Cross-Denominational Differences Regarding Conversion

Differences between the movements grow out of more basic disagreements in philosophy and belief.

Print this page Print this page

With regard to conversion, the official movement policy requires a course of study--often conducted on an individual basis because of the movement's small size--as well as a beit din, mikveh, and hatafat dam brit. In actuality, however, many Reconstructionist converts I counsel do not undergo all of the requirements. Some say that the mikveh was an option, and others say there was no beit din present.

The majority of Reconstructionist synagogues and rabbis recognize and accept conversions performed by rabbis outside of their own movement. Likewise, Reform and Conservative rabbis generally accept Reconstructionist conversions, although there have been cases in which Conservative rabbis did not accept them as valid.

The Orthodox Approach

Orthodox Jews, believing that the Torah was given by God, maintain strict adherence to the laws of the Torah as they were interpreted by the rabbis in the Talmud and in other works of Jewish law. Both Written and Oral Law are immutable in the Orthodox view. Many Orthodox Jews strongly oppose the practices of all other branches of Judaism, viewing them as violations of the Torah that God revealed to the Jewish people.

Under Orthodox Judaism, the only acceptable reason for a person to convert is personal conviction. The vast majority of those who seek Orthodox conversions are serious people who genuinely want to commit themselves to a traditional Jewish life. Conversion simply for the sake of marriage is, at least according to official policy, neither condoned nor permitted among the Orthodox. The Orthodox movement does not provide courses that are designed, much less advertised, as leading to conversion. To do so could be seen as condoning the existence of the kind of interfaith relationships that are unacceptable in the Orthodox community. But in some communities one may find, through word of mouth, one or two rabbis who will conduct small organized classes for prospective converts or provide individual instruction.

The Orthodox conversion process always requires mikveh and brit milah or hatafat dam brit. Acceptance of all the applicable mitzvot, the commandments of Jewish law, is expected. The beit din must consist of three Orthodox legal authorities, usually rabbis.

However, a few converts have told me that they obtained their Orthodox conversions under less than ideal circumstances, having undergone what they considered to be quick and superficial conversions that seemed to them little more than formalities. Others, who converted for less than ideal motives--such as to appease family members or to be accepted as Jews in Israel--later confessed to me that they felt compelled to tell the rabbis what they wanted to hear regarding their intentions to practice traditional Judaism rather than to be honest about the less than traditional life-style that they felt they could more realistically commit to.

Although it might be expected that Orthodox rabbis are more stringent and scrupulous than rabbis of other branches in their screening of converts, they often tend to appear more lenient, believing that what the convert does or does not do is between the convert and God. As one Orthodox rabbi who supervises conversions put it, "It is not for the rabbi to delve into the heart to determine if the convert is sincere. I must accept what he is telling me. The rest is between him and God."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Lena Romanoff

Lena Romanoff, founder of the Jewish Converts & Interfaith Network, is the author of Your People, My People: Finding Acceptance and Fulfillment as a Jew By Choice.