What Every Prospective Convert to Judaism Deserves To Know
When you go to a doctor, you initially have to complete and sign a plethora of forms. There are the checkboxes for all imaginable ailments and diseases, and you begin to realize “Yikes! There are so many things in me that can go wrong, it’s a miracle that I even can read this thing and check the boxes!” There are more forms: the agreement to arbitrate disputes, the permission to share the private medical information with other care providers, the acknowledgements that you have been given the forms to read.
Later, if you need to go in for a medical procedure, you typically receive “full disclosure” of what theoretically could go wrong. And then you must sign a form acknowledging that you received full disclosure. Because, even with the safest medical procedure and the most skillful doctor, unpredictable things theoretically could go wrong.
When you watch those pharmaceutical commercials on television for any of the many prescription drugs that you cannot even get unless your physician prescribes them, it seems like half the commercial is consumed with the full-disclosure listing of what could go wrong: “This medicine might explode your liver, pulverize your kidneys, cause your eyes to fall out, lead to delirious panic attacks, instant heart failure, head turning upside-down, ears uncontrollably flapping, nose falling off — so, if you have occasional acid indigestion, ask your doctor to prescribe this medicine today.”
In addition to being a rabbi and an attorney, I have been an adjunct professor of law at two major law schools these past fourteen years. In one of my courses, the curriculum includes teaching new-client intake. I teach my students that they always must fully disclose to prospective new clients the billing arrangements and what costs the client might encounter in the forthcoming litigation. Attorneys likewise should fully disclose the prospective client’s prospects if the litigation ensues. In other words, a prospective client needs full disclosure to know what he or she is getting into — what it will cost, how much might be won, what the odds of success might be, what downside might be encountered, how long a case might take to reach trial, and what level of personal stress the client might expect to endure while engaging in the aggravation of a full-blown American litigation.
Because “Full Disclosure” is so important in so many walks of American life, I also always provide full disclosure in my rabbinic role when a prospective convert to Judaism comes my way. I can think of few things more painful than when I meet someone who thought, years earlier, that she had converted to Judaism in accordance with proper standards, only to learn years later that no rabbi — not in Israel and not in America — will conduct her children’s marriages nor deem her or them Jewish.
There is perhaps nothing more inspiring than meeting a prospective “Jew by Choice.” Becoming a Jew is a serious undertaking, a life-changing event that will impact one’s future generations for eternity. A kosher conversion, compliant with Orthodox requirements, entails not only wanting to be Jewish but, more realistically, undertaking to live the mitzvot of the Torah — including the “Written Torah” commandments that we find in the Bible as well as the “Oral Torah” mitzvot included in the Talmud and in the subsequent generations of Halakhic Responsa penned by the leading Torah authorities of the respective generations. It is for that reason that a normative Orthodox conversion takes approximately two years.
Certainly, the mitzvot themselves can be taught in rudimentary form in merely a few months, but the Orthodox conversion process also entails living those mitzvot daily, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Thus, it is not enough to “know” the rules of kosher. Rather, one must live them 24/7. It is not sufficient to pass a quiz on the laws of Shabbat. Rather, one must live them the full 25 hours from Friday sunset to Saturday nightfall every week. For that reason, for example, we mainstream Orthodox rabbis require a prospective convert to live within walking distance of the shul where they will be studying and worshipping — because it is forbidden to drive on the Shabbat.
Consider the analogy of the high school student who scores 100% on her sophomore-year biology final exam. She then proceeds through life never studying any additional biology. In college, she majors in “soft sciences”: political science, sociology, philosophy. By age 30 and 40 she presumably still will remember that table salt is NaCl (sodium chloride) and that amoebas split, but she no longer will carry a great amount of the biology knowledge that she once mastered. And so with an Orthodox conversion: It is not enough for a prospective convert to pass a test on whether she knows the text of each brakhah (blessing) to recite before eating respective foods. Rather, the person must actually recite those blessings every time they apply thenceforth.
In my 36 years since being ordained an Orthodox rabbi, I have met a great many people who have approached me for an Orthodox conversion, explaining that they already had undergone a Reform conversion or a Conservative conversion, but now had come to realize that it was the Orthodox conversion they desired. In the course of my first meeting with such a person, it often will emerge that the person had learned excellently from the conscientious and devoted Conservative rabbi, for example, all the blessings that are recited for the various foods, but that knowledge had been imparted five or ten years earlier, and now the person simply cannot pull together the words from her mind for reciting the blessing. Over time she had forgotten “the stuff.” By contrast, once she has converted in an Orthodox construct, she never again will lack facility with the brakhot because she will have internalized the practice of reciting them continually when applicable, day in and day out, 24/7, for the rest of her life.
In this same context, it is imperative that every prospective convert demand — not “ask,” not “inquire,” but demand — of the converting rabbi to know, to receive a full disclosure, as to whether the conversion will be accepted elsewhere. That is, if I am converting with a Reform rabbi, is the rabbi properly affiliated with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR — the Reform rabbinic conference)? Will other Reform temples accept the conversion? Will Conservative rabbis accept the Reform rabbi’s conversion? What if my Reform conversion to Judaism does not include entering a kosher mikveh — will Conservative rabbis accept the conversion anyway? Will my future children have a problem being recognized as Jewish?
For many Reform converts, some or all of these questions may not matter because the person converting may not be consumed by concerns like those set forth above, but there still is value in receiving the full disclosure, just as we value the panoply of full disclosures we receive when we are approved for a mortgage or undergo a medical procedure.
Similarly, if pursuing a conversion by a Conservative rabbi, is that rabbi a member in good standing of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA — the professional association of Conservative rabbis)? If not, why not? Will other Conservative rabbis accept a conversion done by a Conservative rabbi outside the RA? Will Reform recognize it? Will the Orthodox? How will that affect my children, my grandchildren? How will it be treated in America? In Israel? And — perhaps just as important — beyond the Israel/America question, beyond the Reform/ Conservative/ Orthodox question: If my grandchild or great-grandchild meets and falls in love with a Jewish person from a traditional Jewish family someday twenty or fifty years in the future, will their chance for a lifetime of happiness in building a faithful Jewish home be supported or set back by the way that mainstream normative Jewish families regard this conversion’s acceptability?
Again, many of these concerns might not be immediately — nor ever — relevant to someone who knowingly has evaluated the various denominations and rabbis in her orbit and has chosen that rabbi and that institution. But full disclosure always is valuable when receiving life-impacting professional services.
The prospective convert’s demand for full discosure not only should be made of Reform rabbis and of Conservative rabbis but even of Orthodox rabbis. For example, there are some rabbis who present themselves as Orthodox and who make a business, an income stream, out of converting people. Within the mainstream normative American Orthodox rabbinate, many among those “conversions” are not trusted because the professionals know who the hucksters are. Likewise, within Orthodoxy itself, there are concerns about outlier rabbis who are on the periphery, who identify outside the mainstream normative Orthodox rabbinate, whose interpretations of Orthodoxy are not the same as those universally adopted by the mainstream. Many normative, mainstream Orthodox rabbis will not recognize the authenticity of “Orthodox conversions” conducted by such outliers. Therefore, mainstream rabbis will not subsequently conduct marriages for such people who have undergone such outlier conversions, and typical mainstream Orthodx families will resist engaging in marriage-track social relationships with such people unless they undertake an entire new conversion process. Such people converted by such outlier rabbis will find, to their great astonishment born of their total innocence, that they will not be called to the Torah nor counted in a minyan in a great many mainstream Orthodox congregations, and their future children will not be regarded as Jewish unless the children undergo a conversion themselves. They will learn that such conversions conducted by outliers are tantamount to someone presenting as a naturalized American citizen with paperwork of citizenship conferred by a disbarred judge or by a judge who never sat on the proper federal bench that empowers her to rule on citizenship applications under Title 8 of the United States Code.
How, then, is a prospective convert to know, even as among “Orthodox” rabbis, whose conversion is acceptable for other Orthodox rabbis and whose is not? One step is to ask whether the converting rabbi is a member in good standing of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). Although a rabbi’s RCA membership is not in itself a guarantee of Orthodox conversion acceptability — the reasons for that are beyond the scope of this article — a prospective Orthodox convert would do well to consider why the Orthodox rabbi is not in the RCA in the first place, and what that says about the prospective acceptability of conversion, how it will impact the prospective convert’s future generations. In other words, perhaps the rabbi is a member of an alternative rabbinical body. If so, how is that rabbinic body regarded? (The Reform and Conservative rabbinates leave less confusion in this regard because they are more uniformly centralized than is Orthodoxy.) In other words, perhaps the rabbi is on some grand personal crusade that makes RCA membership unimportant to him — indeed, perhaps his personal philosophic crusade even has made him ineligible for RCA membership in the first place — and perhaps he even is on some kind of pioneering life quest to establish his own philosophy of what Orthodox Judaism should be. All that is fine and noble — for him. But a prospective Orthodox convert deserves and must demand full disclosure because perhaps she is not a pioneer as the rabbi is, and perhaps all she wants is for her Orthodox conversion to be accepted universally here and in Israel, and to be accepted universally for all time, for her and for her future progeny. Thus, if she is aboard the same crusade as is her rabbi, excellent — but if not, she deserves full disclosure.
Within the RCA, a set of conversion standards was adopted ten years ago, in consultation with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, to maximize a prospective convert’s acceptability world-wide for this generation and for her children’s and grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s future generations, whether outside or in Israel. Under those centralized standards, known in the RCA as “GPS” (Geirut Policies and Standards), even highly respected RCA rabbis do not themselves “do” conversions but instead “sponsor” the conversions that are overseen by specially established GPS conversion courts throughout the United States. The local “sponsoring” rabbi serves as the local on-site representative of the centralized conversion court but does not do the conversion himself. Under the conformed standards, the GPS conversion is accepted throughout the United States and by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
At the same time, there is a growing phenomenon of crusading rabbis who fly around the country, and even into South America, telling prospective converts that they are doing “Orthodox conversions.” In a great many of those situations, those conversions in fact are not recognized by mainstream, normative Orthodox rabbis anywhere in the world, not in Israel and not in America, and the children and grandchildren of those converts will find that mainstream normative traditional Jewish families will not marry them unless they undergo complete conversions all over again .
For fullest legal protection, the prospective convert should demand a written full-disclosure letter from his or her converting rabbi, stating whether the rabbi can guarantee that the conversion will be accepted fully throughout America and in Israel under the standards currently prevailing, both for the convert and for her future generations. I provide exactly such a written assurance and full discosure for every conversion I sponsor through GPS. (Like many of my RCA colleagues, I sponsor an average of one conversion a year — some years none, some years three or four — and I never accept any money for the time and effort entailed.)
Doctors provide written full discosures. Pharmaceutical companies provide written full disclosures. The best attorneys provide written full disclosures. The best realtors and bank lenders provide written full disclosures. Therefore, rabbis who are overseeing a conversion should provide their prospective converts with written full disclosures. The full disclosures should state whether other mainstream rabbis and congregations in America will accept that rabbi’s conversion, whether the conversion will be accepted by mainstream normative rabbis and congregations in Israel, and whether the prospective convert may proceed with the assurance and peace of mind that the conversion will be accepted for future generations when presented to mainstream normative rabbis and congregations in America and Israel. If the conversion rabbi refuses and will not provide a written full disclosure regarding the long-term and universal prospective acceptability of the conversion he is offering to perform, the prospective convert then is on notice that there likely will be a severe problem with the conversion down the line and therefore might do well to seek out someone else who can provide the written full disclosure she seeks.
There can be almost nothing more tragic than for a person to have invested so much of her passion, energy, life, and soul into getting herself converted into the Jewish People — only to learn afterwards that the process she underwent will have no force in the denominational community where she seeks entry, leaving her — and her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren afterwards — with nothing ultimately but intense sorrow and severe hardship, compounded by the tragic recognition that she would have been a perfectly excellent candidate for a normative mainstream conversion in the first place.