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Non-Orthodox Conversions: Are They Valid?

This is, understandably a very sensitive subject. I have no desire to offend anyone; I just wish to explain Jewish Law.

First and foremost, it is vital to understand that a principle of Orthodox Judaism is that we cannot permit anything that Jewish law has previously forbidden. It is the very essence of Orthodox Judaism that Jewish Law cannot allow and has not allowed such changes to take place, and that this has never taken place in all of our history (with one minor exception, possibly -- that the Rabbis permitted writing down the basics of the Oral Torah -- the Talmud -- to prevent its being forgotten or changed).

Thus, we cannot change the Laws of the Torah by permitting what the Torah has forbidden, or by being more lenient than the Torah allows. This is axiomatic in Torah Judaism. Therefore, to us, any order that makes such a change, is to us heretical.

Of course, this applies not only to groups, but to individuals as well. Each Jew must do his or her best to keep the Torah fully, as much as is applicable to that person. Likewise, a convert must assume firm resolve to perform all the Commandments that will be relevant to him/her. A convert, at the time of conversion, must intend to keep the Commandments. If at the time of conversion s/he has (or had) no intention of keeping the Commandments, the conversion is not valid.

It is forbidden to convert someone who has an ulterior motive for converting. But if it should happen that a person converts and assumes all the Commandments, and we find out afterwards that s/he had an ulterior motive, the conversion is still valid.(1)

However, not assuming the responsibility of observing the Torah is another matter. The convert must declare before the full Court his intention to fulfill the Commandments. If he failed to do so, the conversion was never valid at all.(2)

When converting to non-Orthodoxy, whether it be Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist, one is ipso facto assuming very few (in some cases none) of the Commandments.

In other words, in most cases of non-Orthodox "conversion," no conversion has taken place at all.

There are yet other issues. The presiding Judges must also act as witnesses to the conversion. A conversion is valid only if the witnesses themselves are valid witnesses in a Jewish Court. This has nothing to do with affiliation. An Orthodox Jew could be an invalid witness as well. Here are some of the disqualifications: someone who eats non-kosher food; one who publicly does not keep Sabbath or the Holidays, even if the infraction is minor; a gambler; a proven defrauder; a usurer; a freethinker; a heretic; or someone who has sworn falsely in court. Anyone who publicly does not fulfill even only one Jewish Law is not valid as a witness. (Past behavior, now corrected, usually does not count.) And not only sinners, but also someone who knows little or no Torah, even if he's Orthodox, is not acceptable as a Rabbinic Judge.(4)

If the conversion has not been witnessed by people whom Jewish Law accepts as valid witnesses, no matter what their affiliation, Orthodox Judaism cannot accept that conversion.

These are just some of the reasons that make non-Orthodox conversions very problematic.

A friend of mine (an Orthodox Jew) is a convert who was first converted Conservative. He later learned about Orthodox Judaism, and decided this was what he wanted.

There was an interesting wrinkle in his case. The people witnessing his conversion were actually Orthodox. In the Midwestern town in which they lived there was no Orthodox synagogue in which to pray, so these aged Orthodox men prayed with the Conservative. The key factor here is that even though they were part of a conservative community, and prayed in a Conservative synagogue, they were fully and properly Observant. Thus, it seemed possible that his conversion, though it was done by the Conservative, could have been Halachically valid.

But then the Rabbi handling his Orthodox conversion discovered a very pivotal piece of information. The conservative official had failed to inform and teach this convert properly. He had refused to teach him the very basic Principle of Jewish Faith that the entire Torah -- both the Written and Oral Torah -- was created and composed by G-d, and given to us by G-d via great and open miracles at Mount Sinai. Furthermore, the Torah has not been changed since G-d composed it.

According to Maimonides (the classic Jewish legal codifier), this is a fundamental belief, and whoever does not accept this is a heretic and has no share in the World to Come. One who does not accept and believe this Principle is not a valid convert. Thus, this person's "conversion" was not valid, despite the fact that acceptable witnesses were present at his performance of the conversion rituals.

The pity of it is that many Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist "converts" are very sincere. (For that matter, so are many of the Jews born into those movements.) It is often no fault of their own that they are not considered Jewish by that conversion. It is only their lack of knowledge, and the misleading assurances of the non-Orthodox leaders that they have "sufficiently" converted.

But a question remains: How can anyone say that non-Orthodox converts have not sufficiently converted? Aren't they sincere?

This is indeed a good point.

Imagine that there was a member of the Iraqi underground (if there had been such a thing). He lives in Iraq, but he always resented Saddam Hussein. He considered and considers himself an American at heart. He fought valiantly against the Iraqi army on behalf of the United States. He planted American flags at every place he conquers. He dispersed tracts about the American form of government throughout Iraq.

One day, after the war ends, and he takes an aiplane flight to America. He arrives triumphantly on the shores of the U.S., and loudly demands to be given a mansion and free room and board, like any good American.

Understandably, people try to put some water on his fire. There is no mansion waiting for him, despite whatever he was told about Americans. He is also told that he is not yet a citizen. He must first fill out the forms, he must wait on line, he must get approved and accepted, he must swear or affirm an oath, he must actually find a job, and he must -- gasp -- pay taxes!

"But how can you do this to me?!" he shouts. "I am an American war hero! I am a citizen! It is my right! I have killed and put my life in danger for this country! How dare you tell me I have no right to call myself an American! And pay taxes? It's an outrage!"

There can be little doubt of his sincerity. There can be no doubt of his desire to be an American, under his terms. But regardless of his sincerity, he has to follow the rules. If he does not file the forms, or take the oath, he cannot become an American citizen, regardless of his sincerity.

And if he refuses to pay taxes, he just might go to jail, or even get deported, regardless of his heroism.

The American ideal involves all the more difficult aspects of American life as well as the supposed freedom and liberty it touts. We must pay taxes, to keep the government we consider the bastion of freedom. We must keep within the speed limits when driving, because that is the price of republican government. And so on and so forth.

Above all, we must work for a living, because the American dream does not mean being supported by the government, but striking it rich through hard work and ingenuity.

Judaism has its rules as well. Not everyone who wants to be called Jewish is automatically called Jewish, just because s/he "feels Jewish." They might even be a true hero -- for which they are guaranteed to be rewarded -- but they are not Jewish if they do not follow the procedure. And they are not exempt from obeying the Laws, regardless of their war record. They may be righteous Gentiles, and they may even be more righteous than some Jews, but that does not make them Jews. (Nor does it make them lesser people in any way.)

The degree of sincerity is irrelevant if the actual deed has not been done. If one has not converted to Judaism, one is not a Jew. If he is sincere, let him convert to Judaism.

There is only one kind of Jew, and every Jew is that kind of Jew. Some simply choose to ignore that, that's all.

It must be agreed, however, that in more recent years many of the Rabbis of the Conservative Movement have taken some positive steps towards a firmer acceptance of Jewish Law. We hope and pray they will return completely, so we can all heal the breaches together, and not compromise Jewish Law in any way in doing so.

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1. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah, 268:12

2. Ibid, para 2

3. Ibid, para 1, 12

4. Culled from Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, Laws of Judges, 7-8; Laws of Testimony, 34