In short, there is no halahah or specific rules surrounding conversion celebrations. Each community or individual has their own ways to celebrate this life cycle moment. In some communities, a recent convert will be called for an aliyah or asked to recite the shema in front of the ark. In other communities, s/he may be asked to deliver a devar torah. In others, a person may sponsor an oneg shabbat or have a shabbat gathering at their home with friends and family. The Talmud tells us in tractate Shabbat (118b) that we are supposed to celebrate after any period of lengthy study. Surely this would qualify.
But in reality, the transition to Judaism is marked by a ritual that is a celebration. While these additional celebrations are beautiful and may enhance the joy of the transition they are not required by halahah. In fact, highlighting someone's conversion is also problematic; the Talmud in tractate Baba Metzia (58b) generally forbids a Jew from mentioning someone else's conversion. Once they have finished the transition to Judaism, it is as though they were always part of the community. This mimics the teaching that all of Israel, even those who would convert during their lifetime, were standing together at Sinai.
I encourage folks who are converting to do what is comfortable for them. I remind them that they are going to be Jewish, and with that comes a series of obligations but also a series of choices. They should choose the path that is right for them, whatever that is. Sometimes a recent convert wants to just sink in to the community. Other times, they want to take on a mantle of leadership and stretch themselves in new ways. Most fall somewhere in between. Any of the above is acceptable and normal.
Your question regarding adult conversion, known in Hebrew and Rabbinic sources as ‘giyur,’ seems simple and straight forward. You ask about the”… halakhah, etiquette or rule regarding a celebration for the convert.” This too seems to be quite simple; however, in reality it is not so simple.
Why is this so? It is because to my knowledge there is no one fixed religious ceremony for the acceptance of ‘gerim’ – converts in Judaism. The procedure for carrying out the ‘giyur’ in halakhah is well-known and found in the halakhic literature, especially in the ‘Shulhan Arukh’—Code of Jewish Law.
A Rabbinic Court – ‘Beit Din’ knows how to go about with the conversion, but the ceremony of acceptance of the convert, is largely left to the ‘Beit Din’ to come up with its own ceremony.
That being said, is there any direction or anything in writing or print for the rabbi, Beit Din or synagogue? The short answer is, yes.
I want to be one-hundred percent open and honest about this matter, especially when it comes to official occasions, such as weddings, bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies, conversions, funerals, etc. The earliest true sources for ceremonies, especially in the United States come out of the Reform and Conservative movements with their “Rabbi’s Manual” and “A Rabbi’s Manual.”
Yes, there was the tried and true Orthodox manual “Hamadrikh” by Hyman E. Goldin published by Hebrew Publishing Company in 1939, but it was handy to look up some things and study, but not very handy for the actual ceremony. It does not deal with ‘giyur’ – conversion and the ceremony.
Can’t one just look into a nice, large ‘siddur’ – traditional prayer book and find the conversion ceremony? The answer is, it is not there.
The Reform and Conservative seemed to have solved this with their Rabbi’s manuals, but the Orthodox, at least in America were somewhat at a loss. Honestly, many rabbis took to either copying out parts of services from the Conservative and maybe even Reform, or taking the Rabbi’s manuals and covering them with a blank cover so that the actual source could not be seen. How do I know this? Because, I witnessed this practice on many occasions by respected rabbis.
I do not feel that this is in anyway scandalous. It only affirms Maimonides’ famous dictum, “Seek the truth from whatever its source.”
The rabbis in question performed impressive and meaningful religious services using the parts of these manuals that conformed to the ‘halakhah’ and their personal beliefs.
Today, there are many more available resources in all Jewish movements including Orthodoxy. The Rabbinical Council of America came out in 1995 with “The RCA Lifecycle Madrikh” by Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka. This is a very impressive and highly usable Rabbi’s manual for Orthodox rabbis. It includes a Conversion section; however, this section is quite limited, offering advice to the rabbi rather than much real content.
By way of example, let me cite the one sentence of advice to the rabbi found in this manual: “The finalization of the conversion is a joyous event, and should be celebrated in an appropriate, religiously meaningful fashion, such as by a Kiddush in shul or at home, accompanied by fitting words of Torah by the convert and the supervising Rabbi.” (p.60)
On the other hand, the Reform “Rabbi’s Manual” published in 1988 has eighteen pages in its ‘Giyur’ – Conversion section and the current Conservative two-volume “[Moreh Derekh]: The Rabbi’s Manual of The Rabbinical Assembly” published in 1998 has eighteen pages in its “A welcoming ceremony” section which comprises only part of its extensive ‘Geyrut’ chapter, totaling seventy pages.
I have offered a review of Rabbinic manuals as it applies to guidance when doing an adult conversion ceremony. All seem to agree that something must be done in an impressive way to give meaning to the momentous event of conversion in the life of the convert, the family and the community. What it is that needs to be done and how it is to be carried out is as yet undecided. It is in the hands of the local community to design something of meaning, with a powerful impact upon those present.
Wishing you all the success in the world in your endeavors. ‘Barukh Habbah’ – Blessed is the one who comes. Welcome!
Conversion to Judaism is one of the greatest, and potentially most daunting, journeys that a Jew can take in his or her life. If you (or someone you love) are converting to Judaism, you should be able to celebrate joining the Jewish people in the context of a welcoming Jewish community to the extent that you feel comfortable doing so. I can think of no traditional halakhah or minhag (Jewish law or custom) other than the formal rituals of conversion that officially prescribes how or if such a celebration is to take place. As I understand it, contemporary custom provides at least three options for celebrating with a person who has converted:
A joyous naming ceremony right after the mikveh (ritual bath) in the presence of invited family, friends, and honored members of the Jewish and general communities.
The same private naming ceremony, but at the synagogue, which could include a celebratory meal.
Honoring that person publicly with his or her first aliyah (Torah blessings) or other public ritual role, then sponsoring the Kiddush in his or her honor.
All of these options can help a new member of the Jewish community celebrate and feel welcomed.
I should mention one caveat concerning the public celebration of someone’s conversion. Reminding someone of the fact that he or she is descended from converts to Judaism is prohibited by the Talmud as an example of onaat devarim, oppressing someone verbally. (See the Mishnah, Tractate Bava Metzia, 4:10.) Interestingly, Tosafot, (the Franco-German schools of rabbinic scholarship that flourished in the 12th -14th centuries), comment that one should not even remind a person of his ancestors’ conversionary status; how much more are we prohibited from bringing up that person’s own background of conversion to Judaism. This is also emphasized in the Gemara, the running commentary on the Mishnah which, together with it, makes up the Talmud. (See the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, 58b.) It prohibits us from turning away a convert who wants to study Torah because his or her former life was spent not following the Torah. Underlying all of these details of the prohibition is the idea that we may not demean or marginalize a person by insinuating, particularly with malicious intent, that he or she isn’t really Jewish because he or she wasn’t born Jewish.
The Talmud mentions that the Torah verse from which this prohibition is derived (Leviticus 25:17) reminds us that we should fear God, in order to deter a person who might deceptively claim that a comment about someone’s conversionary status was done with only good intent. God knows our true intent, and God will call us to account for it. I would add that, in the spirit of this law, we should be exceedingly careful not to embarrass a convert to Judaism by mentioning his or her background, even if our intent in doing so is completely sincere. Thus, before mentioning someone’s conversion publicly, we must insure that he or she is comfortable having this announcement made. My general policy when honoring a new Jew with a first time public ritual role is to wish him or her well upon performing that ritual, and to leave out mention of the conversion, unless that person wishes otherwise. Also, I do not talk about a person’s conversion to Judaism with others, regardless of my intent, unless I know that the person would be OK with this. This avoids all potential for embarrassment and violation of privacy. It also reinforces the fact that a “convert to Judaism” is not a convert, but a Jew, no less or more than any other Jew.