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Is it possible for someone who is Gentile to convert to Judaism?

  • What is the prevailing belief of Jewish people on this subject?
  • What scripture backs up this belief?
  • What do prominent Jewish authorities say in this area?
  • Does this happen regularly within the community?
  • How readily accepted are Gentiles into the community (are they seen as strange or welcomed openly)?
  • If it is possible for someone to convert, what disadvantages are their for Gentiles who weren't born Jewish? (by disadvantages, I mean do they miss out on other benefits following death etc.)
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I recently came across an example; Mary Doria Russell, an author, was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism. She talks a little bit about it, in the study-guide/afterword in the edition I have of her novel "The Sparrow". – Warren P May 11 '11 at 13:10

5 Answers 5

up vote 39 down vote accepted
  • Yes, conversion is possible. The Talmud discusses it, Maimonides' Code of Jewish Law (around the year 1200) discusses it, and there is a section on it in Shulchan Aruch, the main code of Jewish Law that was compiled in the 1500s.
  • Besides the book of Ruth, see for instance Numbers 9:14:

If a proselyte joins you, he must also prepare God's Passover offering, presenting it according to the rules and laws governing the Passover offering. There shall thus be a single law for [all of] you, the proselyte and native born [alike].

  • All prominent authorities, to the very best of my knowledge, feel that conversion can be done, and if a person is really serious, properly-motivated, and committed, it's appropriate for the rabbis to perform the conversion. See this audio lecture and source sheet for more. Recently there has been quite a kerfuffle between different rabbis and organizations regarding exactly how high we set the bar for conversion candidates, but in theory if someone is completely committed, everyone agrees they should be allowed in.

  • It was more prevalent two millenia ago; it's been estimated (going through all the Talmud's descriptions of its rabbinic figures) that one-third of the rabbis mentioned in the Mishna (the first stage of the Talmud, compiled around the year 200) are either converts or descended from them. Today, it doesn't happen every day, but it's not unheard of. My guess is the average rabbi, if he's not educating someone pre-conversion right now, probably did so in the past two or three years.

  • Acceptance: one problem is the recent kerfuffle with various rabbis suspecting the validity of the conversions performed by other rabbis ("how serious were his requirements"?); this has caused a great deal of anxiety for converts as some other rabbi may question their status tomorrow. But assuming the conversion is valid, the Bible warns against mistreating the convert (as someone who is lonely and vulnerable); unfortunately, different converts have had very different experiences in different Jewish communities. A good description of it can be found here. Some converts have had the experience of being accepted and have blended in with little difficulties; others feel ignored or worse. This is often more about sociology than religion, and the personality of the local community; the convert's personality, age, gender, socioeconomic status, and (unfortunately) race can all play a role.

  • There are a handful of ways a convert is treated slightly differently than a native-born Jew:
    • A female convert may not marry a Cohen (a man descended from the Jewish priestly family)
    • The ketubah document at a female convert's wedding will identify her as "so-and-so, the daughter of Abraham; a convert"
    • A convert is identified in Jewish documents as "the son of Abraham" or "the daughter of Sarah."
    • The daughter of two converts should ideally not marry a Cohen.
    • Certain functions of serving on an ecclesiastical court, though all major rabbinic programs that I know of will accept and ordain converts.
    • The Bible describes ancestral portions in the land of Israel (which has not been observed for a very, very long time); in theory a convert would not have one. Today, a convert can move to Israel (assuming their credentials have been verified) and buy real estate like anyone else.
  • But we believe that a convert who takes his/her commitment seriously is a very righteous person and will be rewarded by G-d accordingly, certainly with regards to the World to Come and the like. A convert is buried in a Jewish cemetery alongside other Jews; one famous convert from the 1700s (who came to be known as "Abraham the son of Abraham") was buried right next to the most famous rabbi of that time and place (Elijah Kramer, the Gaon of Vilna).
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I think the Gr"a was buried next to him. AFAIK, the Gr"a passed away after Potozki. – Shmuel Brin Sep 2 '11 at 15:44
@yoel the "real" rule is that they do not accept converts for marriage... it has been warped since then.... – Naftali Aug 13 '12 at 15:17

the answer is yes on the surface but in actuality the answer is no when you look a little closer. The language that the Talmud uses to describe a convert is a convert who converts. This strange double usage of the expression "convert" doesn't seem to make sense. What it means is that a person who goes through all of the stages of a conversion was already a convert meaning they already had within them a Jewish soul which was hidden and the conversion process uncovers that. Someone who doesn't have this who tries to convert won't be able to stay Jewish and live a Jewish lifestyle. A person who is an actual "convert" is someone that for whatever reason was placed in the scenario in which they had to struggle through the process of converting in order to fulfill their life mission.(from the teachings of the Rebbe) There is an expression in chassidus that there is a descent before every ascent. A person's soul coming into this world is a descent from holiness but also the opportunity to accomplishment what the soul could not on its own without a body in the physical world in terms of making our physical world a dwelling place for G-d. A person who has their neshama sent down into a non Jewish body has a particular descant and challenge they must face to accomplish their ascent.

The steps of a conversion according to the Torah...

1) acceptance of all the Torah both in practice and in belief. -Within this step today all Rabbis will require a person who wishes to convert to spend time learning how to live as a Jewish person but also try to dissuade them as this is not a choice in which one just changes their mind. It must be understood to be a serious life time commitment

-usually on the day of the conversion the bes din will ask the candidate a number of questions to ascertain step one is really complete. Almost always yes as there will be a rabbi from the court who will be in touch with you along the way as well.

2)Bris Milah (circumcision) If the candidate is male -if the person is completely uncercumsised they will have the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah in its completion -if a person received one from a hospital oranothernon observant moyhel they will need to be checked by the moyhel aproved by the Jewish court observing the conversion process to determine if it is complete. Often hospitals only remov mostof the fourskin and some may still need to be removed. -if a person is checked by the moyhel and all of the four-skin is already removed there can't be another circumcision but will require a small drop of blood to be removed at the time the conversion takes place

3) Mikvah. step 2 is skipped if the candidate is female but all regardless of gender go to the mikvah. before the mikvah one showers, cuts nails, and removes anything considereda "chatzitza" one will be asked if they are absolutely sure they wish to continue and that there will be no hard feelings if they change their mind now. also that they must understand the Jewish people are often persecuted and if that may change their mind as well. If they wish to continue they will go under the water once. come up make a bracha then go under again. after resurfacing they will be wished mozel tov. Most prepare a special meal with close friends. Some make a big celebration. That depends on your preference.

4) sacrifice. In the time when there is a beis hamikdash there is a sacrifice brought by converts. Today that is not only not possible but not permissible. When the time comes for moshiach and the beis hamikdash is rebuilt all converts will be able to bring a sacrifice.

5) Not part of conversion but important to understand that in life we won't always be inspired and that a big component of Jewish life is continuing to do what is right even when we don't feel inspired to do so.

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  • Does this happen regularly within the community?

Depends upon the community. I once helped computerize a Brooklyn Rabbi's conversion records, and over the course of ~15 years he had helped convert between 150-200 people.

  • How readily accepted are Gentiles into the community (are they seen as strange or welcomed openly)?

In a word: readily.

In my own small community, I know several converts (one of whom is closely related to me). They are seen as full members of the community, and most of the time I actually forget that they are converts at all. I'm not sure everyone else in my community (and we're a tight-knit bunch) even knows that they're converts. Edit: I am now sure that many people in my community have no clue who the converts are.

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Yes, people convert to Judaism all the time. Conversion is not actually encouraged; the general feeling seems to be that it's better and easier for someone to be a good non-Jew than to be a convert who isn't fully committed to Jewish law. The dangers of conversion in many Christian and Muslim countries may be why conversion came to be discouraged, although today this tends to be done by simply requiring converts to undertake an extensive period of study.

The classic scriptural support for conversion is the Book of Ruth, which recounts the story of a Moabite woman whose physical and spiritual journey led to her marriage to Boaz and becoming one of the ancestors of King David. Conversion is generally treated very positively in Jewish texts such as the Talmud, although there is a famous quotation that "converts are as difficult for the Jews as thorns." There are various apologia for not taking this literally; in fact there is a specific Jewish prohibition on oppressing converts. None the less, my anecdotal impression is that many converts feel that they have difficulty "fitting in".

To the best of my knowledge the only formal disadvantage (msh210 points out another one) in Jewish law is pretty obscure: a convert cannot be one of the judges of a Jewish court of law under some circumstances. I am not aware of other disabilities, or any suggestion that they would be treated differently after death.

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It depends what you mean by convert to Judaism. If you mean "accept the god of the Jews as God, do what he says you have to do, and believe in the core Jewish beliefs" (which sounds to me like a good description of a religion, so one can call it Judaism), then that's what people sometimes call Noahidism. I suspect (no source) all Tora-true Jews would be glad to encourage as many converts of that sort as are willing to join us, and there is no formal conversion process.

If you mean giyur, formal conversion as recognized by halacha, that's another matter altogether, and is relatively rare. It requires, as I understand secondhand, years of preparation; and it requires a formal conversion process. Although for most intents and purposes a convert is treated as any other Jew (one big exception is that, if female, she cannot marry a kohen), socially, again from what I've heard, a convert is treated as less than equal in many Jewish circles (which is unfortunate if true).

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I don't know what you mean by rare. It's a lot more common than you might think. Many converts don't talk about it, because, despite the biblical requirement that they be welcomed warmly into the community, there are many converts who feel that their status makes them second-class citizens. I know you said "relatively rare", but to what are you comparing it? – Seth J Sep 2 '11 at 15:41
@SethJ, I was comparing it to the frequency with which people seem to change religions generally (not to or from Judaism). But both my impression of that and my impression of the frequency of giyur are just that — impressions, and not based on any first-hand knowledge. – msh210 Sep 2 '11 at 15:59
A convert might not advertise that fact for the reasons @SethJ gave, and from what I understand halacha forbids other Jews calling attention to their status if they know it, so short of reviewing records of batei din across the Jewish world we probably can't know the number with any degree of confidence. – Monica Cellio May 13 '12 at 19:03
Related to these comments: – msh210 Jan 2 '13 at 1:37

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