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On Kohens and Konverts (okay-converts)

Dear Cyber-Rav,

I have a question. My son is going to marry a girl who is planning to convert. My Orthodox friend, who is married to a Lubavitch rabbi, tells me the conversion will, of course, mean nothing unless it is Orthodox. Furthermore, she claims, my future daughter-in-law need not bother as my son, being a Kohen, cannot marry a convert anyway. How do you feel about this and what is involved in a Conservative conversion?

I'm hoping that these questions aren't too lengthy for you as I realize that you are very busy. If it's too difficult to explain, we'll research it ourselves. Thanks for whatever input you can give us.

Hoping for a Real Jewish Daughter-in-Law

The Cyber Rav Answers:

Dear Hoping,

I'm so glad you wrote to me and I'm never too busy to answer such good questions.

First of all, congratulations on your son's engagement. I wish him and his fianc� the best of luck. And I am delighted to hear that she will be converting. Conversion is a critical step in assuring that a future home will be a Jewish home. Jews by Choice, as we typically call converts, often end up with stronger identities as Jews than Jews by Birth. The Jews by Choice have to think about every aspect of Judaism. And when they are enrolled in a bona fide course for conversion, they learn Jewish history, Jewish philosophy, prayers, the holidays, and even how to read and understand Hebrew. In the Conservative Movement, this whole process takes about a year and we expect that the Jewish partner will attend the classes too. And as such, a wonderful by-product of conversion is a more knowledgeable, thus stronger, Jew by Birth.

In my last congregation, a Jew by Choice was president of our Sisterhood. She was just terrific!

Orthodox conversion is kosher, but no more than Conservative conversions. As a matter of fact, the rituals surrounding the conversion itself are the same in both-we both expect that a convert will undergo circumcision (for a man, of course), mikvah (the ritual pool), and Beit Din (questioning by a rabbinic court of law). The big difference is that the Conservative Movement, although hopeful that the Jew by Choice will become fully observant, will accept varying degrees of observance, dependent on where a convert is coming from. If you want to know the truth, the biggest stumbling block in keeping converts from becoming totally observant is their new Jewish family, who want them to be Jewish but not "crazy Jewish." I've never understood what "crazy Jewish" is, though I think I've been labeled it myself from time to time. Oh well--I think some of our Jewish families would benefit from going to conversion classes themselves.

Conservative conversion is far from meaningless. And judging from the number of people I have seen break into tears of happiness upon becoming Jewish or seeing loved ones become Jewish, I would say that Conservative conversion is profoundly meaningful. The kids have to first and foremost find a rabbi that they are comfortable with.

As for the other question-can a Kohen marry a convert, the answer is yes. And yet, your friend's statement to the contrary is true. There is a rabbinic law stating that kohanim are not to marry converts, but it is based on a medieval rendering of the Torah that the Conservative Movement deems unacceptable. Let me explain. The Torah actually never forbids a Kohen from marrying a convert. In Leviticus 21:7, the Torah forbids a Kohen from marrying a zonah or a prostitute. The Medieval rabbis regarded all non-Jewish women b'hezkat zenut, literally-de facto prostitutes. Now remember-this is the medieval period when liberal notions of equality and tolerance are not in vogue. But we are no longer Medieval Jews. In fact, to regard non-Jewish women as prostitutes is pure bigotry. And so, it is the considered opinion of the Conservative rabbinate that in spite of our rabbinic forebears, the Torah does forbid Kohanim from marrying prostitutes, but it definitely does not prohibit Kohanim from marrying converts. Converts, we learn, are to be treated with respect and love, and to do otherwise is a sin. There are other reasons why we would permit a Kohen to marry a convert, but perhaps we'll save that for another time.

In any event, I hope your son and his fianc� have a great conversion experience. And If I can be of any help to them, don't hesitate to call or "e" me.

The CyberRav

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