How to become a Jew
Becoming Jewish is not as "easy" as becoming a Christian or a Muslim. What I mean is that there is no set of beliefs or declarations that will make you Jewish. You can't become Jewish on your own; You have to be accepted.
Well, that's not entirely true. You can become a Jew passively -- you have to be born from a Jewish mother, and in Liberal Judaism a Jewish father counts too.
Oh, you were thinking about conversion? Well, okay then.
I'm going to try to explain conversion through reference to Jewish texts. This approach will mean that when I discuss conversion in general terms, I mean conversion to Orthodox Judaism. I'll highlight differences for other streams of Judaism later.
TEXT 1: Talmud, Yevamot 47a
Our Rabbis taught: A proselyte who comes to convert at this time, we say to him: "Why did you decide to convert? Do you know that Israel at this time is afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, and rejected, and that tribulations are visited upon them?"
... and we make known to him the penalty for transgression of Gleanings, the Forgotten Sheaves, the Corner, and the Poor Man's Tithe.
And we make known to him the punishment for violating the commandments. He is told, "You should know that, before you came to this situation, if you had eaten forbidden fat you would not have been punished with karet, if you had profaned Shabbat you would not have been punished with stoning; but now were you to eat forbidden fat you would be punished with karet; were you to profane Shabbat you would be punished with stoning".
Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism, tends to discourage converts. There are a number of reasons for this, both religious and historic.
- Only Jews are considered bound by Jewish law. This means that a Christian, say, who works on Shabbat isn't doing anything wrong in the eyes of Judaism. A Jew has to keep hundreds of Commandments to be a "good Jew", while a Gentile only has to keep the Noachide covenant. So conversion is seen as an additional risk, and the Rabbis didn't want to expose people to punishment for breaking commandments, unless they were reasonably sure that the prospective convert really meant it.
- The Jews have been through some pretty crappy times, historically. Anyone that wants in is automatically viewed with suspicion. There's a sort of incredulity there. "You want to join us? US??. You're crazy".
- In many countries at various points in history, it was/is illegal for the Jewish community to accept converts.
For these reasons, there is a tradition of rejecting a convert three times, as a test of sincerity.
Well, there aren't really any as such. In practice, there's a lot of stuff to learn, and most Rabbis of all flavours will require that you learn at least some of it. For prospective Reform Jews, this often means taking classes for a few months before conversion. In the Orthodox world, they're a lot more hardcore; you pretty much have to make major lifestyle changes too. Typically, for this reason, an orthodox conversion can take up to three years. The idea of this "run-in period" is to get the convert used to their new lifestyle, and provide a chance to back out
At the end of the study period, the prospective convert comes before a Beit Din, a Jewish court of three people. They make sure the person has been studying and is converting for the right reasons.
TEXT 2: Sifri, Numbers 108
"Rabbi says: Just as a Jew enters the covenant through three things, namely, circumcision, immersion, and the propitiation of an offering, so proselytes fall under the same rule."
So, down to the nuts and bolts
Well, only for a male. If he's already circumcised, there's a special ceremony called Hatafat Dam Brit, the Spilling of the Blood of the Covenant. Basically, the prospective convert's penis is pricked, a drop of blood is allowed to form. This acts as a symbolic circumcision (Ouch). Some Reform and Liberal communities don't require converts to be circumcised, but most at least recommend it strongly.
2) Immersion in a Mikvah (ritual bath)
The convert must immerse his body in a Mikvah in the presence of the Beit Din. He needs to be completely under the water, and completely naked, with no jewelery or anything that might keep the water off his body.
He? His? Well, in Orthodox Judaism the Beit Din will be all male, so when a woman wants to convert, they don't watch her immersion; they wait in a different room and a woman makes sure the convert dips right.
Again, this is optional in some Reform communities.
3) Offering -- as in sacrifice
Converts haven't been offering sacrifices since 70CE. Some rabbis ask the convert to give some money to charity -- especially for helping the poor -- as a symbolic sacrifice.
After conversion, many people take Hebrew names for use in Jewish legal and ritual ceremonies. Traditional names are Avraham for men and Sarah for women. For patrinomics and matrinomics, Avraham avinu (Abraham, our father) and Sarah Imeinu (Sarah, our Mother), are used. This is because a convert is considered like a newly created person.
Finally, the Jewish religion reacts very favourably to converts. It's seen as something really special:
TEXT 3: Tanchuma, Lech Lecha
Had the Jews not witnessed the sounds and the flames, the thunder and the voice of the shofars they would not have accepted the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. Yet this convert did not witness a single one of these and joins himself to the Lord and accepts the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. Can there be anyone more beloved!
Much detail from http://www.convert.org/process.htm
Sources from http://www.wujs.org.il/activist/activities/sources/life_cycle/conversion.shtml, but I put them there in the first place.