Shavuot: On conversion - From Ruth to the Chief Rabbinate

May we do everything in our power to welcome converts and reject the stringent approach of the Chief Rabbinate and haredi rabbis.

June 5, 2019 15:13
Shavuot: On conversion - From Ruth to the Chief Rabbinate

‘RUTH IN Boaz’s Field,’ Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It is customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. In that book, Ruth says to Naomi (1:16): “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” The Sages of the Talmud understood this to mean that Ruth converted to Judaism (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2:22 and more; Yevamot 47b).

Indeed, it was the Sages of the Talmud who developed the laws of conversion as we know them today, including learning some of the mitzvot, circumcision for males, and immersion in the mikveh (Yevamot 47a-b).

In this article, I would like to address three specific issues: What is the general rabbinic attitude towards accepting converts? What mitzvot must a convert accept in order to become a Jew? Is it possible to retroactively annul a conversion if a convert is not observant?

WHAT IS the general rabbinic attitude toward accepting converts? Many like to quote Rabbi Helbo that “converts are as hard for Israel like a scab,” which Rashi explains to mean that they hold onto their former practices and Jews learn from them (Yevamot 47b). Similarly, Rabbi Yitzhak said: “Evil after evil will come to those who accept converts” (Yevamot 109b).

Yet Prof. E.E. Urbach and Rabbi Theodore Friedman have shown that these statements are the minority opinion. Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat said: “God did not exile Israel among the nations except that converts should be added to them” (Pesahim 87b). Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: “Beloved is the convert before God more than the multitudes that stood at Mt. Sinai” (Tanhuma Lekh Lekha 6). “A convert who comes to convert, one stretches out a hand to bring him under the wings of the Shechinah” (Vayikra Rabbah 2:9).

WHAT MITZVOT must a convert accept? Haredi rabbis and many rabbis affiliated with the Chief Rabbinate frequently quote Bekhorot 30b: “Our Sages taught: …if an idol worshiper came to accept (lekabel) the words of Torah except for one thing, they do not accept him. R. Yossi b”r Yehudah says: even if the exception is one of the minutiae of the Scribes (i.e., the Sages).” However, the major medieval codes of Jewish law such as Maimonides, the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh ignored this passage. It was revived by 19th-20th century rabbis who wanted to reject most converts.

Thus, for example, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein states, “…and without accepting mitzvot, even one detail, behold it is written in Bekhorot 30 that we do not accept him…” (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, I, No. 159).

The normative position, however, is found in Yevamot 47a-b. If a person comes to convert, you ask him if he knows that the Jewish people are “persecuted and oppressed… If he replies ‘I know and yet am unworthy’ he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments… He is also told of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments… and he is informed of the reward granted [for their fulfillment]… He is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much. Kibel [if he accepted], he is circumcised forthwith… [Afterwards, when he is immersed] two learned men must stand by his side and instruct him in some of the minor commandments and in some of the major ones. When he comes up after his immersion, he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects…”

This second-century baraita (teaching) was quoted or paraphrased by Maimonides, the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh.
The key phrase is “kibel” – if he accepted. This obviously does not refer to acceptance of all the mitzvot because he has only been instructed in some of the minor and some of the major mitzvot! So what does it mean?

Rabbi Ouziel (1880-1953), first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, explained as follows: “It is clear from [Yevamot 47a-b] that we do not demand of him to observe the mitzvot and it is also not necessary that the Bet Din know that he will observe them, for if not, no converts will be accepted in Israel, for who will guarantee that this gentile will be loyal to all the mitzvot in the Torah! Rather, they instruct him in some of the mitzvot so that if he wants he should go away and so that he cannot say later ‘if I had known I would not have converted.’ And this is before the fact, but after the fact – if they did not instruct him, it is not indispensable… [It] is permissible and a mitzvah to accept converts even though we know that they will not observe all the mitzvot because, in the end, they will observe them...” (Piskei Uziel, No. 65).

Other prominent Orthodox rabbis who have taken lenient approaches toward kabbalat mitzvot include Chief Rabbi Unterman and Rabbis Kluger, Mashash, Moshe Hacohen, Berkowitz and Angel.

FINALLY, IS it possible to retroactively annul a conversion if the convert is not observant? This is the subject of In a Stranger’s Grave, written by Miriam Metzinger and directed by Yael Vallier, which is playing at the Khan Theater until June 13. The haredi rabbi in the play maintains that if a convert is no longer observant, the conversion is retroactively annulled and the person “was never a Jew!” The modern Orthodox rabbi – the role I am playing – says that this is totally incorrect. A conversion cannot be retroactively annulled. “A Jew is always a Jew!”

The lenient position is that of the Talmud, which says that a convert who reverts to his former practices, is still considered a Jew and his betrothal (kiddushin) is still a betrothal (Yevamot 47b; Bekhorot 30b) and this was codified by Maimonides (Issurei Biah 13:17). The Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 268:12) even states that if a convert reverts to idol worship, he is still Jewish!

So why do haredi rabbis annul conversions if they think that the convert is not observant? They are following a revolutionary responsum penned by Rabbi Yitzhak Schmelkes in 1876: “A person who converts and accepts the yoke of the mitzvot but does not intend in his heart to observe them – God desires the heart, and he is not a convert” (Bet Yitzhak II, 100:9). This approach has no precedent in 2,000 years of halachic discussions about conversion. Indeed, Rabbi Schmelkes was aware that his ruling contradicts the well-known halachic principal that “devarim shebalev einam devarim” (things of the heart are not things).

Unfortunately, this brand new stringency is now common among haredi rabbis and in the Chief Rabbinate. In 2008, the High Rabbinical Court of the Chief Rabbinate retroactively annulled all of the conversions performed by Rabbi Hayim Druckman and Israel’s National Conversion Court since 1999, because most of the converts were not fully observant. In 2015, the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court retroactively annulled the Jewish status of a woman whose mother had been converted under the auspices of former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren 32 years before, since the mother was not observant! I have been informed by a modern Orthodox rabbi that this happens quite often.

May the story of Ruth inspire us to return to the positive Talmudic attitude toward accepting converts and kabbalat mitzvot, for “a convert who comes to convert, one stretches out a hand to bring him under the wings of the Shechinah.” May we do everything in our power to welcome converts and reject the stringent approach of the Chief Rabbinate and haredi rabbis, which stands in contradiction to normative Jewish law.

The writer, a rabbi and professor, is president of the Schechter Institutes, Inc. in Jerusalem. He is currently acting in the play In a Stranger’s Grave at the Khan Theater until June 13.

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