Dear Rabbi Fried,
In a recent column you wrote a very touching, sensitive and powerful argument to dissuade your questioner from marrying his Catholic girlfriend. A number of us wondered why you did not mention conversion to Judaism as an option?
Suzy & Marc
Dear Suzy and Marc,
Interestingly, quite a few people approached me with the same question, so I guess great minds think alike.
To tell you the truth, the reason I didn’t even mention conversion to that questioner was because from the tone of his question it was quite obvious that he was far from considering returning to Judaism; the whole reason he even reached out was to fulfill a promise to his parents to at least look into why, perhaps, not to marry out of the faith. I will explain briefly the concept of conversion in accordance with traditional Judaism.
There is a common misconception that one can simply convert to Judaism by doing a bit of learning and signing on the dotted line. Conversion isn’t something one “does,” like a course that ends with a degree. It’s about a complete transformation, a “Jewish makeover,” a totally different lifestyle and belief system from the common way of thinking and practicing for the average person.
The Talmud says that we do not accept a convert who is choosing Judaism for the sake of marriage (Tractate Yevamos 24b). This is because one is not considered a valid convert unless the person decides that they want to develop a relationship with Him the Jewish way, because they believe that is the best way for their soul to make that connection, and that the Truth of Judaism really speaks to them. This needs to be independent of the side benefit of attaining a Jewish spouse, a reason that doesn’t justify their acceptance into a conversion process. It needs to be for the sake of Heaven, not for the sake of another gain.
For that reason, the same Talmud tractate says we don’t accept a convert who is doing so for the sake of honor, glory, wealth or similar benefits. The Talmud even says that we don’t accept converts in the days of Messiah, because those converting will be doing so, ipso facto, once the Jews are recognized as the leading nation by all and they want to share in that glory, not doing so to better serve God.
This being said, we often have the spouse or significant other of a Jewish man or woman come before us to convert where we feel it truly is for the right reasons. This is because, commonly, the Jewish half served, often unwittingly, as a catalyst for the Gentile half of the couple to look into Judaism and discover its truth and beauty. Upon getting to know them, we often are struck by the fact that their quest for Judaism is now unrelated to their spouse or significant other, and they presently would pursue their journey into Judaism with, or without, the other. The Jew, for their part, would have continued the relationship even without the Gentile one converting. In such a case we accept them in the program since they have demonstrated their sincerity. This is provided the Jew is also willing to go along with the learning process and grow along with the Gentile partner, because since they are connected, that’s the only way we can assure longevity and staying power to the Gentile’s Jewish decision. (Usually it’s a much bigger challenge for the Jew to agree to go along than for the Gentile, who’s excited about it.)
In the case of the petitioner in the past column, since nothing of the sort was exhibited, conversion wasn’t mentioned as an option; although, if you’re out there and reading this and want to consider this odyssey, feel free to contact me and I’ll be glad to discuss it.
Dear Rabbi Fried,