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Issues in Jewish Ethics: Conversion to Judaism

Conservative and Orthodox Jews require that the potential convert be instructed about how to live as a Jew, and undergo kabbalat ol mitzvot (agreement to do the commandments), mila (circumcision for men),* and tevilah (immersion in a mikvah [ritual bath]), and that the procedure be supervised by a Beit Din [court] of three people. Note that the members of the Bet Din must be acceptable witnesses. According to Orthodox Jewish law, a witness must scrupulously observe all the laws, particularly Shabbat. From an Orthodox standpoint, therefore, any Jew who does not follow Orthodox standards of practice — rabbi or not — would not be qualified to sit on a Beit Din.

The Reform movement requires that the potential convert agree to observe the commandments (according to Reform standards) and participate publicly in the community, but they do not require mikvah or mila. The Reform movement recommends that the potential convert be made aware of mikvah and mila, and that their conversion would be unacceptable to Orthodox Jews, but such notification is not required.

Potential converts should be aware that, depending on the movement that performs the conversion, other movements may or may not recognize their conversion. For example, Orthodox movements do not recognize all Reform conversions, most Conservative conversions and even some Orthodox conversions. Conservative rabbis will accept Reform conversions with mila and tevilah, regardless of the observance level of the Beit Din, for the sake of intergroup harmony. In general, the more liberal the movement, the more accepting it is of other movement's conversions; the more orthopractic the conversion, the more acceptable it is to more movements.

The debate among movements as to the acceptability of different procedures remains unresolved, and is unlikely to ever be resolved. Liberal Judaism views this as a question of stringency. Therefore, for Liberal Judaism to say, "I will comply with the Orthodox standard," is to acknowledge an insufficiency of its own standards. Obviously, then, non­Orthodox rabbis are unwilling to leave all conversions to the Orthodox. Conversely, for Orthodox Judaism to say. "Liberal standards are acceptable," is to acknowledge a superfluity of its stricter standards, an equally unlikely scenario. Orthodox Judaism views conversion as a matter of objective reality. A non­Jew does or does not become Jewish by a particular procedure. This is in some ways analogous to the procedure by which a person becomes a naturalized citizen. Just as the oath of allegiance that the person takes to become a citizen is only the end of a process, and only certain judges may administer that oath; so to (l'havdil) the Beit Din, tevilah (immersion), and circumcision (if male) are the culmination of a process and may only be administered by certain rabbis. This is unacceptable to Liberal Judaism, as part of the procedure is an understanding and acceptance of the world view of Orthodox Judaism.

The question of Jewish status in Israel is different. Jews (regardless of affiliation; regardless of conversion status) may receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Once in Israel, one's acceptance as a Jew is usually up to the Orthodox religious authorities, who may or may not regard a non­Orthodox conversion as halachically­valid regardless of the affiliation on your Israeli identity card.

Although there is no legal requirement mandating that a male convert to Judaism adopt the Hebrew name of Abraham or that female converts use Ruth or Sarah as a first name, there is a longstanding tradition to this effect. In most cases at the time of conversion a male convert is named Avraham ben Avraham Avinu (Abraham the son of Abraham our father), and a female convert is named Sara bat Avraham Avinu (Sarah the daughter of Abraham our father) or Rut bat Avraham Avinu (Ruth the daughter of Amraham our father).

Two reasons are offered for naming converts Avraham. First, the Bible (Genesis 17:5) speaks of Abraham as being "the father of a multitude of nations," and since proselytes come from diverse peoples and backgrounds, it is appropriate that they be called the sons and daughters of Abraham.

A second explanation, offered in the Midrash, runs as follows: Since the Children of Israel are called G-d's "friends," as it is written, "the seed of Abraham My [G-d's] friend (Isaiah 41:8), and since proselytes are called G-d's "friends," as it is written, "G-d is the friend of the proselyte" (Deuteronomy 10:18), it was concluded that Abraham has a special relationship to proselytes. In Jewish tradition, Abraham becomes known as "the father of proselytes" because once non-Jews have converted to Judaism, their legal connection with their former non-Jewish families is, for the most part, severed, and the family of Abraham is now their family. The Talmud calls them, "newborn babies" (Yevamot 22a).

Nevertheless, proselytes are still obligated to fulfill the biblical comandment of "Honor thy father and mother," and therefore the Jewish laws of mourning must be observed by the proselyte when his non-Jewish parents die. The Talmud also indicates that if a proselyte's father dies, he may inherit his portion of the estate along with his non-Jewish brother.

Offering the convert the name of Abraham is explained by the Midrash to be an expression of deep love. The Midrash says, "G-d loves proselytes dearly. And we, too, should show our love for them because they left their father's house, and their people, and the Gentile community, and have joined us."

Female converts take the name of Sarah because she was the wife of Abraham, the first Hebrew, and also because, as tradition has it, she and Abraham were active in "winning souls" (Genesis 12:5) to the worship of G-d; Abraham converting idol-worshipping men and Sarah converting the women.

Female converts to Judaism also take the name of Ruth because the Ruth of the Bible is regarded as the epitome of loyalty to Judaism, although she was not a convert in the formal sense, not having undergone immersion in a ritul bath (mikva). Ruth is famous for swearing eternal allegiance to her mother in law, Naomi.

Sources: Adapted from Shamash; Alfred J.Kolatch, The Second Jewish Book of Why. Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.; Middle Village, New York, 1985.