Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 14 November 2009 / 26 Heshvan 5770


by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Din

Dear Rabbi,

All major religions have missionaries to invite people to join their faith apart from the Jews. Why?

From: Emily

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve been searching for the ‘one, true religion’ for some time, and when I came across Judaism, I knew that was the religion for me. I also read briefly about conversion - that Rabbis generally try to ‘discourage’ it. Is this true? And if so, why? I mean, I understand if it’s to test whether they are sincere enough to continue, but most other religions welcome converts with open arms. And how do I go about converting? I understand it can be a long and arduous process, but I’m willing to do it.

Dear Din and Emily,

It is true that other religions employ missionaries to spread their religion. Over the centuries, throughout the world, their techniques of “inviting” others to join have varied in zeal from intense persuasion to manipulation to exploitation to outright coercion.

The essential idea behind this proselytizing is that the more people that ascribe to the religion, the more powerful it is and therefore the truer it is. The veracity of the religion, and by converse, the falseness of other religions, depends on the number of believers or followers. Spiritually and psychologically, this offensive is basically predicated on uncertainty and insecurity.

Judaism is different. Its universal truth does not depend on how many people accept it, nor is its timeless veracity challenged by those who reject it. This stark truth is why Judaism has been such a bone in the throat of those who seek to contend with or replace it.

What all this boils down to is: Judaism is not about quantity; it’s about quality.

This is what governs Judaism’s approach to conversion. The underlying principle is that a person must sincerely believe in G-d and be committed to keeping all the commandments. For this reason, we don’t proselytize. A person has to be sincerely interested on his own and approach conversion on his own volition. And more than that, we actually discourage the person from converting until we feel that the person is entirely sincere and committed to convert for the right reason — namely out of clear, correct belief in G-d and a resolute commitment to keep the Torah.

For this reason, even after a person’s sincerity is accepted, a long period of learning and trial Jewish living must ensue under the supervision of authorized rabbis to enable the person the time to decide if this is really what he or she wants to do, and also to prepare one for the difficulties and challenges of Jewish life. This can be at least a year, and often a few or several years.

Ultimately, when the person feels and is deemed ready, the conversion involves: 1] An explicit expression of one’s belief in G-d and commitment to keep the laws of the Torah. 2] For men, circumcision (if he is already circumcised, then a small drop of blood is taken for the mitzvah of brit, and then 3] The person immerses in a mikveh. He or she then becomes a full-fledged Jew who is privileged and obligated to keep the Torah, and held accountable for not doing so.

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