WHAT IS JUDAISM?
Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish People. It is comprised of the ancient beliefs, mythologies, and laws of the Jewish tribe.
Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel, descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. This is verifiably true per 3000 years’ worth of archeology, a plethora of genetic studies, and thousands of years of historical record. An ethnoreligious group is an ethnic group unified by a common religion. Much like other Indigenous tribes worldwide, Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, and religion/spirituality (Judaism) are inextricable from each other.
Judaism is an ethnic, rather than universalizing, religion. Ethnic religions are religions that are specific to a particular ethnic group. Universalizing religions are religions that transcend ethnic, tribal, cultural, and national affiliation. Two examples of universalizing religions include Christianity and Islam. Universalizing religions spread via colonialism, imperialism, and proselytization.
Jews don’t proselytize. The only reason you can find Jews in nearly every corner of the globe is that foreign empires displaced an Indigenous population. This displacement(s) is something that Jews have in common with other Indigenous Peoples. By contrast, you can find Christianity and Islam across the globe because the *faith* spread (via colonialism and imperialism), rather than the *people.*
JUDAISM AS “RELIGION”
Virtually all Indigenous tribes have a spiritual framework specific to their tribe. Indigenous tribes worldwide generally make no distinction between their tribal identity, peoplehood, and religious/spiritual practice. Their spirituality is an intrinsic part of who they are as a people. Additionally, virtually all Indigenous tribes have their own parameters for membership. For Jews, it is no different.
Believe it or not, the modern concept of “religion” is a rather new construct. In fact, Judaism predates this concept by millennia. There is no exact equivalent to the word “religion” in Hebrew. The closest terms are “dat” (“law”) and “emuna” (“belief”).
The idea that Jews are a “religious group” is a fairly recent one and dates back to the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789-1799).
In the decades that followed, Jews living under the reign of Napoleon were finally officially granted freedom and security to live as Jews under one major condition: Jews could no longer exist as a distinct cultural and ethnic minority but instead were forced to assimilate into French society as French citizens.
In 1806, Napoleon wrote: “[It is necessary to] reduce, if not destroy, the tendency of Jewish people to practice a very great number of activities that are harmful to civilization and to public order in society in all the countries of the world…it is necessary to change the Jews…Once part of their youth will take its place in our armies, they will cease to have Jewish interests and sentiments; their interests and sentiments will be French.”
This imposition fundamentally shifted the way that Jews understood their identity.
To truly understand what conversion to Judaism is — and isn’t — it’s first important to understand the historic context in which Jewish national and tribal identity materialized.
The term “ethnogenesis” refers to “the formation and development of an ethnic group,” either through self-identification or outsider identification. The ethnogenesis of the Jewish People took place some 3000 years ago when a confederation of Hebrew tribes came together to found the Kingdom of Israel. In other words, the ethnogenesis of the Jewish People took place in a physical place, and Jewish national identity was tied to a physical place. The word “Jew” comes from a physical place — the Kingdom of Judah, within the Land of Israel — not a belief system. “Judaism” translates to “Jew-hood,” as in “the state of being a Jew.”
In the earliest days of Israelite nationhood, “conversion” was simply the process in which outsiders (or “gerim”) came to live within — and, most importantly, assimilate into the culture of — the Israelite nation. In other words, these “converts” adopted Israelite culture, beliefs, identity, laws, and mythologies as their own (with the consent of the Israelites). Foreigners who lived amongst the Israelites but didn’t adopt the culture as their own were not considered converts.
As time went on and Israelite national identity strengthened and evolved, it became necessary for Israelites to contextualize their relationship with the non-Israelite world. The national deity of the Jewish People — the Hebrew God — became inextricable from Israelite identity very early on. In the 800s BCE, the process of assimilating into Israelite identity became more deeply enmeshed with the process of accepting the Hebrew God. As such, the process of assimilating into the Israelite national identity gained an increasingly spiritual dimension. In other words, to become an Israelite, gerim (“foreigners”) would have to adopt the Hebrew God — and the spiritual tenets of Yahwism (the precursor to Judaism) — as their own.
The word “diaspora” is a Greek word that was specifically coined to translate the Hebrew word “galut.” It describes the concept of the Jewish perception of the “condition and feelings of a nation uprooted from its homeland,” forced to live under foreign rule.
As explained prior, the ethnogenesis of the Jewish People — and Jewish national identity — is firmly rooted in the Land of Israel. By consequence, conversion, especially in ancient times, too was rooted in the Land of Israel (that is, a convert was a foreigner living in Israel that had assimilated into/adopted Israelite identity). However, after the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah in 587 BCE and exiled about 25 percent of its residents, conversion to Judaism gained an increasingly spiritual dimension, as it could no longer be a process rooted to the physical home of the Jewish People.
This only became truer after the destruction of the Second Temple and the spread of Rabbinic Judaism. Though spiritual and cultural connection to the Land of Israel is at the core of Rabbinic Judaism, the literal physical connection had been severed. Rabbinic Judaism — which is, if we are using a Western, modern, non-Jewish paradigm, a “religion” — became the vehicle through which we preserved our identity while in exile. As such, in major ways, it was our spirituality that preserved our identity and protected our peoplehood. It was also our spirituality that shaped and dictated the process of conversion to Judaism, particularly while in exile.
GER TZEDEK VS GER TOSHAV
The term “ger” in Hebrew — or “convert” in English — actually translates to “resident” and comes from the Hebrew verb “lagur,” meaning, “to reside” or “to sojourn [with],” as in a foreign person residing among Israelites. The proper term for “conversion” in Hebrew is “gyur,” roughly translating into the process during which a foreigner comes to reside among the Israelite community. In other words, conversion to Judaism is more of a process of naturalization (almost like an ancient equivalent to an immigrant becoming a citizen of another country) than a simple change of religious beliefs.
However, it’s very important to know that the process of naturalization into the Jewish nation and tribe is predicated on accepting the Hebrew belief system. In other words, accepting Judaism is the “litmus test” between a “ger tzedek” — a “righteous resident” (i.e. a convert) — and a “ger toshav” — a resident who has agreed to respect Israelite law but has not adopted the Hebrew belief system, and, as such, is not a Jew.
The basis for this “litmus test,” for lack of a better term, is found in Megillat Rut 1:16: “But Ruth replied, ‘Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.‘“ Rut — or Ruth in English — is considered the first convert to Judaism.
While Jews can certainly be atheist or agnostic, if one is not yet a Jew, adopting the Hebrew belief system is a core part of the process of naturalization into the Jewish tribe. Once one is a Jew, Halacha (or Jewish law) dictates that one can never stop being a Jew, no matter what. That said, it is possible to lose tribal privileges; for instance, Jews who adopt Christianity, Islam, or another religion *by choice* (as opposed to forced conversion) become “meshumadim.” Though still considered Jewish by lineage, they cannot claim any privilege pertaining to Jewish status, such as participating in a minyan.
If you need a (somewhat similar but not exactly the same) modern analogy, think of it this way: an immigrant to the United States wishing to become a citizen must pass a citizenship test. A born American, on the other hand, could get a 0 on such a test and not lose their citizenship status. Once an immigrant becomes an American citizen, they could take the test again, forget everything they learned, and get a 0, but they wouldn’t lose their citizenship status.
Similarly, a person seeking to convert to Judaism must accept the Hebrew belief system, whereas a born Jew does not. Once a person is actually a Jew, they can lose or grapple with their belief in the Hebrew God without losing their Jewish status.
The process of gyur — or conversion — varies somewhat per Jewish movement (e.g. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc). Traditionally, rabbis would turn prospective converts away three times; while this isn’t always necessarily the case, rabbis must judge that the prospective convert is sincere in their motivations.
Talmudic scholars laid out three requirements for conversion: (1) circumcision for men, (2) immersion in a ritual bath (mikveh), and (3) offering a Temple sacrifice, a requirement that is waived until the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. If the man is already circumcized, a single drop of blood is withdrawn. These requirements must be witnessed and affirmed by a beit din (rabbinical court).
Though it’s never explicitly stated, the Jewish consensus is that the convert must understand and accept the duties and responsibilities of Halacha (Jewish law). The process of conversion can vary from a few months to various years, during which the prospective convert commits to living as a Jew (e.g. keeping Shabbat, observing Jewish holidays, keeping kosher, etc) and learning about the Jewish People and Judaism.
Interdenominational controversy exists between the Jewish movements regarding conversion. For example, in general, Orthodox Jews only accept Orthodox conversions, whereas Conservative Jews accept Orthodox conversions but only accept Reform conversions in which milah (circumcision) and t’vilah (ritual washing) were observed. Reform conversions (as well as Reconstructionist and Humanistic conversions) are the most controversial, as the official Reform policy is that conversion can be completed “without any initiatory rite, ceremony, or observance whatsoever.” However, many Reform rabbis are highly critical of this position, and ultimately the process is left to the rabbi’s discretion.
Children who convert under bar/bat mitzvah age have the option of rejecting their conversion once they turn 13 or 12, respectively. The community consensus is that rabbis will not generally convert children unless the child is adopted into a Jewish family or the parents have converted as well.
Once a person has converted, they receive a certificate of conversion and are officially a Jew, no different than born Jews. Jews believe that converts were born with “Jewish souls,” even if they were not physically born Jewish, and that like all Jewish souls, they were present when Moses received the commandments at Sinai. Conversions cannot be overturned; however, the conversion can be voided if it’s established that it was not taken correctly to begin with (e.g. if the convert lied to the rabbi or beit din or one of the rituals was not performed correctly).
As of 2013, around 2% of American Jews were converts to Judaism.
As I’m not a convert, I thought it appropriate to actually interview converts. Thank you so much to Tina Esther, Elisheva, and all the other anonymous Jews by Choice/converts who participated. Please note that these are their PERSONAL experiences and might not be representative of everyone. The following are some things they’d like the rest of the community to know:
“I would say that there is a difference in the denomination under which you convert that may or may not matter to some people. Within the US it may not be a really big deal and only impacting if you can be called to the Torah or counted in a minyan. But if you wanted to make aliyah, get married or be buried in Israel, then it is good to be aware of if your conversion will be recognized. The other thing is that Judaism really is a community and to truly feel like a part of that community you need to be involved in some way — whatever that looks like to you. If you just think Judaism is cool and believe some of the same things you can do that without converting. But if you few that the Jewish community is your community then conversion is a great thing.”
“What I tell most people is that the conversion process is a lengthy, challenging albeit meaningful experience. We don’t choose one day to be Jewish and it’s done. There’s a lot of studying, learning, getting involved with our local Jewish community and attending shul for every chag, for at least a year. Before I went to the beit din I had to be practicing and essentially living my life as a Jew -- having to keep kosher and Shabbat most importantly. So a lot of people online (on JTwitter I see it most) get angry at converts in progress because they keep Shabbat or keep tzniut, because they don’t see them as “Jews” yet, but we have to be living a Jewish life by the time we get to the beit din! Also if you meet a convert, don’t ask them why they converted, it can be a very personal and lengthy reason that not everyone wants to get into at the kiddush table.”
“My personal story is a bit different, because I have Jewish ancestry from both sides of the family (including a grandparent). There is a bit of a cliche that converts are not being welcomed, but that has not been my experience at all nor that of other converts I know. Everyone was super friendly (including in Orthodox spaces). Not saying that hostility doesn't happen or that stories of people experiencing it are invalid, but I think it is less of an issue than people assume.
Also I don't have a partner but the stories of people who convert "because they have a Jewish partner" are more complex than people realise like I know people who started the process before meeting the Jewish people or those who had already married their Jewish partner in a civil ceremony and the Jewish family was okay with that, but then the non-Jew became Interested in Judaism several years into the marriage. People with a Jewish partner are often motivated by factors other than satisfying the in-laws."
“Reform conversion in Europe (I think it's different in the US) is a lot more demanding than people assume. My rabbi expects people to participate in classes for at least 1.5 years but in practice most people need 2 years at least. Being brutally honest most converts are completely sincere in there motivations, but there are a few where I think their rabbi shouldn't have admitted them to the process, because they seemed to have a bit of a "Jew-fetish."
Most importantly: pretty much everyone has a phase where they doubt if the conversion is the right thing for them or where they lose their passion for it. In the beginning everything is so new and exciting, but after a while when Judaism becomes part of your life some things become almost routine. This happens to almost everyone and if converts experience this they should talk to other converts.
I have lots of complex thoughts on choosing on whether to go the Orthodox or Reform route as well but that is more tied in with my complex thoughts towards both movements which would probably annoy both Reform and Orthodox people. I really wish the Conservative movement were more of a thing here, because it would maybe be the best fit for me, but it barely exists on this side of the pond.”
“I would say it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, but also so hard. I feel (and have felt for a long time) that I’m Jewish, I just wasn’t born into a Jewish family so had to go through conversion to get there. What can be hard is not having blood family that is Jewish. I celebrate the chagim with my husband and children and in
-laws, but I’ll never be able to go to shul on Rosh Hashanah with my parents and grandparents or have a family Seder with my siblings. The process itself was difficult (and expensive — private classes every week for over a year) but I appreciate that that’s how it is designed to be. I’ve been told the amount of study is equivalent to doing a masters degree and I totally get that.”
Translated from Spanish: “I think that something that is important to mention is that unlike other religions, there is no difference between someone who has completed their conversion and someone who was born Jewish. I feel that a lot of us battle with imposter syndrome and it’s good to remember that we are part of the family in an unconditional way.
My conversion was through a Conservative synagogue, where there was a lot of emphasis on how we don’t have to be perfect and it’s okay if we only include the mitzvot that are plausible for our lives and grow slowly, but I don’t know if that’s the experience for those who have an Orthodox conversion.”
“We choose this and often have a very deep connection to Judaism. People treat it like we just woke up one day and thought we'd become a Jew for a lark. A multi-month class with work lark somehow...[We] fear of people’s judgement because we didn't grow up with the rituals and we may get it wrong for a while. Even if just out of nerves. However converts also study really hard and know A LOT about the history and customs of Judaism because we had to to get in. Just because we didn't grow up with it our entire lives doesn't mean we don't know things. People hate us too, even if we weren't born into it. Because we chose it over "better religions," even left those places specifically for Judaism, we know we'll never feel the same things people who grew up Jewish and felt that hate from day 1, at least I do, but we aren't free from the judgement/hate either and yet we still choose it. I know I said it but we care and love Judaism. One of my friends who is a convert works for a Jewish history museum. It's a lifelong commitment for us. I of course can't speak for all but that's how me and my closest convert friends feel.”
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