Controversies over appropriate standards for conversion to Judaism have abounded
since the Enlightenment period and continue to confound in Israel and across the
Medieval Jewry did not struggle with this issue, since Jewish
social norms generally expected observance of Halacha, and certainly from a
proselyte. In this regard, converts followed the model of Ruth, who declared to
her mother-in-law Naomi, “Your people shall by my people and your God shall be
my God” (Ruth 1:16). Conversion to a minority religion regularly subjugated to
persecution was also relatively rare. Modern Jewish life, which features a
plurality of cultural lifestyles in open societies, has broken this assumption
and created great debates within the rabbinic world.
The formal procedure
for conversion remains fairly simple: immersion in a mikve (ritual bath),
circumcision for men and, in Temple times, an animal sacrifice. The most central
criterion for conversion remains the acceptance to perform the commandments and
the motivation behind this consent. The Sages did not want people to convert for
financial or political gain or for the sake of marriage, for example. Potential
converts were warned of the hardships that Jews might suffer as well as the
punishments for sin. Once deemed sincere, they were taught various elements of
Jewish law and required to take upon the yoke of Heaven. Maimonides
significantly added the necessity of teaching the theological underpinnings of
Judaism, a requirement not specified by the Talmud.
This conception of
conversion raises a problem with converting children, who are presumed not to
have the intellect necessary to take upon this responsibility. The Talmud,
however, asserts that the judicial court serves as their guardian and can accept
for them this categorical benefit. Once reaching the age of majority, the child
can repudiate her Jewishness, but is presumed to consent if she continues to
behave according to typical Jewish practice.
This paternalistic approach
was challenged in the modern era in which the rabbinic judges fear that the
child will be raised in a non-observant home, thereby setting her up to sin and
become liable for punishment.
Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Yosef
Elyashiv contend that the judicial court may not convert a child unless they are
confident that she will grow up to become religious.
While agreeing that
this is preferable, Rabbi Chaim Grodzinsky asserts that it remains meritorious
for a child to convert as long as she will become generally observant, since
despite her potential sins, she will accrue many benefits.
Yosef believes that one can convert a child from a non-observant home if they
remain committed to educating the child in a religious setting which will make
it realistic that she will ultimately become consistently observant. This
position was shared by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who further contemplated the
possibility that it always remains meritorious for the child to enjoy the
sanctity of the Jewish people while her sins will be exculpated because she acts
out of ignorance.
A more complex case involves adult conversions in which
the rabbinic court doubts whether the convert truly intends to become fully
observant. The Talmud asserts that if a potential convert accepts everything
except one aspect of Jewish law, the court should reject the candidacy. As such,
many decisors, including Rabbi Feinstein, have argued that Jewish conversion
requires intent to completely observe Jewish law.
intermarriage, Rabbi Grodzinsky more leniently ruled that as long as one
generally intends to observe the basic facets of Jewish law, even if their
performance will be lackluster in certain areas, the conversion should be
permitted. His basic claim – that the Talmud only excluded those who explicitly
conditioned their conversion on not observing certain laws – was more radically
applied by Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman. To prevent the severe sin of intermarriage,
he allowed a non-Jewish woman to convert even though he understood that she
would continue to live with her husband who was a kohen (member of the priestly
line) and thus prohibited from marrying a convert.
Other scholars, such
as Rabbi Avraham Kahana-Shapira, criticized these rulings as unfounded
hairsplitting and burying one's head in the sand.
The most lenient
position was advocated by Rabbi Benzion Uziel, who asserted that even if we know
a potential convert will not be fully observant, judges can minimally tolerate a
more generic acceptance of Jewish law with the hope that the convert will
eventually become observant to avoid a sinful life. His general approach has
been advocated by some contemporary Israeli figures who want to preserve the
Jewish identity of Israelis who have definitive Jewish lineage and are fully
integrated on a nationalistic level, even if they are not halachically Jewish by
birth. Nonetheless, the preponderance of decisors have rejected this position,
leaving conversion standards as a divisive debate.
The writer, online
editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel. JPostRabbi@yahoo.com