As the State of Israel and its rabbinical courts are heading for a major showdown concerning conversion, it is remarkable that not one of the participants, including the orthodox, have considered a major and most crucial question: Is conversion altogether possible? This may sound like a rhetorical question since the answer is in the affirmative. Yet this question goes to the very core of the problem and as long as we do not deal with it, all deliberations concerning this matter are more or less meaningless. The reason for this is very obvious: Logically speaking, conversion to Judaism should not be possible. Just as it is impossible for a Jew whose father is not a Cohen to become a Cohen, so a gentile should not be able to become a Jew. Either one is born into a family of Cohanim or one is not. For the same reason, any one who is not born as a Jew should not be able to become a Jew. God chose the patriarchs and their descendants as His people and it is only those who can claim to be Jews. Either one is part of this nation or one is not.
And yet, conversion to Judaism is possible! How? It is the philosopher, Michael Wyshogrod who, in his book The Body of Faith, gave an authoritative answer to this problem: By means of a miracle. A gentile who converts to Judaism miraculously becomes part of the people of Israel. Unlike Christianity, this does not just mean that the gentile now shares the beliefs of Judaism, but that he or she literally becomes the seed of the patriarchs and matriarchs and for this to happen a quasi biological miracle is required. The gentile needs to become reborn as a direct descendant of Avraham and Sara. This is accomplished by the immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath), clearly symbolizing the mother’s womb through which one becomes reborn. The proof for this far reaching conclusion is the fact that, according to the Torah, a convert is allowed to marry his or her own mother, father, brother or sister. However the Rabbis forbade this ruling, fearing that it might be said that the gentile exchanged a stricter religion for one with a more easy going sanctity. (Yebamoth 22a) But the fact that such marriages are rabbinically forbidden does not change the fact that they are biblically permitted.
This is radically different from baptism in Christianity. After baptism, the prohibition of incest is not waived. The biological relationship between parents and the baptized person continues as before. Not so in Judaism. What is required is the total rebirth of a person to such an extent that earlier biological relationships are completely severed. (Being obligated to give full respect to one’s biological parents is just a matter of hakarath hatov, i.e. gratefulness, to one’s “former” parents, a most important component of Jewish ethical teachings.)
Moreover, it is impossible to argue that mere immersion in a mikvah is sufficient. It is crucial that the potential convert desires to become a completely different person and to undergo a deeply spiritual transformation. Human beings are not just a mass of plasma, complicated robots, or tool making animals who can change their fundamental selves merely by physical immersion in a well of water. They are souls with deep emotions, who experience spiritual and moral struggles in which religious beliefs play a crucial role. Therefore conversion should be a far reaching decision rooted in the deepest recesses of the human soul. While this clearly includes the desire to become a part of the Jewish people, it would be a major mistake to argue that the mere immersion in a mikvah actually causes this highly spiritual transformation. One can immerse in a mikvah hundreds of times and still stay a gentile if it is not accompanied by a spiritual transformation in which one becomes part of the great mission of the Jewish people with a deep commitment to Jewish living.
It may be argued that such a transformation and commitment is simply too much for many gentiles to accomplish and that easier conversions should be permitted, since the unity of the Jewish people is at stake. However this would be a major mistake. The importance of Jewish unity is not to be the highest principle when considering conversions. Rather, the decisive factor should be the integrity of Judaism and its mission to the world.
It is indeed strange that all the parties involved in this national debate seem to overlook this fact. The orthodox establishment, while insisting on the full commitment to Halacha, seems to ignore the fact that such commitment on the part of the convert is only part of the conversion process but not its totality. What is needed is a deep emotional commitment and understanding of the existential meaning of Jewishness. Full observance of Halacha alone does not make a person Jewish. On the other hand, those of a more liberal view should be fully aware that conversion cannot truly take place just by immersion in a mikvah or through a desire to become part of the Jewish people alone. Real conversion can only come about through an act which results in a miraculous quasi biological spiritual transformation. As such, every rabbinical court must be as sure as is humanly possible that there is a real genuine desire for such a transformation on the side of the convert. Ultimately the miracle of conversion itself can only be brought about by God Himself. Anything less makes a farce of the conversion process. It is for that reason that all those involved in accepting or rejecting potential converts should remind themselves that miracles do sometimes happen. But they are rare. True, such miracles are part and parcel of the Jewish experience and should be appreciated for what they are but they should not be taken lightly.
(1) See this excellent work, The Body of Faith. God in the People of Israel by Michael Wyschogrod, p.XV1-XX. Jason Aronson Inc, Northvale, 1996.