hamishpokha).
2. The potential convert must indicate he/she knows what he/she is getting into, and evince a continuous desire to become a part of the Jewish people.
3. The potential convert, once prepared, must be examined by a panel of rabbis (beys din), who will ask questions to test him/her, and to make sure he/she is truly accepting the yoke of Heaven (qabbalas ‘ol malkhus shamayim). If he/she passes, the panel approves he/his conversion.
4. Men must undergo circumcision (bris milah if they are not circumcised, or undergo a symbolic bloodletting (<hatafas dam milah).
5. The convert must immerse in a mikvah (tevilah b’miqvah) to become ritually pure.
After all the requirements are met, the beys din will issue a certificate certifying the person’s conversion. The convert is also given (or chooses) a Hebrew name. (For various purposes, Jews use a formula of (Hebrew name) son/daughter (ben/bas) of (father), and sometimes (Hebrew name) son/daughter of (mother). The latter is used mostly for prayers of healing. In such a case, converts will use “Avraham” (Abraham) for the father’s name and “Sarah” for the mother’s name, indicating their spiritual descent from the Patriarch and Matriarch.)
There is also a tradition among Orthodox rabbis to thrice reject a person’s request to begin the process of converting to Judaism. This is to ensure the person really, really wants to become a Jew.
Now, the contentious issue is under whose authority can or ought one to convert? The government of Israel does not recognize conversions done under non-Orthodox rabbis. (In fact, the situation has become worse: the government of Israel recognizes only those US conversions that were under the auspices of a certain list of Orthodox rabbis.) Conversion under Orthodox Judaism is harder, longer, and more intensive. While Conservative and Reform Judaism relaxes some of the requirements, Orthodox Judaism does not. And so the issue remains: are people who convert under a Reform rabbi not really Jews? The Orthodox would say that would be the case. The Reform Jews, understandably and obviously, would be highly offended and would disagree. Orthodox Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on the definition of a Jew. However, this is what it seems the government of Israel is saying.
In any case, this is how the conversion process works in Judaism.
Why would someone want to become a Jew? There are a number of reasons.
1. Many people – perhaps the bulk – convert to Judaism because of marriage. Whether for familial acceptance or a desire to unite the family under one religion, non-Jewish partners do convert. Rabbis make sure they say their spiel on ensuring the person is converting out of love of Judaism and not for any other reason (such as marriage), but that’s all they can do. And even if someone is converting because of marriage, and not because his/her heart is in it, rabbis probably recognize that it’s better for the children in any case to be raised by two Jewish parents, even if one is not thoroughly Jewish. The statistics of the affects of mixed-faith marriages with Jews – with Judaism eventually being forgotten – alarm rabbis enough that they permit this to happen. (Why am I talking about rabbis? More about this on Friday.)
2. Some people actually do fall in love with Judaism, and desire to become a part of the religion, the people, the history. People find fulfillment in Judaism. This is not a new phenomenon, as the Talmud comments on conversion indicate: evidently some people were lukewarm in their dedication and devotion, but others, although born non-Jewish, feel fulfilled in Judaism. Conversion in Judaism thrives in the West, where it is common for people to leave the faith of their birth for another religion, so people feel more open and daring to join Judaism. (In the East, leaving the religion of one’s birth is a far trickier matter.)
There is a theory among some Jews that those with a nefesh yehudi (Jewish soul) are drawn to Judaism. Most are born into Judaism. Others must find it and join it. A nefesh is Jewish (yehudi) when it was present at Mt. Sinai as God gave His revelation. All Jewish souls participated in that event. Some souls were not born into a Jewish body, so the body must change its status to agree with the soul. Thus, there is no such as a conversion to Judaism but rather the recognition of having a nefesh yehudi and bringing oneself into compliance with that. (This is somewhat similar to the theory in Islam that there is no conversion to Islam – it’s a reversion because all souls are born Muslim.)
But one cannot simply declare oneself as Jewish. Almost all forms of Judaism – Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Conservadox – have a process a person needs to go through in order to officially convert to Judaism or to be recognized as a Jew.
Contrary to what people may think, Judaism had a pretty active missionary program at one point in time. Egypt was a major hub of Jewish culture and activity – they weren’t all descendants from people born to Jews: many were converts or children of converts.
The Talmud discusses conversion to Judaism – it would discuss it if it weren’t a phenomenon worth discussing. (For that matter, the Talmud’s views on conversion are interesting, but that will be discussed on Wednesday.) Furthermore, there is the phenomenon of the God-fearers – a group of people who agreed, to one degree or another, with the claims, beliefs, and practices of Judaism but did not fully convert.
Perhaps the most famous convert was Ruth (from the epynomous book from the Bible) who was a Moabitess but then essentially converted to Judaism.
But conversion to Judaism no longer occurs at the pace it once used to. People don’t really complain today, as they did then, that people joined for mercenery reasons or corrupted Judaism. The reason that is often given is because of the persecution Jews experienced: people didn’t want to convert, and then Jews began discouraging conversion to avoid claims that they’re out to convert the world. One reason many people were taught not to trust Jews or associate with them was because one would be seduced into their ways.
But now, the phenomenon of conversion to Judaism is increasing. A lot of it is in the modern movements (such as Reform Judaism and Conservative (Masorti) Judaism), but it’s rising in Orthodox Judaism as well. (More on the differences between forms of Judaism will be discussed on Friday.)