Ask The Rabbi

Ask The Rabbi


Convert – or not?

The Rav Name: Rabbi Yitzchak Arad

Hello, I have a somewhat nuanced question, and would appreciate some guidance. I’m undergoing education leading towards conversion to Judaism through a recognized (but non orthodox) local Rabbi, and have discovered I’m (through great distance) maternally of Jewish, though with no material previous connection Jewish practice or heavily documented enough to prove ‘without a doubt’ she was Jewish due to conversion and some immigration record irregularities. Additionally complicating this, is the fact that I’m married to a deeply supportive but non-Jewish or actively religious wife, and as such even if I were to seek a traditional conversion through an Orthodox Rabbi it would likely not advance far since it would creat an interfaith marriage (though it existed before I knew of this ancestry.) So my question is: as someone with “Jewish” religious convictions, and maternal/halachic but not definitely Jewish descent, what would be my best approach to approaching orthodox Torah observance? Seek conversion and practice as a ‘frum’ but heterodox convert? Would the expectation be I ‘ere’ on not being counted for minyan etc. ?

Convert – or not?

Shalom and thank you for your question. Your question is indeed a difficult one, inasmuch as you sound like a happily married person, who would not want to destroy a marriage. In Judaism, although divorce is allowed when the parties involved have not found a way to reconcile their differences, or sometimes for other important reasons, nevertheless, obviously marital harmony is a very high priority,as opposed to the secular winds that blow so hard today that they threaten the entire family unit.

It seems that the crucial issue here is whether or not you feel that you are Jewish, and that feeling is compelling enough to make you want to undergo an orthodox conversion. It appears that you have done some research and you realize that only an orthodox conversion ‘holds water’. This is because Jewish law has a definitive approach – a ‘Ger Tzedek’ – righteous convert’ – is someone who has undergone a conversion with all the steps involved in Jewish law, all these steps being united by the sincere desire to live a Jewish life, learn G-d’s Torah, and strive to keep His commandments. A Jew by definition is someone who was born Jewish or underwent an orthodox conversion, for the above reasons. Therefore, someone who has not undergone an orthodox conversion cannot be counted in a minyan, or keep the Shabbat laws completely.

There is a concept of ‘Giur l’chumrah’, conversion-to-be-on-the-safe-side, which is relevant in cases where there is suspected but unproven Jewish ancestry, such as in the case of a woman who grew up in India, in a family and community who believe that they are direct descendants of the lost tribe of Menashe. They practice some Jewish customs and probably do not intermarry. When this woman came to live in Israel, she began to study Judaism seriously and learned that she should undergo a ‘Giur l’chumrah’ to ensure that she could marry a Jew and be accepted into the Jewish community. She thereupon underwent the conversion. In practice, it is a full conversion process.

It is probably a good idea to continue keeping your eyes open for further evidence, but not as a major time-consuming project. More importantly though, it is a good idea to keep learning more about Judaism, and the Chabad.org website is an excellent resource with informative and entertaining material.

If a little further down the road you decide that you really want this, nothing can stop your soul from expressing itself, somehow things will fall into place. How? Once upon a time, when a farmer would work hard hoeing and ploughing his field, and sowing seeds, he would then turn to the Heavens and pray for rain. When we wish to receive a blessing – and clarity is certainly a blessing, we must plough and sow. One of the ways to make a vessel for blessing is to acquire a spiritual mentor, as the sages of theTalmud recommend in the tractate Ethics of the Fathers 1:6 “Make (take) for yourself a Rabbi and acquire for yourself a friend”. The mentor should be someone you respect, and who you feel is knowledgeable

and objective.

It may also be worthwhile to get yourselves invited to orthodox homes to experience the true Jewish lifestyle, Jewish Sabbath and festivals, etc. This may be a factor which could add clarity. Again, if you check out your nearest Chabad House they will likely be able to help out with that. After you undergo some experiences like that, you will be in a better place to make decisions.

We wish you success and clarity in your search and all the best!

P.S: If after everything spoken of above, you feel that conversion is not for you, there is another avenue for you to explore. When Noah came out of the ark, G-d gifted him with a set of laws for him and for all mankind, they are called The Seven Noahide Laws. They include the prohibitions against blasphemy, murder, adultery, incest, idolatory, and eating a part of an animal which has not completely died. There is also an injunction to set up courts of justice. This is only an incomplete set of chapter headings, it would be worthwhile to look up the laws with all their details. This is something which your wife can share with you even now, it is very worthwhile!