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Judaism is not a religion like Christianity, Islam, etc. There are critical differences.
One becomes a mainline Christian (i.e. a Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.) by determining that one wishes to 'receive salvation through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus', and by placing one's faith in his human sacrifice. If one is born into a Christian family one still has to personally make that determination and pray some form of 'the sinner's prayer' (i.e. 'Jesus have mercy on me a sinner'). Some sects require baptism, for others it is optional but advised, some 'dunk' while others 'sprinkle' . There are various differences sect by sect.
If one is not a Christian and wishes to become one, one merely prays 'the sinner's prayer' from the heart and in a few moments one can be "born again" as a Christian. Islam is similar. One who wishes to become Muslim showers and then recites the Shahada (i.e. لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله -- lā ʾilāha ʾillā-llāh, muḥammadun rasūlu-llāh -- "There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.") in the presence of witnesses. In moments anyone can become a Christian or a Muslim.
Its somewhat different for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but no one is a Christian by birthright according that religion. This is key difference.
According to Islam everyone is born Muslim. As we age we begin to rebel and leave "submission" (islam) and therefore must recite the Shahada to restore ourselves to our natural state (Islam). For this reason one does not "convert" into Islam, one "reverts."
Judaism is unique.
According to traditional Rabbinic Judaism, if ones birth mother is Jewish one is Jewish, period. If ones birth mother is not Jewish, one is not 'part of the Tribe,' period (unless one formally converts). For traditionalists (including the Orthodox) this is not debatable (even though Jewishness was counted through the father prior to the days of Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly). For Karaite Jews Jewishness is still defined through the father and not the mother.
Judaism is not primarily a religion therefore. It is our birthright based on a legal contract entered into at Mount Sinai (i.e. the Mosaic Covenant). Jews are more accurately thought of as an extended family eternally bound together by this contract. The rabbis teach that every Jewish soul, past, present, and future, was personally present at Mount Sinai and personally accepted the 'yoke of Torah,' to be included in the Suffering Servant of HaShem.
The official religion of this family is called Judaism: the 'ism' of Judah. The suffix ism is from the Ancient Greek -ισμός (-ismós). It modifies nouns, in this case Judah, into an action, state, condition or doctrine. We can therefore say the doctrine, action, state, condition or belief system of Judah is Judaism. Sadly most Jews today are not religiously Jewish, but they are all still 100% Jews because of the Covenant (whether they accept the terms of the Covenant or not). Through assimilation and conversion into other religions far too many Jews have been lost over the last two thousand years, just as we were warned by HaShem in the Torah. Assimilation remains the greatest single threat to the survival of the Jewish people.
At Har Sinai HaShem established a system of authority over His Chosen People. Our elders (now called rabbis) have the authority to define and interpret Jewish halacha (law) for their generation while remaining true to the past. Their authority is that passed down from Moses, to Aaron, to the priests and Levites, to the judges, to the kings, to the prophets, to Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly, and thence to the Parush (i.e. Pharisees), who are now known as the Rabbis. The Rabbis define Jewish beliefs, practices, and identity. Their rulings are often complex and are not always harmonious. Very little in Judaism is 'black or white'. The Rabbis often disagree.
Since the days of Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly 'Jewishness' has passed through the mother due to certain historic realities of their generation. It was not always certain who fathered children. Determining the mothers was usually more accurate, hence the elders ruled that Jewishness would thenceforth pass through the mothers while tribal decent passes through the fathers. Of course today all Jews are regarded as being of the Tribe of Judah (i.e. Jews) even though we realize that other Tribal descents are present among us. Once Messiah comes he will reestablish the Ten Lost Tribes and then the Twelve Tribes (with Judah and Benjamin) will again be assigned to their ancestral lands.
Since the days of the Exodus from Egypt non-Jews have been allowed to formally convert into the Covenant with the permission of the Jewish Elders (i.e. the ruling authorities of the generation). According to Rambam and other Jewish authorities no distinctions are to be made between born Jews and converts.
As we read:Question: How would you describe the acceptance of converted person? Is the person accepted as equal or are there still some prejudice, besides the fact that by law if you are converted properly you are considered as Jewish.
Mesora: Judaism accepts the convert fully with no discrimination. God didn't discriminate, as our kings (David and Solomon) are descendants from Ruth the Moabite who converted. The prayers we say each day are taken from David.
The Torah is sensitive to our feelings, and therefore protects the converts feeling of "second rate Jew" by commanding our distinct love for the convert. Moses married a Midianite. Joshua married Rachav.
We must follow the Torah's sound principles, not man's corrupt idiosyncrasies.
Not only does Judaism accept the convert fully, but we are commanded as it says in Deuteronomy 10:19 "and you shall love the converts." Just as we are commanded to love God (Deuteronomy 11:1) "and you shall love God, your Lord." The Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, loves converts as stated in Deuteronomy 10:18: "and He loves converts." A convert is included in the commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18)
In the Book of Ruth, chapter 2:12: Boaz says to Ruth: "May HaShem reward your actions, and may your payment be full from HaShem, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge."
The Rambam says in Chapter 6 of Hilchot De'ot: "Loving a convert who has come to nestle under the wings of the Shechinah fulfills two positive commandments: one for he is also included among the "neighbors" (whom we are commanded to love-see above) and one because he is a convert and Torah states this." Deuteronomy 10:19) "One's love for the convert should be as unlimited as one's love of God..."
A number of the Rambam's responses are dedicated to strengthening the spirits of the converts. He wrote to a convert Ovadiah that although the Jews trace their lineage to Abraham, the converts' connection to Judaism is dependent on God, Himself and is therefore, more praiseworthy. In another letter to a convert the Rambam praises by saying: "leaving his father and homeland... pursuing God... and reaching such heights..." Source
Since the Jews left Babylonian captivity this authority has rested in the hands of the Pharisees/Rabbis.
For this reason while a Gentile might decide to "be Jewish"; he/she might (externally) keep all 613 mitzvot perfectly; he/she might be completely Shomer Shabbat, etc., still such a person is no more Jewish than any other Gentile. In fact by doing these things he/she would have violated the Torah by taking on mitzvot (commandments) intended only for the Jewish people. As discussed above, being a Jew is not dependant on observances or beliefs; it is a family matter. Either one is part of our family or one is not. As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explains:Don't follow excessive stringencies in your practice of the Torah. "God does not rule over His creatures with tyranny" (Avodah Zarah 3a) - "The Torah was not given to ministering angels" [but to fallible humans] (Berachot 25b).
By HaShem's decree, a non-observant son or daughter of the Covenant, whether by birth or through formal conversion, who, God forbid, fails miserably in his/her observance, is still 100% Jewish. This is because Judaism is first and foremost an extended family, not a religious system. Some family members are very observant while others are not. Despite our human foibles, a special grace resides with all of the Jewish people that enables us to fulfill our role as Jews (Genesis 12:3). The Suffering Servant of HaShem serves at His good pleasure whether through yetzer tov or through yetzer ha ra.
People often say Judaism is "a religion of works." This is somewhat accurate when it is properly understood, however understand that "being Jewish" is all about the work of our Patriarchs and the Matriarchs, the accomplishments of Moshe, and of those Jews (our 'roots') who walked out of Egypt and crossed the Sea of Reeds. None of us are worthy of the good HaShem bestows on us! As their seed or children, whether by birth or adoption, we are all completely dependant on our ancestor's merits and on HaShem's faithfulness to them "Because I am HaShem, I do not change; therefore you sons of Jacob are not destroyed -- Malachi 3:6.
According to the Shulchan Aruch (i.e. the Code of Jewish Law) if one wishes to become Jewish one MUST find a sponsoring observant Jew, normally a rabbi, be trained in the ways of Judaism (including but not limited to the Tanach and Talmud basics) -- this usually takes 1-3 years depending on the movement and beit din requirements. Then the person must go before a beit din (i.e. a religious court comprised of three recognized Jewish judges), be circumcised if male, and arise from the mikveh. This is foundational.
Each movement and sect varies on its requirements and not all movements accept the rulings of the other movements. For instance, the Orthodox will not accept as Jewish someone who converts through non-Orthodoxy (i.e. Reform, Jewish Renewal, Conservative etc.). For this reason it is usually best to convert Orthodox even if one plans to be part of a non-Orthodox community.
Usually candidates for Orthodox conversion will be required to re-locate to the Orthodox community of the sponsoring rabbi. This is so the person can be more completely immersed into Jewish culture and tradition. Conversion is not something to take on lightly. For this reason seeking conversion to Judaism is normally discouraged by the rabbis.
One does not need to be Jewish to please and serve HaShem. Here too Judaism is unique.
Each religion/people/sect establishes its own criteria for membership. In the case of Judaism, the essential criteria is established by GOD in the Torah, through the Shulchan Aruch, and through the rabbinic courts that oversee it. One who wishes to become Jewish must meet the guidelines established by the beit din. One can not simply decide to 'be Jewish'. Conversion is a long and life changing process.
Being a Jew is not a 'right' one can simply self-declare. For those born into the Covenant as well as for those who convert, living as a Jew is a divine mandate. Our choice as Jews is whether or not we will try and live up to this high calling.For more information on this topic please see my study Who is a Jew?
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