Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why on Earth Would Someone Convert to Judaism?

According to the Talmud, rabbis must ask potential converts a very serious question: "Why should you wish to become a proselyte; do you not know that the people of Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions?"

That's a great question. And even many converts can't quite pinpoint their own reasons for being willing to join a group so hated and persecuted. It always seems to be a mixture of so many feelings, ideas, beliefs, and experiences. Unfortunately, no matter how organic it seemed to you, random strangers and your beit din are going to want some kind of an answer rather than a confused look or "It felt right." Let's discuss what might be some of those component parts of your motivations:

Philosophy: A feeling that the Jewish approach to G-d, the world, and our behavior is right. It's just downright reasonable, especially in psychology. Many are attracted to the emphasis placed on this life and on our actions, rather than on faith and the threat of a negative afterlife. Speaking of the afterlife, most converts I have spoken with were comforted by the idea that Jews aren't the only ones who go to "heaven." Some people are refreshed by the lack of an intermediary between the individual and G-d and that rabbis are simply "teachers." Most converts seem to enjoy the freedom to ask questions that is not only encouraged by Judaism, but required.
Family issues: Jewish fathers, mothers converted in a movement before your birth that happens to be more "liberal" than your current practice, other Jewish family members, Jewish significant others past and present, wanting to create a unified religious upbringing for your children, and surprising genealogical discoveries on
Community: You may love the community you live in now, but you need to be able to survive without this particular community. You'll likely live in a different community before you die, and especially if you're an orthodox conversion candidate, you may have to move to a different community simply to finish your conversion!
Ritual: Maybe you feel a deep and unnameable connection to one or several rituals/holidays. The language of symbolism often speaks very effectively to our subconscious. Many converts find comfort in the ritual, predictability, and structure of Judaism.
Jewish Coincidences: There isn't a much better word for this idea, but I've frequently heard/read from converts that as they look back on life, they can't see how they could have ended up anywhere but Jewish. Even myself, I see the pieces of the puzzle coming together over the years, but I had no idea at the time!
Ultimately, when all these reasons mix, the answer to the question, "Why are you converting/did convert to Judaism" comes down to "I couldn't be anything else." But maybe now you have the words to explain how you got to that point.

Some negative motivators might also be present. They are probably not deal-breakers because they're rarely the only reason you're considering conversion, but you should recognize them and deal with them.
  • Unresolved issues/anger with your family of origin or religion of origin
  • Pressure from a significant other and/or his or her family
  • Being eager to please a significant other and/or his or her family
  • The desire to "fit in" with friends or family
  • Pressure from the greater (or local) Jewish community if you're in an interfaith relationship
  • Pressure from psychologists or other members of the wider public to give your children a unified religious upbringing
  • Idealistic stereotypes of Jewish families and how they're better than your family of origin
  • Dissatisfaction with yourself. As written in The Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews and Christians, "Conversion should feel like a chance to become more fully your real self, not like a chance to transform or to leave your old self behind."


  1. I've read you say a few times now, about how converts may be required to change communities. I cant imagine any rationale behind that one. Can you please shed some light on why a beis din would require a potential convert to uproot from the orthodox community they're already in?

  2. Anonymous: That post is coming in just a few days! It's a very serious concern, and it's something that is changing as we speak in the orthodox conversion world! Traditionally, a convert has always been required to live within an easy walking distance of a functioning orthodox community before a beit din would perform the conversion. (In fact, the lack of that requirement was an easy way to sniff out the people who just wanted to make money by doing potentially invalid conversions!) That traditional rule is still good enough for some, but not for most converts. And beit din are changing their rules one after the other right now!

  3. Anonymous: that post is up today, December 16.

  4. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    Sometimes I have to stop myself from telling people that I did it for the food.

  5. Hi, I've recently discovered your blog and have been reading it for the whole day. I have thought about converting for a long time, I made my first visit to a Masorti shul for Shabbat services, my cheeks went cold and I had goosebunps on my arms, I felt as if I had "come" home. You are an example to me, thank you for this blog.

  6. Hi!

    I stumbled upon your blog today and haven't stopped reading your articles for a couple hours! I am so glad to be reading your own personal experiences and insite! I say this because my husband and I are just now beginning our year long conversion (although not Orthodox. We are going conservative) and any extra details to prepare us is soo helpful. Your posts are fantiastic and down-to-earth...todah!

    1. Thanks! Sorry you stumbled on it at the end of it. But then again, I always wait to watch TV shows until they're canceled so that I always know exactly how much time I'll have to commit to enjoying it!

  7. This blog doesn't make any sense to me at all...

  8. Thanks for posting this. Especially the part of the end about finding yourself not wanting to leave your old self behind. My attraction to Judaism is so odd since I'm at the stage in life where I really want given up on trying to totally remake myself for the better - I don't want to ride the roller coaster of the cure-all or the sudden transformations. Right now I am kind of terrified of all the changes that conversion could bring but ultimately I don't see it as a change so much as really accepting so many aspects of who I am. Thanks again for making me feel slightly less confused and a tiny bit more brave about this whole idea.

  9. I got my first meet with the Conservative Rabbi in my city (sole rabbi in my city :D ) in a couple of hours. Tensed.