Fiction: Orthodox Judaism is a “higher” or “more serious” level of Judaism than Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist and that, therefore, an Orthodox conversion is a “higher” or “more serious” level of conversion.
Fact: Of all the fictions about the process of converting to Judaism, this is perhaps the most insidious. For many people, the reality that an Orthodox Jewish worldview and lifestyle does not feel authentic to who they are leads them to avoid conversion altogether. This group of people often feels, “If I can’t do it right, I shouldn’t do it at all; if cannot see myself as an Orthodox Jew, then I really have no business becoming a Jew in the first place.” For others who undertake a non-Orthodox program of conversion, they feel, deep-down, as somehow “less-than,” saying to themselves “Yes, I am converting to Judaism, but it’s only Conservative Judaism; I don’t have what it takes to be Orthodox.” Still others who convert through the non-Orthodox denominations take this as permission for intellectual sloppiness and/or casual non-observance (like the character Harry Rosenblatt on Sex and the City who remarks, “I’m not kosher, I’m Conservative!” For these reasons and more, the Orthodox fiction must be dispelled.
major Jewish denominations – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist – do not constitute “levels” of Jewish observance, but different ideological approaches to what it means to be a Jew and live a life of Torah. In this sense, the non-Orthodox denominations do not require less commitment or less observance than does Orthodoxy, but have different approaches when it comes to the what, how, and why questions of Jewish life. To this end, I know quite a few faithfully observant Reform Jews, and many non-observant Orthodox Jews.
So, for example, I am a Conservative Jew because I do not believe God dictated the entirety of Jewish law for all history in one instance 4,000 years ago (as Orthodoxy believes). I also believe God commanded more at Mount Sinai than universal moral precepts (as Reform Judaism believes). Unlike my Reform friends, I believe that God has been revealing Torah to our ancestors for millennia, and that I am bound to observe the laws they recorded based on those revelations – ethical and ritual. On the other hand, unlike my Orthodox friends, I believe God continues to reveal Torah to us, even today. I am a committed, observant Conservative Jew because I do not only believe in the ideological foundations of the movement, but I try to live out that ideology in my daily life. Similarly, there are people who believe in and live the ideology of Orthodoxy, and those who believe in the Orthodox view but are not committed to living in accordance with it. And there are people who believe in and live the ideology of the Reform movement, and those who believe in the Reform view but are not committed to living in accordance with it.
Therefore, if you want to live an active, devoted Jewish life, that does not mean you should necessarily be Orthodox. Committed Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform Jews all live active, devoted Jewish lives. On the other hand, if you want to become Jewish and not live an active, devoted Jewish life, it does not mean you should become Reform (in fact, it probably means you should evaluate whether Judaism is right for you altogether, as Judaism is all about commitment).
There is no higher and lower level among the Jewish denominations. There are just different approaches to being and living Jewish. The question is not which denomination is more serious; the question is how seriously you take your commitment to living a fully Jewish life, regardless of your denominational affiliation.
The first question I would encourage you to ask yourself is not “Which denomination should I join?” but rather “Am I prepared to live a fully committed and engaged Jewish life?” If the answer to that question is “Yes,” then as you learn more about Judaism and research the history, ideology, and culture of each denomination, you can make a decision based on your beliefs and your sense of personal integrity and authenticity – rather than on what seems hardest, easiest, higher, lower, serious, or trivial. Pursuing that path will make your Jewish journey much richer and more rewarding.