Let me first wish you the best of luck on your endeavor. I have a number of friends who have done it and I truly admire their dedication. If you do go through with it, it is a tremendous accomplishment.
Conversion is serious business, and at the surface is very straight forward. There are three requirements to become a Jew: circumcision (for a male), tevilah (immersion in a kosher mikveh [ritual bath]), and acceptance of the mitzvot (commandments). Ideally, a person should do it for the right reasons, but even if a person does do it for marriage the conversion is valid, at least according to the letter of the law. The official procedure as recorded in the Shulhan Arukh (code of Jewish law), a potential convert is supposed to be presented with one stringent law, one much less difficult law, and if they are willing to accept to keep the entire Torah then they should be converted immediately.
The major obstacle that creates the problems is the acceptance of the mitzvot. Unlike a born Jew who stays a Jew regardless of their commitment level, a non-Jew who only accepts what they like and not the whole package then the conversion isn’t valid. A convert has to accept even the most minute detail of rabbinic legislation. They may not necessarily be keeping it perfect but they have to accept to do so, and once they do convert they are just like any other Jew. No one’s perfect and we acknowledge that. At the same time, we don’t compromise our value system out of convenience.
Here’s the problem: Jews are puzzled by converts. Why would anyone who isn’t Jewish voluntarily accept to do this when they don’t have to? This has caused some Jews to treat potential converts with suspicion, particularly if they are doing it for marriage. One community, the Syrian community of Flatbush, has become so concerned that conversion is being used as a back door to intermarriage that they shut down the institution of conversion entirely. If you really want to do this, you want to make sure people think you legit or they may not accept you, or your children, as Jewish. That would really stink considering the amount of effort you are putting into this.
This the reality of the situation: if you convert properly, you’re Jewish. It isn’t dependent on the the rabbis per say, provided they are Orthodox. The Reform and Conservative movements do conduct conversions, but even many Reform and Conservative Jews will tell you privately that they believe that only Orthodox converts are the real converts. Forget what Orthodox Jews think. Even among Orthodox rabbis, not every rabbi is necessarily on the up and up. Some may be more lenient about accepting converts than others. Some may not demand the same rigor of observance, or crank converts through quicker than they should. Converts should have a proper amount of time to live as a Jew and see what it’s really like. I’ve heard from converts that felt like they went through it too quickly that a bare minimal is a year so that you at least go through all of the holidays. Some rabbis have been known to speed the process along for VIPs, particularly those that make nice donations to the shul.
Yeah, I know. Not cool.
It’s not true that only organizations approved the Chief Rabbinate of Israel can produce kosher converts. However, a convert who does convert with one of these groups will be almost definitely be accepted as a convert (unless they aren’t acting the way they should). Someone who decides to go with someone else is potentially taking a risk with being accepted. Why go through so much time, effort, and emotional energy and then have problems later?
Think of it like this: why do you buy a Dell or an Apple and not a computer made in someone's garage? Maybe the guy in the garage is highly skilled. It's because when you buy an Apple or Dell, you know exactly what you're getting and it's a matter of public record. So too with a gerut from a recognized organization: you know what you're getting and what it's reputation is. You know you're getting a solid product.
Although we often think of religious matters as being fixed for all time, in fact, they, too, have histories. Conversion to Judaism is a classic case in point.
In the Bible, we do not see evidence of ceremonies of conversion. Israelites were the majority culture in their own land, and people entering that society were known as "aliens", gerim. The Bible commands the Israelites to be kind-hearted and generous towards gerim. In some instances, laws were commanded "for alien and for citizen alike", whereas in other cases, notably the consumption of the annual Passover offering, aliens were specifically excluded from the ritual.
What we identify as conversion to Judaism is a product of the post-Biblical period, and for a very powerful reason: in that later era, Jews lived not as the citizens of an independent state, but rather, as the members of an internally-autonomous community, living inside of some larger state headed by a Gentile political authority. Hence, "becoming Jewish" meant something very different than it had meant in the days of the Bible.
The Rabbis, who were vituosic masters in reinterpreting Judaism so as to be relevant to changing times, codified the procedures for receiving converts in their era of Jewish life. The candidates needed to satisfy their interlocuters that their motivation was sincere, and henceforth, they were to be "received immediately", while being taught some portion of the commandments. The rituals connected to receiving candidates included circumcision, for males, and immersion in a proper ritual bath, for both males and females. These procedures and rituals are spelled out in The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamoth, 46b, and codified in the standard medieval rabbinic law codes (Tur and Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah, # 268.
During the later Middle Ages, Jews lived under increasingly harsh political conditions, both in Muslim and in Christian lands. The dominant faiths sought to triumph over Judaism. Among the legal disabilities that they heaped upon the Jewish minority in their midst were harsh penalties designed to deter the Jewish community from receiving converts. In those difficult circumstances, Jewish leaders developed a skeptical attitude towards would-be converts, dissuading them repeatedly before deciding to admit the most persistent.
Further changes in both attitudes and curricular preparation have accompanied the emergence of rival denominations in modern Judaism. In the late 19th century, Reform Judaism focused on ethical as opposed to ceremonial behaviors, and in many Reform circles, circumcision and immersion were dropped; conversion candidates were received in synagogue ceremonies, without those other traditional rituals. In the 20th century, the (then-new) Conservative movement retained the traditional rituals, but relaxed the intially adversarial attitude. By mid-century, a typical Conservative rabbi would have a serious "heart to heart" discussion with a prospective candidate, to verify that the intention was worthy, but the late- medieval practice of dismissing a would-be convert several times ceased to be part of the religious practice of that denomination. Considering the sociological changes overtaking American Jewry, with intermarriage on the rise, the conversion of candidates engaged to Jews became a new priority.
Since its inception in the 19th century, the modern representatives of Jewish Orthodoxy have understood their movement as counter-cultural, defying the secularizing currents of western society. Hence, there have been dynamic processes at work within Orthodoxy designed to "raise the bar" in many areas of religious life.
Thus, while both Conservative and Orthodox denominations define themselves as loyal to halakhah (Jewish legal tradition), the one typically takes a liberalizing approach within the law, and the other, an ever-more stringent approach.
This historical orientation ought to make the current position of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in Israel more explicable. Israel is, by definition, a Jewish state, and yet there are different and competing definitions of Jewish identity in Israel today. The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, which functions within the sphere of Israeli politics, is lobbying for acceptance of a stringent definition. In the area of conversion, that translates into less and less trust in the validity of the conversion process, unless it has been conducted by party-approved functionaries, i.e. rabbis acceptable to the current hierarchy.
I regret that the answer to this questioner is, "it depends on whom you ask". A Conservative Jew will accept the legitimacy of a Reform conversion, but only if the rituals of a religiously-celebrated circumcision (where applicable) and immersion have been fulfilled. Further to the right in the religious spectrum, the rejection of conversion work supervised by outsiders becomes automatic. An Orthodox Jew will not accept the legitimacy of a Conservative conversion. An Ultra-Orthodox Jew will not accept the legitimacy of an Orthodox conversion... and so on.
I would counsel the questioner to consider, as best he or she is able, the likely trajectory of his or her post-conversion life. If, by the best reckoning that can now be known, the questioner intends to live in a Reform or Conservative setting, then completing a conversion under the auspices of rabbis of the relevant denomination will surely suffice. If the questioner intends to live within the Orthodox community, then no other authority will suffice. Again, does the questioner intend to convert to Judaism and then to emigrate to Israel? That factor could also enter in the choice now--- although the questioner should know that both Reform and Conservative (Masorti) Jewish denominations are expanding their presence in Israel and serving the needs of many who regard themselves as being in the broad, middle zone between totally secular, and traditionalist sectarian.
It depends on what you mean by ‘kosher’. Different rabbis, and different movements, have different standards for conversion. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis will require mikvah (ritual bath with specific blessings) for men and women, and tipat dam (literally, ‘a drop of blood’ – a symbolic ritual of circumcision) for men. In the Reform movement, some rabbis require these rituals, others may recommend but not require them, and still others may offer these rituals as possibilities if they are meaningful for the conversion student but neither require nor recommend them. All rabbis, however, would require a certain amount of study and reflection and involvement in the Jewish community.
Orthodox rabbis, both in Israel and in the US, would not recognize conversions done by Reform rabbis, no matter how stringently the conversion process adhered to traditional rituals. Conversions done by Conservative rabbis might be recognized by some Orthodox rabbis, but not by all. This would only be an issue if you, or your offspring, want to marry someone who is Orthodox or want to marry in Israel. The Orthodox community would not recognize you or your offspring as being Jewish and would require an Orthodox conversion before you (or your child) could get married. In Israel, regardless of what movement you were converted in, your conversion would be recognized for the purpose of citizenship, but again, it wouldn’t be recognized for the purpose of marriage, which is controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate.
So, if you are concerned about being able to marry in the Orthodox community, or in Israel in any Jewish community, then you will want your conversion to be by an Orthodox rabbi. If these scenarios are not a concern, then you should be converted by a rabbi in whichever Jewish movement where you want to affiliate.
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THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN ANSWERS PROVIDED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL JVO PANEL MEMBERS, AND DO NOT
NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.