The Conversion Controversy in Modern Jewish Law: Introduction to What Does It Take to Become a Jew?

Video Introduction

Who is a Jew? Is this question social in nature or cultural; religious or national? Is the answer to this question objective, namely, is there a set of criterion which must be met to identify as a Jew or is Jewish identity subjective? In this course, we will examine this question from the formal objective perspective of halachic or Jewish legal discourse. We will examine a number of legal issues which have come to make “Giyyur” or “conversion” to Judaism into a controversial subject in modern times.

I want to take a moment to state what we will do and what we will not do in this course. This course will be issues centered. We will only contend with issues and debates that have legal substance. In other words, if there is legitimate legal debate on issues, we will examine the basis for such opinions. We will not, however, deal with issues which are political in nature, namely, why one movement in Judaism does not recognize the conversions of another, unless there are legitimate legal grounds for such positions. Sometimes power struggles are simply power struggles. Such debates are the stuff of political science and are not the purview of this course.

Our course will be open to debate. There will be room to discuss the various legal positions and policies related by the sources under consideration but I want to make clear that this course is about halacha – Jewish legal discourse. It presumes the acceptance of halacha as a given. Therefore, I ask that discussion remain within these parameters. (For example, we will discuss the relative merits of “patrilineal descent” while we will discuss whether a candidate for conversion is required to be observant or not.) I make this point at the outset in order to keep our discussion on course so that we will not have a free for all and so that the discussions will be edificatory and not inflammatory.

  1. “The essential ingredients for a successful conversion” – What are the basic legal requirements of a halachic Jewish conversion?
  2. Is a conversion for ulterior motives valid? (i.e. conversion for the sake of marriage or aliyah, etc.)
  3. Must a person become an observant Jew to convert?
  4. Conversion of a minor
  5. Can a conversion be invalidated?
  6. Is there ever an imperative to convert? (The question of “zera Yisrael – Jewish bloodline”)
  7. Issues which might prevent acceptance of a convert
  8. A candidate for conversion who cannot for medical reasons be circumcised

The careful reading of sources will be crucial to our studies. Judaism is a textually based tradition. The answers to new questions are searched out through the careful and sometimes creative reading of texts since texts of earlier generations are thought to be the source of God’s will. We are, by and large, going to study sources in classical halacha since these sources best spell out the issues in debate. These sources will also introduce the student to sources otherwise unknown to them. This in itself should be a rewarding experience for the student.