Reform Rabbis OK Old Convert Rituals

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Rabbis of the nation's largest liberal Jewish denomination voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve traditional conversion rituals that were once rejected.

The rabbis also made it clear that new converts are welcomed, correcting a long-held impression that Judaism was largely restricted to those born into the faith. The vote in Monterey, Calif., by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of the Reform movement, marked a dramatic departure from the modernist vision of its founders in the late 1890s. Those rabbis, who put greater stock in rationalism, declared that ritual was meaningless.

"We lived in a different world then," said Rabbi Richard Shapiro, chairman of the committee on conversion. "Reform was operating in a much more exclusively intellectual framework at the time."

The conversion guidelines, optional for both rabbis and converts, bring the Reform movement closer to practices observed by Conservative and Orthodox Jews. The guidelines suggest immersion in a ritual bath known as a mikvah and circumcision for men. If a man has already been circumcised, the guidelines call for drawing a single drop of blood from the circumcised area.

The guidelines say conversion is a process that should take at least a year and include classroom learning, living a Jewish life, spiritual exploration and Rabbinic counseling. Candidates should be examined by a Bet Din, or panel of three learned Jews, preferably rabbis, the guidelines suggest.

Spiritual seekers are looking for a sense of connection and community that traditional observances can offer, said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"The type of absolute faith that people had in reason, a legacy of the Enlightenment, has been altered--not abandoned, but altered," Ellenson said.

The conversion guidelines are part of a broader trend toward traditionalism in American religious life, Ellenson said. In 1999, the wearing of yarmulkes, using Hebrew in services and observing kosher dietary laws were officially accepted by the conference.

The conversion guidelines are also a response to a growing interest in Judaism by non-Jews, including those who marry a Jewish partner, or single individuals looking for a spiritual home, said Shapiro, rabbi at Congregation B'nai B'rith in Santa Barbara.

"We are actively encouraging those who are seeking, those who are married to Jews to at least consider Judaism as a possibility," Shapiro said.

The rabbinical conference said that it wants to welcome converts not simply into the liberal Reform stream, but to also encourage them to more readily identify themselves as Jews.

"There is an obligation to use rituals recognized by the entire Jewish community, including more traditional segments," the conference said in a statement.

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