The beloved convert

The many problems that arise in Israel and elsewhere in the Jewish world concerning the recognition of converts would be totally unnecessary if the dictates of Jewish law were to be followed.

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June 27, 2007 12:10
4 minute read.

The many problems that arise in Israel and elsewhere in the Jewish world concerning the recognition of converts would be totally unnecessary if the dictates of Jewish law were to be followed. Maimonides in his great code (Hilchot Issurei Biah 13:17) states categorically that even if a convert had not been properly quizzed and properly informed of the commandments and their punishments, once he was circumcised and immersed in a mikve in the presence of three laymen, he is a convert, i.e. a Jew. And even if it is known that he had an ulterior motive or returned to idolatrous worship, he is not considered a gentile but an errant Israelite. His conversion is not revoked. Why then all the fuss? Why does the Israeli Chief Rabbinate take drastic steps to avoid recognizing conversions performed by Orthodox authorities outside of Israel? Why do we have the strange picture of one Orthodox beit din refusing to recognize the conversions of another Orthodox beit din, conversions performed by the Israeli rabbinate, for example, not being recognized by the London beit din, and the opposite, to say nothing of halachic conversions performed by Masorti rabbis? Although potential converts are to be discouraged in the sense of being told that they need not become Jews and that once they do they face many difficulties, it is not true that Judaism and Jewish law always wished to make conversion difficult and to place impediments before the convert. The well known stories concerning Hillel and Shammai being approached by potential converts make it very clear that Hillel was ready and even anxious to accept converts, placing no stumbling blocks in their way. He welcomed them immediately with no instruction and no declarations on their part except the intent to become Jews (Shabbat 31a). Rabbi Elazar ben P'dat went so far as to say "God sent Israel into exile among the nations for the sole purpose of adding converts to their number" (Pesahim 87b). What is required of a potential convert? First of all a declaration of the readiness to accept Judaism. Then there must be tevila - immersion in a mikve - and, for males, brit mila - circumcision. The Talmud specifies that there is no need to postpone this procedure. Rather it should be done speedily. The rabbis derived this from the story of Ruth in which, anachronistically, they saw Naomi as instructing Ruth, the potential convert. Based on Ruth's well-known speech in Ruth 1:16-17 they said that Naomi told her about Shabbat boundaries, the system of mitzvot, the punishment for non-observance and the prohibition of idolatry. They then concluded that the convert is to be accepted immediate because "The performance of a mitzva must not in any way be delayed" (Yevamot 47b). Rabbi Louis Jacobs once wrote that even the requirement for a convert to engage in a course of study before the conversion was a "new feature … introduced in Reform procedure… There is nothing in the sources about the need for a prolonged course of study, only the demand for complete sincerity, study coming after conversion." We can, of course, see the need for such a course today, but this observation of Rabbi Jacobs only serves to demonstrate how far from traditional Jewish practice some authorities have gone in their stringent requirements. There must be acceptance by the beit din, but the codes do not require that the beit din be constituted of rabbis (see Rashi to Kiddushin 62b), nor that the convert be taught more than some of the lenient and some of the stricter mitzvot (Maimonides, Issurei Biah 14:2). As already stated, after the fact even the lack of a formal acceptance of mitzvot is not enough to void the conversion (ibid 13:17). Why then not recognize all conversions that followed the requirements of Jewish law, no matter who conducted them? Must we always go beyond the law to make things difficult? If we have people who are anxious to join us, why are we pushing them away? If there is a possibility of having a couple in which both partners are Jewish, why do we prefer to force an intermarriage? When Israel has a population of a quarter of a million or more non-Jews who have some Jewish background and who want to live in the Jewish land, should we not ease their way toward Judaism rather than pushing them away? In the words of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: The convert is more beloved by God than the multitude that stood at Mount Sinai. Why? Because that multitude would not have accepted the sovereignty of God were it not for the noise, the lightning and thunder and the quaking of the mountain, while these (converts) heard and saw nothing of the sort and yet they come and subject themselves to the Holy One and accept the sovereignty of God! Is there anyone more beloved than that? (Tanhuma Lech Lecha 6). The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.


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