Conversion to Judaism
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Conversion to Judaism (Hebrew: גיור, giyur) is a formal act undertaken by a non-Jewish person who wishes to be recognized as a full member of a Jewish community. A Jewish conversion is normally a religious act and usually an expression of association with the Jewish people and, sometimes, the Land of Israel. A formal conversion is also sometimes undertaken to remove any doubt as to the Jewishness of a person who wishes to be considered a Jew.
The procedure for conversion depends on the sponsoring denomination, and depends on meeting the requirements for a conversion to that religious or non-religious branch or denomination. A conversion in accordance with the process of a denomination is not a guarantee of recognition by another denomination.
In some cases, a person may forgo a formal conversion to Judaism and adopt some or all beliefs and practices of Judaism. However, without a formal conversion, many highly observant Jews will reject a convert's Jewish status. There are some groups that have adopted Jewish customs and practices. For example, in Russia the Subbotniks have adopted most aspects of Judaism without formal conversion to Judaism. However, if Subbotniks, or anyone without a formal conversion, wish to marry into a traditional Jewish community or emigrate to Israel, they must have a formal conversion.
- Terminology 1
- Overview 2
- Requirements 3
- Early debate on requirement for circumcision 4
- Modern practice 5
- Maturity 6
- Reform Jewish views 7
- Interdenominational views 8
- Intra-Orthodox Controversy 9
- Canadian Orthodox program 10
- Karaite views 11
Attempts to resolve the "Who is a Jew?" issue 12
- 1950s: proposed joint beth din 12.1
- 1978–1983: Denver program 12.2
- 1980s: proposed Israeli joint beth din 12.3
- 1997: Neeman Commission proposal 12.4
- 2000s: Conversion Annulments and Confusion 12.5
- Relations between Jews and proselytes 13.1
- Halakhic considerations 13.2
- Jews by choice 14
- Anusim 15
- See also 16
- References 17
- Further reading 18
- External links 19
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|Jews and Judaism|
A male convert to Judaism is referred to by the Hebrew word ger (Hebrew: גר, plural gerim) and a female convert is a giyoret. The word is related to the term "proselyte" which is derived from the Koine Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible. In Karaite Judaism a Ger is a non-Jew who has yet to fully convert to Judaism. After a Ger converts to Judaism, they are no longer considered a Ger but a full-fledged Jew.
- "The Hebrew ger (in post-Biblical times translated as "proselyte") literally means "resident" and refers to a non-Israelite who lived among the Israelite community. When the Torah commands compassion and equal justice for the ger, it is referring to these "residents." Rabbinic tradition interpreted the word ger as referring to proselytes..."
Angel's explanation of the literal meaning of "ger" as alien is borne out in biblical verses such as Lev 19:34:
- As a citizen among you shall be the ger (foreigner) who lives among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt—I am the Lord your God.
The Jews were not converts in Egypt, but rather foreigners. Another passage which may be relevant to a process of conversion involves non-Jewish women captured in war who could be adopted forcibly as wives (Deuteronomy 21:10–14). Another verse which has been interpreted as referring to non-Jews converting to Judaism is Esther 8:17, although no process is described. (Esther 8:17).
In the Talmud, "ger" is used in two senses: ger tzedek refers to a "righteous convert", a proselyte to Judaism, and ger toshav, a non-Jewish inhabitant of the Land of Israel who observes the Seven Laws of Noah and has repudiated all links with idolatry. In Modern Hebrew, ger refers to a convert to Judaism.
Nowadays, with the notable exception of some Syrian Jewish communities, (primarily the Brooklyn, NY and Deal, NJ communities), all mainstream forms of Judaism today are open to sincere converts, with all denominations accepting converts converted by their denominations. The rules vary between denominations.
For Rabbinic Judaism, the laws governing conversion (gerut) are based on codes of law and texts, including discussions in the Talmud, through the Shulkhan Arukh and subsequent interpretations. (Many of the guidelines of accepting converts are based on the Book of Ruth and the manner whereby Ruth was brought into the fold through her mother-in-law, Naomi). These rules are held as authoritative by Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism. Jewish law is generally interpreted as discouraging proselytizing, and religious gerut is also discouraged. In the past, Rabbis often rejected potential converts three times, and if they remained adamant in their desire to convert, they would then allow them to begin the process. This practice has been justified on several grounds, including:
- The laws Jews require of themselves are more stringent than they consider to be required of other nations; a person who would be considered derelict of religious duties under Jewish law could easily be, without change in action, an exceedingly righteous gentile.
- Jews have suffered regular and often severe persecution throughout the ages; a proselyte is exposing himself to potentially mortal danger.
- In the Book of Ruth, Naomi tried to get Ruth to go back to her own people three times before Ruth became a part of the Hebrew people.
However, a rabbi convinced of the prospective convert's sincerity may allow him or her to follow the process of conversion. This requires the person to appear before an established three-judge Jewish religious court known as a beth din ("religious court") to be tested and formally accepted. A person who formally converts to Judaism under the auspices of a halakhically constituted and recognized beth din consisting preferably of three learned rabbis acting as dayanim ("judges"), but also possibly two learned and respected lay members of the community along with a rabbi, is issued with a Shtar geirut ("Certificate of Conversion").
Conservative Judaism takes a more lenient approach in application of the halakhic rules than Modern Orthodox Judaism. Its approach to the validity of conversions is based on whether the conversion procedure followed rabbinic norms, rather than the reliability of those performing it or the nature of the obligations the convert undertook. Accordingly, it may accept the validity of some Reform and Reconstructionist conversions, but only if they include immersion in a ritual bath (mikvah), appearance before a rabbinical court (beit din) and, for men, circumcision (brit milah) or a symbolic circumcision for those already circumcised (hatafat dam brit).
The requirements of Reform Judaism for conversions are different. The denomination states that "people considering conversion are expected to study Jewish theology, rituals, history, culture and customs, and to begin incorporating Jewish practices into their lives. The length and format of the course of study will vary from rabbi to rabbi and community to community, though most now require a course in basic Judaism and individual study with a rabbi, as well as attendance at services and participation in home practice and synagogue life."
Although an infant conversion might be accepted in some circumstances (such as in the case of adopted children or children whose parents convert), children who convert would typically be asked if they want to remain Jewish after reaching religious adulthood – which is 12 years of age for a girl and 13 for a boy. This standard is applied by Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, which accept halakha as binding.
Reconstructionist Judaism values the symbolism of the conversion ritual, and encourages those who were not born of Jewish parents and who wish to convert to undergo this rite of passage. The Reconstructionist course of study for a prospective convert, which is determined by the rabbi and congregation the individual is working with, includes history, observance and beliefs, and learning how to make educated choices. The completion of the process is marked by ritual immersion for men and women; circumcision or hatafat dam brit (symbolic drop of blood) for men (unless there exists an extraordinary physical or emotional hazard); a Bet Din (a dialogue with three knowledgeable Jews, at least one of whom is a rabbi), and often a public welcoming ceremony.
Karaite Judaism does not accept Rabbinic Judaism and has different requirements for conversion. Traditionally non-proselytizing, Karaite Judaism's long standing abstention from conversions was recently lifted. On 1 August 2007, the Karaites reportedly converted their first new members in 500 years. At a ceremony in their Northern California synagogue, ten adults and four minors swore fealty to Judaism after completing a year of study. This conversion comes 15 years after the Karaite Council of Sages reversed its centuries-old ban on accepting converts.
The Amora'im who produced the Talmud set out three requirements for a conversion to Judaism (Keritot 8b), which must be witnessed and affirmed by a beth din hedyot rabbinical court composed of three Jewish males above the age of thirteen (they do not need to be rabbis):
- Circumcision (Brit milah or hatafat dam brit) for men
- Immersion (tevilah) in a ritual bath (mikveh) for both men and women
- Offering a certain sacrifice (korban) in the Temple (the Beit Hamikdash) – this requirement is deferred while the Temple does not exist until such time as it may be rebuilt.
The consensus of halakhic authorities also requires a convert to understand and accept the duties of the classical Jewish law. This is not stated explicitly in the Talmud, but was inferred by subsequent commentators.
After confirming that all these requirements have been met, the beth din issues a "Certificate of Conversion" (Shtar Giur), certifying that the person is now a Jew.
Early debate on requirement for circumcision
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia article on circumcision of proselytes, in the 1st century CE, before the Mishnah was edited, the requirement for circumcision of proselytes was an open issue between the zealots and liberal parties in ancient Israel. R. Joshua argued that besides accepting Jewish beliefs and laws, a prospective convert to Judaism must undergo immersion in a mikveh. In contrast, R. Eliezer makes circumcision a condition for the conversion. A similar controversy between the Shammaites and the Hillelites is given regarding a proselyte born without a foreskin: the former demanding the spilling of a drop of blood symbolic of the Brit Milah, thereby entering into the covenant; the latter declaring it to be unnecessary.
In discussions about the necessity of circumcision for those born of a Jewish mother, lending some support to the need for circumcision of converts, the Midrash states: "If thy sons accept My Godhead [by undergoing circumcision] I shall be their God and bring them into the land; but if they do not observe My covenant in regard either to circumcision or to the Sabbath, they shall not enter the land of promise" (Midrash Genesis Rabbah xlvi). "The Sabbath-keepers who are not circumcised are intruders, and deserve punishment," (Midrash Deut. Rabbah i).
However, the opposing view is supported in the Babylonian Talmud: "A male convert who has been immersed but not circumcised, or circumcised but not immersed, is a convert."
The requirements for conversions vary somewhat within the different branches of Judaism, so whether or not a conversion is recognized by another denomination is often an issue fraught with religious politics. The Orthodox rejection of non-Orthodox conversions is derived less from qualms with the conversion process itself, since Conservative and even some Reform conversions are ostensibly very similar to Orthodox conversions with respect to duration and content, but rather from that the convert was presumably not properly (i.e. according to tradition) instructed in Jewish Law, and the procedure of conversion has a chance of not having been done properly, and that those overseeing the process were (almost certainly) not qualified to test the convert (and in any case would have had different answers).
In general, immersion in the mikveh is an important part of a traditional conversion. If the person who is converting is male, circumcision is a part of the traditional conversion process as well. If the male who is converting has already been circumcised, then a ritual removal of a single drop of blood will take place (hatafat dam brit). However, more liberal branches of Judaism have a more relaxed requirement of immersion and circumcision.
Someone who was converted to Judaism as a child has an option of rejecting this after reaching the age of maturity, which in Judaism is age twelve for girls or thirteen for boys.
Reform Jewish views
In the United States of America, Reform Judaism rejects the concept that any rules or rituals should be considered necessary for conversion to Judaism. In the late 19th century, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body of American Reform rabbis, formally resolved to permit the admission of converts "without any initiatory rite, ceremony, or observance whatsoever." (CCAR Yearbook 3 (1893), 73–95; American Reform Responsa (ARR), no. 68, at 236–237.)
Although this resolution has often been examined critically by many Reform rabbis, the resolution still remains the official policy of American Reform Judaism (CCAR Responsa "Circumcision for an Eight-Year-Old Convert" 5756.13 and Solomon Freehof, Reform Responsa for Our Time, no. 15.) Thus, American Reform Judaism does not require ritual immersion in a mikveh, circumcision, or acceptance of mitzvot as normative. Appearance before a Bet Din is recommended, but is not considered necessary. Converts are asked to commit to religious standards set by the local Reform community.
In response to the tremendous variations that exist within the Reform community, the Conservative Jewish movement attempted to set a nuanced approach. The Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has issued a legal opinion stating that Reform conversions may be accepted as valid only when they include the minimal Conservative halachic requirements of milah and t'vilah, appearance before a Conservative Bet Din, and a course of Conservative study. (Proceedings of Committee on Jewish Law and Standards: 1980–1985, pp. 77–101.)
In general, branches of Orthodox Judaism consider non-Orthodox conversions either inadequate or of questionable halachic compliance, and such conversions are therefore not accepted by these branches of Judaism. Conversely, both Conservative and Reform Judaism accept the stringent Orthodox conversion process as being valid. Since 2008, Haredi Orthodox religious courts in Israel have been rejecting conversions from some other Orthodox rabbis, in addition to Reform and Conservative conversions, as not being stringent enough.
In 2008, a Haredi-dominated Badatz in Israel annulled thousands of conversions performed by the Military Rabbinate in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is the only state-recognized authority on religious matters, backed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, ruled against this, making it legally invalid for purposes of Israeli law. The last ruling means those converts will have no problem from authorities in Israel in regard to their Jewish status.
Canadian Orthodox program
There are two orthodox conversion programmes in Montreal. One is made up of a Bet Din (Jewish Court) of congregational member rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of America, Montreal region (RCA). This program provides a way to convert according to the rigorous rules of Halachah while making the process more “user friendly” for non-Jewish individuals seeking a more “hands-on” or “modern Orthodox” approach. The second program is supervised by the Jewish Community Council of Montreal, the Vaad Hair.
All conversion candidates—who could include singles, non-Jewish couples and adoption cases—must have a sponsoring rabbi and undergo a rigorous screening process. Conversions stemming from both programs are recognized in Israel and around the world.
As of 2006, the Moetzet Hakhamim (Council of Sages) began to accept converts to Karaite Judaism through the Karaite Jewish University. The process requires one year of learning, circumcision (for males), and the taking of the vow that Ruth took.
כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ, וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין—עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי, וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי. בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּמוּתִי אָמוּת, וְשָׁם אֶקָּבֵר; כֹּה יַעֲשֶׂה יְהוָה לִי, וְכֹה יוֹסִיף—כִּי הַמָּוֶת, יַפְרִיד בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵךְ."For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me." Ruth 1:16-17
Attempts to resolve the "Who is a Jew?" issue
1950s: proposed joint beth din
In the 1950s Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and other members of the Rabbinical Council of America engaged in a series of private negotiations with the leaders of Conservative Judaism's Rabbinical Assembly, including Saul Lieberman; their goal was to create a joint Orthodox-Conservative national beth din for all Jews in America. It would create communal standards of marriage and divorce. It was to be modeled after the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, where all the judges would have been Orthodox, while it would have been accepted by the larger Conservative movement as legitimate. Conservative rabbis in the Rabbinical Assembly created a Joint Conference on Jewish Law, devoting a year to this effort.
For a number of reasons, the project did not succeed. According to Orthodox Rabbi Bernstein, the major reason for its failure was the Orthodox rabbis' insistence that the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly agree to expel Conservative rabbis for actions they took prior to the formation of the new beth din, and the RA refused to do so. According to Orthodox Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former president of the RCA, the major reason for its failure was pressure from haredi Orthodox rabbis, who held that any cooperation between Orthodoxy and Conservatism was forbidden. In 1956, Rabbi Harry Halpern, of the Joint Conference wrote a report on the demise of this beth din. He writes that negotiations between the Orthodox and Conservative were completed and agreed upon, but then a new requirement was demanded by the RCA: The RA must "impose severe sanctions" upon Conservative rabbis for actions they took before this new beth din was formed. Halpern writes that the RA "could not assent to rigorously disciplining our members at the behest of an outside group". He goes on to write that although subsequent efforts were made to cooperate with the Orthodox, a letter from eleven Rosh Yeshivas was circulated declaring that Orthodox rabbis are forbidden to cooperate with Conservative rabbis.
1978–1983: Denver program
In Denver, Colorado, a joint Orthodox, Traditional, Conservative and Reform Bet Din was formed to promote uniform standards for conversion to Judaism. A number of rabbis were Orthodox and had semicha from Orthodox yeshivas, but were serving in synagogues without a mechitza; these synagogues were called traditional Judaism. Over a five-year period they performed some 750 conversions to Judaism. However, in 1983 the joint Beth Din was dissolved, due to the unilateral American Reform Jewish decision to change the definition of Jewishness.
The end of this program was welcomed by Haredi Orthodox groups, who saw the program as illegitimate. Further, Haredi groups attempted to prevent non-Orthodox rabbis from following the traditional requirements of converts using a mikvah. In the Haredi view, it is better to have no conversion at all than a non-Orthodox conversion, as all non-Orthodox conversions are not true conversions at all according to them.
1980s: proposed Israeli joint beth din
In the 1980s Orthodox Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, along with other American and Israeli Orthodox rabbis, worked with Conservative and Reform rabbis to come up with solution to the "Who is a Jew?" issue. In 1989 and 1990 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir spearheaded an effort to create a solution to the "Who is a Jew?" issue.
A plan was developed by Israeli Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubenstein, who negotiated secretly for many months with rabbis from Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Judaism, including faculty at Yeshiva University, with Lamm as Rosh Yeshiva. They were planning to create a joint panel that interviewed people who were converting to Judaism and considering making aliyah (moving to the State of Israel), and would refer them to a beth din that would convert the candidate following traditional halakha. All negotiating parties came to agreement:
- Conversions must be carried out according to halakha
- the beth din (rabbinic court) overseeing the conversion would be Orthodox, perhaps appointed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and
- there would be three-way dialogue throughout the process.
Many Reform rabbis took offense at the notion that the beth din must be strictly halakhic and Orthodox, but they acquiesced. However, when word about this project became public, a number of leading haredi rabbis issued a statement denouncing the project, condemning it as a "travesty of halakha". Rabbi Moshe Sherer, Chairman of Agudath Israel World Organization, stated that "Yes we played a role in putting an end to that farce, and I'm proud we did". Norman Lamm condemned this interference by Sherer, stating that this was "the most damaging thing that he [Sherer] ever did in his forty year career".
Rabbi Lamm wanted this to be only the beginning of a solution to Jewish disunity. He stated that had this unified conversion plan not been destroyed, he wanted to extend this program to the area of halakhic Jewish divorces, thus ending the problem of mamzerut.
1997: Neeman Commission proposal
In 1997 the issue of "Who is a Jew?" again arose in the State of Israel, and Orthodox leaders such as Rabbi Norman Lamm publicly backed the Neeman commission, a group of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis working to develop joint programs for conversion to Judaism. In 1997 Lamm gave a speech at the World Council of Orthodox Leadership, in Glen Springs, N.Y., urging Orthodox Jews to support this effort.
- Lamm told his listeners that they should value and encourage the efforts of non-Orthodox leaders to more seriously integrate traditional Jewish practices into the lives of their followers. They should welcome the creation of Reform and Conservative day schools and not see them as a threat to their own, Lamm said. In many communities, Orthodox day schools, or Orthodox-oriented community day schools, have large numbers of students from non-Orthodox families. The liberal movements should be appreciated and encouraged because they are doing something Jewish, even if it is not the way that Orthodox Jews would like them to, he said. "What they are doing is something, and something is better than nothing," he said in his speech. "I'm very openly attacking the notion that we sometimes find in the Orthodox community that `being a goy is better'" than being a non-Orthodox Jew, he said in an interview.
2000s: Conversion Annulments and Confusion
A current situation of confusion and instability in Jewish identity in Israel was made worse when Haredi Rabbi Avraham Sherman of Israel's supreme religious court called into question the validity of over 40,000 Jewish conversions when he upheld a ruling by the Ashdod Rabbinical Court to retroactively annul the conversion of a woman who came before them because in their eyes she failed to observe Jewish law (an orthodox lifestyle). This crisis deepened, when Israel's Rabbinate called into question the validity of soldiers who had undergone conversion in the army, meaning a soldier killed in action could not be buried according to Jewish law. In 2010, the rabbinate created a further distrust in the conversion process when it began refusing to recognize orthodox converts from the United States as Jewish. It is important to note, that according to the present judgements of Israel's Supreme Rabbinical Court, the former President of the State of Israel, Ezer Weizmann would not be seen as Jewish, as his mother (married to Israel's first President and Zionist pioneer Chaim Weizmann) was a convert who led an unflinchingly secular lifestyle. Indeed, the great-niece of the renowned Zionist Nahum Sokolow was recently deemed "not Jewish enough" to marry in Israel, after she failed to prove the purity of Jewish blood for four generations. At present, the question of Who is a Jew is a political crisis in Israel's Knesset which is impacting the personal status of thousands of individuals in Israel, and their children.
Once undergone, a religious conversion to Judaism is irreversible (from a Jewish perspective), unless there are convincing grounds to believe that the convert was insincere or deceitful during the conversion process. In such cases, a beth din may determine that the conversion was void.
Relations between Jews and proselytes
Judaism, unlike Christianity and Islam, is not currently an openly proselytizing religion: unlike Christianity, many of the followers of which maintain that belief in Jesus and in one God are prerequisites for salvation, and Islam, which requires that each person state the confirmation of faith "no God, but God; and Muhammad is His prophet and messenger", Judaism teaches that the righteous of all nations have a place in the
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- Chafets, Zev (14 October 2007). "The Sy Empire". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-01.
- Lindemann vs. Myers
- "Changing Your Name Upon Religious Conversion | UK Deed Poll". Ukdp.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-07-21.
- Daf Yomi
- Abraham ben Abraham
- Lord George Gordon
- Miller Introduction to Judaism Program
- List of converts to Judaism
- Machon Meir
- Outreach Judaism
- Religious conversion
- Proactive conversion
In recent decades, there has been a renewed Jewish conversion interest with some descendants of Anusim, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity or forced to convert to Islam. Since many of these descendants lack satisfactory proof of their Jewish ancestry, conversion has been a growing option for them to return to Judaism.
The term "Jew by choice" is often used to describe someone who converted to Judaism, and is often contrasted with such terms as "Jew by birth" (or "Jew by chance").
Jews by choice
Talmudic opinions on converts are numerous; some positive, some negative. A quote from the Talmud labels the convert "Hard on Israel as a scab." Many interpretations explain this quote as meaning converts can be unobservant and lead Jews to be unobservant, or converts can be so observant that born Jews feel ashamed.
A convert chooses his or her own Hebrew first name upon conversion but is traditionally known as the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah, the first patriarch and matriarch in the Torah, often with the additional qualifier of "Avinu" (our father) and "Imenu" (our mother). Hence, a convert named Akiva would be known, for ritual purposes in a synagogue, as "Akiva ben Avraham Avinu"; in cases where the mother's name is used, such as for the prayer for recovery from an illness, he would be known as "Akiva ben Sarah Imenu".
According to Orthodox interpretations of Halakha, converts face a limited number of restrictions. A marriage between a female convert and a kohen (members of the priestly class) is prohibited and any children of the union do not inherit their father's kohen status. While a Jew by birth may not marry a mamzer, a convert can. Converts can become rabbis. For instance, Rabbi Meir Baal Ha Nes is thought to be a descendant of a proselyte. Rabbi Akiva was also a very well known son of converts. The Talmud lists many of the Jewish nation's greatest leaders who had either descended from or were themselves converts. In fact, King David is descended from Ruth, a convert to Judaism.(Ruth 4:13–22) In Orthodox and Conservative communities which maintain tribal distinctions, converts become Yisraelim (Israelites), ordinary Jews with no tribal or inter-Jewish distinctions. Converts typically follow the customs of their congregations. So a convert who prays at a Sephardi synagogue would follow Sephardi customs and learn Sephardi Hebrew.
Halakha forbids the mistreatment of the convert, including reminding a convert that he or she was once not a Jew. Hence, little to no distinction is made in Judaism between those who are born Jewish and those who are Jewish as a result of conversion. However, despite Halakha protecting the rights of converts, some Jewish communities have been accused of treating converts as second-class Jews. For example, many communities of Syrian Jews have banned conversion and refuse to recognise any Jewish conversion, including those done under Orthodox auspices (possibly influenced by sects in Syria like the Druze which do not accept converts).