A Position Paper
As we who have knocked on Judaism’s door know, there is a tradition of turning the seeker away three times. The tradition is based on the interaction from the book of Ruth between Naomi and her daughters-in-law when Naomi chooses to return to her own land from Moav. She discourages them three times. After the first time, Orpah obediently leaves her. Ruth is more persistent. After the third time, Ruth sets her mom-in-law straight with ‘Don’t tell me to leave you! Wherever you go, I go. Your people will be my people and your God, my God! etc.’
How does Naomi respond to this passionate declaration of loyalty? The text doesn’t say. The next statement we hear from Naomi is upon their arrival when her friends greet her by name. She says, “Don’t call me Naomi (meaning ‘pleasant’), call me Mara (‘bitter’) because my life has been bitter.” What about Ruth? What about Ruth’s loyalty and love?
Naomi can be seen as responding out of her grief. She can’t seem to see the positive in her life (Ruth’s loyalty, welcoming friends, being home again) because she is focused on her losses. This is a normal response to trauma but remaining bitter is not healthy in the long run.
Now the position: The traditional discouraging of converts to Judaism is based on Naomi’s unhealthy model and has been reinforced by traumatic events in Jewish history. The wounds of the past are being inflicted upon open-hearted souls who would not only be allies of the Jewish people but would join us.
I would like to see a kinder approach. Judaism is not a missionary religion, but we can listen sympathetically to the ones who knock on the door. Remember the story of Hillel the sage, who was asked to relate the whole of Torah while standing on one foot: “Do not do to others that which is hateful to you. All the rest is commentary. Now go study.” One of my first responses, when approached by a would-be-Jew, is “Go study. This process takes a long time.” “
Back in 1968 when I realized that I needed to formally join the Jewish people, I went to the synagogue across the street from where I lived in Van Nuys, California. I had to wait to talk to the rabbi. He was chatting pleasantly with a young man from Canada about ‘zee’ vs. ‘zed.’ When it was my turn and he heard why I was there, he yelled at me “What do you think we need you for?” and other better-forgotten words. I never even made it into the privacy of his office. He embarrassed me in front of my boyfriend and all his office staff. I left crying. I persevered, found a ‘nice’ rabbi and the rest is history.
I know that I was not strengthened in any way by that first encounter. I avoided rabbis and religious Judaism for a long time after that. I’m sure I missed out on a lot of wonderful people in my wariness. When I started getting my ‘cosmic kick in the butt’ to become a rabbi, the only way I could make peace with the idea was that I would be a different kind of rabbi than that guy in Van Nuys. Always running through my mind is ‘do no more harm, do no more harm.’
The Conversion Process
Study: usually at least a year. Readiness for the final steps is not time-based.
Mikveh: immersion in living waters, either outdoors or the indoor facility.
Bet Din: meeting with a court of Jewish Law (3 rabbis/scholars). This happens at the same time as the immersion.
For men, there is also circumcision.
A note from 2022: There tends to be a hierarchy in the recognition of conversions within the global community. Orthodox conversions tend to be the most widely recognized and private conversions (the kind I do) are the least widely recognized. I now advise individuals to pursue the most widely recognized conversion that suits their purposes. For example, many conversions from outside of Israel are not recognized there.