What are the prerequisites to convert to Judaism? If you could choose, what would they be? While some of our denominations have a very clear answer, others are more flexible. As a Reform rabbi, I have autonomy in choosing what I require of someone who comes courageously forward and says, “I am interested in converting to Judaism.” What should the response be to that person? According to the rabbis of the Talmud who were trying to protect the community from those of ill-will in their hearts, the prospective convert was to be turned away on three distinct occasions, in order to be assured of his/her commitment.
I don’t go there. Instead, I quote that tradition and say, “You will convert once both you and I are ready.” That takes some investment: studying in the 30-week-long Introduction to Judaism course offered by the local Reform Rabbis (to find out more, email email@example.com or call 412-421-9715); coming to services and study opportunities and other activities so as to become part of our community; and learning a basic amount of Hebrew so as to participate in worship. All the while, we meet every two weeks or so, with a “curriculum” largely of their own making. At the conclusion, when we are both ready, the candidate goes before a Beit Din (rabbinical court) and immerses in the mikvah before standing before the congregation sharing his/her statement of what brought him/her to that moment and looking ahead to his/her Jewish future. This week’s Torah portion Nitzavim begins, “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God … to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God. … I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before Adonai our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” Who is not there? we ask. The answer is not only future generations of those standing there, but also of those people who choose Judaism. They were there at Sinai. When they convert, we say “Welcome back.” It is a “standing at Sinai moment” that is inspiring and energizing for the entire congregation.
Since this is the portion that the Reform community reads on Yom Kippur morning and all of us read just before the High Holy Days begin, we see a powerful parallel between being a convert and being a penitent. With effort, support and inspiration, we turn away from something and toward something else. We are renewed for this year and beyond. L’shana Tova tikateivu. May 5776 be a good, healthy and fulfilling year.
Rabbi Barbara AB Symons is rabbi at Temple David in Monroeville. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.