Refusing Conversion To Judaism

Shlomoh and Howard Karten

October, 2008

Howard wrote
My understanding of conversion in Judaism is that a rabbi is supposed to turn down a would-be convert 3 times before accepting the convert as sincere.  Is that correct?  (It makes great psychological sense, if true.)  

Shlomoh responded
My own opinion is that the refusal thing is bullshit.

Howard added
To me, the reasons for the "3-time refusal" rule seem obvious:  to get rid of the "tire kickers" and impulsive people who (a) would not make good converts--because they're doing it on impulse, and thus, are probably more likely than others to "fall away" in the future; and (b) therefore, not waste the time of rabbis and others who oversee such conversions.  If you refuse the would-be convert 3 times, and s/he keeps coming back, that bespeaks a certain sincerety/earnestness/drive.
Think, for a moment, about how you become a Born Again Christian;  you just decide you are, you shout Hallelujah, and you're in!  It's a system designed for impulsive people, not for thoughtful folks.  

Shlomoh responded
The refusal issue is just one aspect of the whole Jewish way of conversion with which I have a problem.
I understand the reason, and yes, you are right about it - BUT - let me deal with conversion to Judaism in general.

First I'll make a remark about conversion to which you address the comments that you simply shout halleluya and you do it on impulse. There are denominations in Christianity which I call enthusiastic Christianity. Rather than use the word "impulsive" I would say "spontaneous." So, for example, in a Pentecostal church, there will be an appeal, done in a highly emotional, ewnthusiastic manner, to get people to accept Christ. Maybe some people have come to that particular church meeting with an unspoken [even to themselves] desire to find out how they can get close to God. At a Pentecostal service I was at in Louisiana, there was an individual who obviusly was a drunk and homeless and generally in a bad way. I saw the decons, all of them, laying hands on the man and calling upon the demons to leave him and for him to call on Christ to save him. In this instance, or ones like it, there is very little to think about. Enthusiastic religions are not structured, and many of them believe that once you make the commitment to accept Christ, you are forever after saved, regardless of what you do with your life, even if you later say that you no longer believe. Therefore, since the major MITSVAH in Christianity, and especially in enthusiastic Christianity, is to get people to say they accept him, there will be no issue such as a refusal test. Thery don't want you to refuse. I don't know how it is with Islam. I know nothing about conversion to Islam except that historically they convert people by the sword. But let's take other denominations. In structured Christianity, like Catholicism or Lutheranism, there may be something similar to the rabbinic 3 time refusal. I suppose that there, the cleric wants the person to think about his desire to convert seriously. I just am not sure what they do.

Secondly, denominations such as Catholicism are correct in allowing conversion for practical reasons. In Judaism, you are supposedly wanting to convert because you want to be in a relationship with God and His TORAH. Other reasons are secondary. I once heard a rabbi echo my sentiments that converts should be accepted for practical reasons. In the final analysis, no one will ever know why he wants to convert if the reason is merely "spiritual". I know people who wanted to become Jewish because they had a dream or because an angel spoke to them, etc. Those are not good reasons for someone to become Jewish. A far better reason, and to me, the BEST reason, would be if someone said that he/she is marrying a Jew and wants the household to be one in which there religious harmony and unity. That makes sense.

Although rabbis say that marriage is not a legitimate reason to become Jewish, what I am saying is that conversion for marriage is the most LOGICAL reason to convert, and there may be another reason other than just practicality. Suppose someone is marrying a Jew and that person knows about jews and Judaisn and really wants to be Jewish - BUT he/she is an atheist.

This is the second problem. Jewishness is first and foremost an ethnicity; a Peoplehood with its own religion. But Jewishness transcends the religion just as it always has. The second problem is that there is no mechanism for becoming Jewish other than going to a rabbi. That's too bad. Probably before the Babylonian Captivity, a gentile could live among Jews and sooner or later just blend in - or maybe he had to say that he gives allegience to JHVH and the nation of Israel, and that's that. Today there are probably many people who want to be Jewish but don't want to be religious. The catch 22? The rabbis expect you to take on both aspects of being a Jew - ethnos and religion.
I know people who wanted to be Jewish but didn't want to be religous. They'd say, My significant other is Jewish and he/she doesn't do anything about that religious stuff. And the rabbi would answer. Well there's nothing that we can do about it since he/she was born Jewish.

Issue three. You mention that a person might "fall away." My question is, Fall away from what? You can fall away from Jesus and you then fall away from your particular denomination. But in enthusiastic denominations, even that does not mean you fell away from Christianity. When my girl-friend found out that she was actually born Jewish, she "fell away from Christ". Yet to this day, her mom still considers her "saved." Now in Judaism, how much more so? I know of converts who have stopped being religious but they do not deny their Jewishness. Some of them even still express their ethnic Jewishness through Jewish ritual. That is to say, Once you are converted to Judaism, unless you actively renounce your conversion or take on another religion, you are still Jewish. Your conversion can only be nullified if you state by words or action that you are no longer Jewish.

So back to your original question. Yes, Orthodox rabbis still supposedly go through the motions of refusal.
Actually there is another reason for that. A rabbi, regardless of denomination, will tell a potential convert, Go home and think about this. You are now a gentile and part of the majority. If you become a Jew, you will be part of an unliked minority, subject to all possible degrees of antisemitism. If you convert, you will be putting your life and well-being into potential danger. Is that what you want? You will also be unable to participate with your biological family, the holidays of your former religion. You will create a gulf beteen your self and them. Is that what you want? That's probably the manner in which the refusal takes place. More than that, I don't know.

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