Jun 9, 1997 - 10:27 -
I have a question:
I wish you good luck with your challenging spiritual path. Do not expect to "get a good solid grasp of Judaism" prior to your conversion; nor by reading books. Only by "doing Jewish" over a very long time does one begin to "feel Jewish". Conversion is just the start of a process; like a wedding day between you and Am Yisrael (The Jewish People).
For all Jews, part of "doing Jewish" is daily and life-long Jewish study. Books are an important part of this. It is like climbing an infinite ladder from earth to heaven. (At various times, you may feel yourself to be on a rung above or below other Jews, but from a God's-eye view, we're all clumped together in the middle.) The books that you read (and the classes you take) prior to your conversion will help you determine if commitment to a Jewish life is really for you.
The conversion itself consists of acceptance of this commitment before a properly constituted Bet Din (Jewish Legal Court) and immersion in a mikvah (Ritual Bath). If you were male, a circumcision would also be required. The court will probably want to know your reasons for wanting to become a "citizen" of this nation, your readiness to abide by its laws and traditions (only in principle, for the court knows you can't possibly be familiar with all the details of Jewish tradition at this point), and to ascertain that you have already learned enough about Judaism to make a decision you can live with.
Unlike other religious communities, which define themselves in terms of articles of faith, the Jewish community does not demand adherance to any official statement of creed. Trust is more important than faith; and "Walking in God's Ways" more important than understanding God's ways. As the traditional sources say with respect to the divine plan for Creation: "Would that they forgot Me but kept My commandments." Our group identity is not formed by acceptance of a belief, but rather by being bound to God and each other by a covenant made at Sinai, evidenced by the Torah. Therefore conversion does not involve confirmation in any creed.
A considerable period of study is always advisable, and almost always required, prior to conversion. An excellent book for this purpose is "To Be a Jew" by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin. This book combines: (1) a review of basic Jewish belief in terms an educated layperson can understand, (2) a handbook covering the basic Jewish observances under contemporary living conditions, and (3) a rationale for these observances. It gives anyone not previously exposed to Jewish religious life both the "how" and the "why" to go about observing the teachings of the faith. In writing this book Rabbi Donin had in mind the guidance of converts and potential converts, as well as the great numbers of Jews who have had a minimal Jewish education and then found the inspiration to "catch up" as adults. .
Since you specifically mention Reform Judaism as your community of choice, in good conscience I must inform you of an unpleasant reality. The Reform community does not believe in the authority of Jewish Law and seldom adheres to the process described above. Therefore the Reform procedure will make you a Jew in the eyes of that community only. Nonetheless this can be a significant step in a person's spiritual growth. Most Reform conversion programs make this limitation clear to prospective converts, but I have met several people who were not told this up front and, as you can imagine, were very hurt to learn this later. In the eyes of more traditional Jewish communities you will be a "Righteous Gentile", and as such entitled to live in our midst in Israel and elsewhere, but not actually Jewish. As long as you know this up front, you can make a decision that is appropriate for you. I know of people who have gone through different procedures three times, separated by many years! As they grew in knowledge and commitment to a traditional lifestyle, they realized that the previous processes did not meet the requirements of Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, each event was a major step in their spiritual growth, worthy of celebration, and they did end up Jews by any standard.
For a full and respectful intelligent explanation of the process and significance of conversion from a traditional perspective, read "Who is a Jew?" by Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Shochet, published by Shofar Publications, 234 Fifth Ave, New York NY 10001. Writings on this subject often generate more heat than light. This book is the exception.
I hope this information is helpful.