How Conversion To Judaism Really Works – A Short And Legit Guide To The Perplexed

This post is for people looking to become Jews so they don’t get scammed. I will write here the most basic form of conversion to Judaism

There’s been a lot of confusion and ignorance regarding how conversion to Judaism works.

Many people nowadays don’t have a trustworthy point of reference and don’t know who is a Jew and what Judaism is. This has been the cause of a lot of problems not only outside Jewish communities but also inside. And these problems involve particularly the very sensitive area of conversion and marriage.

Therefore, I wrote this article to elucidate how conversion to Judaism really works.

Disclaimer: My intention here is not to proselytise (convince someone to convert). We Jews are forbidden from doing so. To become a Jew is one of the most difficult things a person can do in life. Yet, there are many charlatans out there who will promise to “get you a detour” and convert people. In reality, that doesn’t exist.

They are running a (nasty) business by trying to make money over the less informed. We Jews don’t need or want half-hearted converts and this is why the process is difficult. It’s meant to be very selective. Therefore if you have any questions regarding conversion, contact a local orthodox rabbi who’s knowledgeable in this area. Read on to learn more about true conversion to Judaism.

Now, to begin…

How Jewish Tradition began

Jewish tradition has been handed down from Mount Sinai to Moshe Rabbenu (“our teacher”) some 3.300 years ago. That included all the Oral and Written Torah. Moshe then passed it down to the elders of his time. Afterwards the elders passed on to the prophets of later generations. Finally, the prophets passed it to the Men of the Great Assembly.

From then on, it was given over to subsequent generations. Here we can already state clearly our duty as Jews: to uphold the Torah, perpetuate our tradition and continue our eternal bond with God through the next generation.

By Jewish tradition, I mean the canonical Jewish texts, including the Tanach (5 books of Moses, the books of Prophets, and books of Scriptures), and the Talmud, both of which form the basis for all Jewish rituals and laws we have nowadays. There are also the unwritten oral tradition, a few other books but they are not relevant to our present discussion. Finally, we also find in the package all associated laws, including the ones dealing with conversion to Judaism.

An important fact to keep in mind is: Although Judaism has been adapting to the times in many different manners, its essence has always remained the same. Many new laws have been enacted over the years, but they never, EVER contradicted the spirit of the Torah. Rather, they served as fences for people not to come too close to transgressing it and incentives for ensuring its observance because Jewish survival is dependent upon the Torah’s observance.

Tradition over the years

This system of laws has been accepted by the communities and has been working fine (though not without problems), until the age of the “Enlightenment” (Haskalah), in which some Jewish philosophers and thinkers began to propose unwarranted changes to the rituals in order for them to be better accepted by non-Jewish society. Thinking they knew better and rejecting almost completely the oral tradition that’s been handed down from generation to generation, these people claimed the rituals were outdated for their times, that we’ve been following them in a wrong fashion, or that they are simply unnecessary.

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“I have an idea!”
“Old man, just take your medicine.”

All of this was done with the intention to make Jews “socially accepted by the nations” that hosted them. This caused a tremendous shift in the way Judaism was understood by the populace, creating what was called “Reform” or “Conservative” Judaism. Many of the great (and real) rabbis opposed this movement like Rebbe Nachman and the Chatam Sofer, but sadly it was too powerful to be contained.

The problems that arose

Intermarriage and assimilation rates began to rise and observance of Torah, which has been the greatest measuring rod for Jews throughout millennia dwindled. Along this wave, the concept of conversion to Judaism was also contested. These self-proclaimed “sages” advocated for the inclusion of Jews in non-Jewish society in order to “ensure” a peaceful future with them.

Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out as these enlightened souls had hoped, as proven by the Holocaust. This event was by far the greatest tragedy that’s befallen to the Jewish people in the last 1,500 years. Germany was the most civilised nation in the beginning of the XX century. They were thought to have reached the apex of moral order and technological advancement.

Yet, in their worship of the human being as the center of the universe, they ran mad and failed. This is what happens when true fear of Hashem is removed from a nation altogether, what Avraham remarked to Avimelech when he came to visit Gerar.

There are a few lessons we can take from the Holocaust. One is that Jews are never going to be fully accepted anywhere in the world except in the Land of Israel. Another is that human intellect detached from divine guidance is extremely dangerous.

The problems of conversion to Judaism nowadays

Nowadays, intermarriage and assimilation are once again at extremely high levels partly due to un-kosher (read: fake) conversion to Judaism. Nothing damages the transmission of our tradition to the next generations which, again, is the Jewish people’s raison d’etre more than these two phenomena. They have been prevalent in the US and Europe and, very unfortunately, continue to rise.

Along with this new trend, many charlatans have risen to the “task” of deceiving prospective converts by saying they would “turn them into Jews”. These individuals, who sometimes are not even Jews themselves, make things even worse by “selling” conversions. Seeking conversion because of a “calling”, a nice feeling or simply desiring to get married to another Jew, the prospective convert accepts the charlatan and believes he’s become a Jew.

Before we go on, let me state it loud and clear, so there’s no doubt:

1) NO SUCH THING EXISTS.

3) THE “CONVERSION” IS NULL AND VOID.

2) THE “CONVERT” REMAINS A NON-JEW.

Though there are many right minded and good hearted non-Jews out there, the fact remains that no amount of “Jewish” feeling, thoughts, or even goodwill towards us has the power to turn someone into a Jew if not by means of a proper and formal conversion through a qualified Rabbinical Court of three rabbis. This is also part of the Jewish tradition and, as stated before, was passed down by Moses from Mount Sinai by Hashem Himself.

So, how should conversion to Judaism happen according to the real, authentic Jewish tradition?

The answer is: it doesn’t.

Let’s try to understand this paradox.

The first thing to do is ask a deceivingly simple question: who is a Jew?

Many answers have been written by the great rabbis who themselves have achieved astronomical enlightenment throughout the ages.

But, even before that, you may be asking: why does it matter what these rabbis think?

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How Jewish tradition is passed on

As noted, Jewish tradition has been transmitted from generation to generation. This has happened thanks to the rabbis that committed themselves to preserving the Jewish people and selflessly taking care of them. They have achieved their fame not only through intellectual accomplishments but mainly due to their piety, sanctity and unbounded love for every Jew.

All their lives were directed towards serving God and the community, sometimes even to the point of sacrificing it for their sake. All of that became tacit proof of their legitimate knowledge because it’s impossible for one who’s impure inside to achieve such a level. These rabbis have gained universal trust and, by definition, were known to have been helped by Hashem Himself. That’s why their words have been taken as binding law according to what’s written in the Torah (without any interpretation).

Though these rabbis’ approaches towards the question are different and they can elaborate quite a lot on the subject, all their answers can be summarized in a single line:

A Jew has a Jewish soul and that means he/she was at Mount Sinai and experienced God’s revelation to the Jewish People.

Period, nothing else.

This doesn’t mean that non-Jews are inherently bad or anything. Our sages say there are 70 soul roots of the nations of the world, and they each have their own mission to accomplish. Being righteous or wicked depends entirely on a person’s thoughts, speech and action, and contrary to many other religions which damn gentiles to hell, Judaism has a more embracing approach which posits that if someone is righteous and follows the 7 Noahide Laws, he/she has a portion in the Olam Haba (the World to Come or “Heaven”).

However, it’s true that many people went through conversion to Judaism.

So how do we conciliate these two facts?

How conversion to Judaism really works

According to the real, Jewish tradition, conversion to Judaism is a very complicated process. It can take one or more years to be completed depending on the case.

Prospective converts are obligated to accept the entirety of the Torah. This includes both the written and the oral (Talmud) along with all its numerous laws (Halachot) and customs (Minhagim), depending on the line/community they chose.

This all-embracing pact includes:

  1. Being a part of a Jewish community.
  2. Observing the Shabbat and all Yomim Tovim (holidays) in all their laws.
  3. Eating Kosher
  4. Making Brit Milah (in case of a man)
  5. Learning Torah, and learning to pray and to study
  6. FULL Immersion in a KOSHER Mikvah of 40 S’ah without any interposition (of clothes) while being supervised by the judges (women enter in the water covered with a loose garment to avoid having their bodies exposed. Then they immerse).
  7. Many others (consult an Orthodox Rabbi).

Converts who seek to get married to Jews have a much more difficult time with conversion and must separate from their would-be spouse for around half a year, again, depending on circumstances. A person who wants to be a Jew must have nothing else in mind except love for God, Torah and the Jewish people.

The process of conversion to Judaism is not a picnic, but rather a thorough revolution in one’s life. The rabbis who oversee the conversion have complete freedom to judge as they see fit and charge nothing more than the time they spend for the process and tests.

In the end, conversion to Judaism involves a complete and unconditional acceptance of Torah and all its aspects. The result is that it was never really a “conversion”. Rather it merely served to reveal of what was already inside a person: the Jewish soul.

conversion to judaism

How Jewish identity is traced

However, another question arises: if someone isn’t a convert, why is he Jewish? How do we trace back ancestry?

The answer is simple: Anyone born out of a Jewish mother is Jewish.

This is the accepted, normative law that hasn’t changed (or wasn’t contested) until the reform movement came some 200 years. It’s been part of Jewish tradition since the time of Moshe Rabbenu.

Part of the changes proposed by the reform movement included accepting people who were born only out of a Jewish father. This was a severe denial of what had been sanctioned so far, namely that only people who were born from Jewish mothers are Jews.

The “philosophers” or “rabbis” of reform movement disregarded the spiritual aspect of being a Jew and reduced it to a mere title. In their line of thinking, just like you can be an engineer or a lawyer, you can also be Jewish if you go through the process of conversion to Judaism, whatever that meant for them.

An example

The truth is that being a Jew is like being born in a country. If you are born in Japan or Brazil, by definition you are not born anywhere else. You can apply for citizenship and be “naturalized”, but it takes a certain process to go through.

One of the side problems to this reformist approach is that there’s no unification of Halacha. That doesn’t seem to bother anyone even though it’s wrong. Everyone basically does what everyone feels like. No need for tradition, unity, rules or order. What someone thinks is right becomes valid without much discussion. Similarly conversion to Judaism has become something like a business or a party devoid of any deeper (and real) meaning.

But as we’ve seen in the case of the Holocaust, human reason devoid of divine guidance is catastrophic. Proponents of the reform movement are causing the very same (spiritual) devastation as was caused by the Nazis by increasing assimilation and intermarriage.

What is the soul all about?

As was said before, a Jew has a Jewish soul. So, how do we know what a Jewish soul is and how does it manifest?

Jewish tradition states that every Jew has a spark inside of him that transcends reason. This spark is located deep inside his/her consciousness. It’s not readily visible and very often can only be spotted by very elevated people (Tzaddikim). Though a person may be far away from tradition and completely unaware of it, eventually it can burst forth and inspire him to the path of returning (Teshuva) to his roots in Torah and Mitzvot. This can happen anytime in a person’s life and it’s very real. Though, of course, it can’t be proven by science.

To clarify: everyone has a soul and everyone can aspire to greatness and enlightenment. The soul manifests itself in the way a person thinks, feels and acts. However, the more refined, elevated parts of it that are hidden can be completely obscured by these other 3 parts and by our desires. A person would have to go through a long process of purification to apprehend the hidden parts of the soul and most people are unable to achieve that in their lifetime.

So when the sages said that a Jew can only come from a Jewish mother they weren’t inventing anything new. Rather they revealing a very deep spiritual phenomenon:

The Jewish soul can only be passed from a Jewish woman to her child.

This means if the father is Jewish but the mother is not, the child is not a Jew.

However if the mother is Jewish but the father is not, then the child is a Jew.

Concluding remarks

It’s not in the interest of the Jewish Tradition to convert more Gentiles. That’s why conversion to Judaism is difficult.

This is because we have always been a religion of few in numbers. Our strength is derived from strict observance of the Torah, not muscle power. A half-hearted “convert” would be more damaging to our national survival (and himself) as a “Jew” than if he had remained a righteous non-Jew. And just being a “good” Jew is already a monumental work because Torah demands very high ethical standards.

Even though there are goodhearted people out there, conversion to Judaism is not suitable for everyone. The process is difficult and for a good reason. So beware of people who promise to turn you Jewish by doing some nice “rituals” and immersing in a “pool” and saying some blessings.

That’s fake.

One who wishes to really convert should first and foremost accept upon himself the 7 Noahide Laws. Then he/she should speak directly to a knowledgeable Orthodox Rabbi with semicha. Depending on the case, the individual in question might need to travel to Israel to perform the conversion to Judaism there and study everything (at least the basic Jewish Laws).

That should be one of the most difficult spiritual goals for any person, but the self-fulfillment and spiritual reward are well worth the pain. It is a simple Kabbalistic principle (based on the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot) that the reward is according to the effort.

My intention has never been to insult anyone here (especially well-intentioned prospective converts who are sincere in their quest). Just be careful, be honest and Hashem should help you all.

I merely hope to have dispelled a lot of misinformation with this article on the issue of conversion to Judaism.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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