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Why do we make it so hard to convert?

Recently, I got a call in the late evening from a local hospital chaplain. A hospice patient was asking for a rabbi. When I met his soon-to-be widow in the intensive care unit, she asked if I could perform last rites. (Yes, we have one, it’s called “Viddui.”)

It was a sad story. She and her husband, originally from San Antonio, made Aliyah to Israel several years ago. They had returned to visit family and both caught COVID. The complications doomed him, and here she was on a death vigil with her adult daughter at her side.

When I asked for his Hebrew name to begin the Viddui, I found out he did not have one. Why? They weren’t Jewish. Actually, her exact words were: “Rabbi, we are Jewish in our hearts, but not formally converted.”

“Why did you ask for a rabbi?”

“We feel Jewish and want a rabbi with us at this time. Can you still do last rites?”

At this same time, her son was calling the congregation to ask if I could convert his father to Judaism on his deathbed. The office staff informed him that this was not something done in Judaism. The son was bereft, expressing his frustration: “If other religions (Christian) can do this, why not Judaism?”

Uncertain boundaries create these situations. I regularly receive calls from evangelicals and Messianic Jews asking to attend services. They see no conflict. When I explain to them that they cannot “witness” to us in our “house” (they cannot proselytize), nor can they participate in our services, they don’t understand why.

Yet these situations create questions that are important for us to ponder. They challenge us in ways that our insulated religious existence ignores. I remember Prof. David Hartman (of blessed memory) taught that as Jews we pride ourselves on asking questions — but we seldom ask the questions that force us to confront our basic assumptions.

So, why can’t we convert someone on their deathbed? Why is it so hard to convert? Why do prospective candidates have to learn and do and go through a long process to become proficient in knowledge that many of our congregants do not have?

It is said that Rav Akiva Eiger refused to teach prospective converts anything but the very basic beliefs of Judaism. (It’s hard to believe, but I looked it up.) They could perform the Mitzvah of learning after they became required to perform Mitzvot. Even Maimonides seems to come down on both sides of this issue. I know at least one orthodox colleague who follows this dictum, and of course there are radical liberal rabbis who (for a price) will convert anyone in a day or two.

Later, I told the son that heaven is not an issue for Jews or non-Jews in our tradition, so conversion is not necessary for entrance into a positive afterlife. His response: “We didn’t want the conversion for heaven. Our father just wanted to be Jewish before he died.”

Why do we make it so hard to convert? I wonder.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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