Status and Identity
Conversion is an incredibly important topic in Judaism, not to imply that the other topics are not as equally important but this one gets more of my attention. I also believe that the process of conversion should be open to anyone that feels they are or want to be part of the Jewish people. I also believe that there should be a process. Two terms that I have heard a lot about since coming to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) is the concept of Jewish Identity and Jewish Status. A Jewish identity refers to how an individual sees himself/herself, using this example a person might call themselves a Jew and even see themselves as a Jew. Status is how the rest of the Jewish community sees someone or how a community sees its member (RRA Guidelines on Giyyur).
I have met people that have taken on a Jewish identity but not a status, this is kind of like having one foot in and one foot out of a relationship. In my former synagogue there were active non Jews that joined the synagogue and started working on their conversion process but never took the final leap or any leap. This always puzzled me. Why not convert? I do understand that the process of conversion is a personal journey and some people can take as long as they need on their path.
Conversion to Judaism is a combination of identity and status, one takes on the Jewish identity when they start the process of conversion. They learn the narrative they buy into the story of Mount Sinai and Moses and they become part of the Jewish people (RRA Guidelines on Giyyur). I see this in the same way I see naturalized citizens in the United States; They become part of the American narrative and can easily say things like “Our forefathers,” they buy into the narrative and become citizens with the same protections and rights as someone born in the United States. The final step in the conversion process is the actual conversion, and this is Jewish status.
There are three ritual components to converting to Judaism Tevila, Brit Mila or Hatafat Dam and the Bet Din. Tevila or ritual immersion is the total submersion of the body in a pool of water called the mikvah. Before someone enters the mikvah they have to be clean and remove anything that could interfere with the waters touching every part of their body (ie nail polish, jewelry, etc.) because the purpose of the mikvah is not for cleansing. The mikvah is kind of like the birth of a Jew and the water is sort of a spiritual cleansing. A person enters the mikvah as a non Jew and exits the waters as a Jew (Lamm). The new Jew says the blessing for the immersion and the shehehiyanu blessing which is often used when a Jew does something for the first time or has a special event in his/her life (Diamant 124)
The Brit Milah, the circumcision, is the covenant that Abraham made with god. When I think of the Brit Milah, I think of Abraham he was 99 years old in his tent recovering from a circumcision that he performed on himself. He is considered the first Jew. Today men are still getting circumcised or having Hatafat Dam, (a ritual circumcision for men who are already circumcised), to be part of the Jewish people and to connect to the very first Jew, Abraham (Diamant 105-107)
The final process in the conversion is the Beit Din, the Jewish court. The Beit Din should consist of three Rabbis, but can consist of other leaders in the Jewish community. The Beit Din symbolizes the community and the Beit Din has the final say in someones status as a Jew. This is also an opportunity for the potential convert to share their story and journey with the Beit Din and it is an opportunity for the Beit Din to ask questions and learn the sincerity of the potential convert (Diamant 114).
As stated earlier this process should be a process that is open to all that want to be a part of the Jewish people.
Diamant, Anita. Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends. 1st ed. Schocken, 1998. Print.
Lamm, Maurice. “The Mikveh (Mikvah) – My Jewish Learning.” Web. 19 Jan. 2012.
“RRA Guidelines on Giyyur.” 2009. Print.