"And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew, and the souls which they made in Haran, and they came to the Land of Canaan" (Genesis 12:5).
One of the major challenges facing the State of Israel today - specifically in terms of its future as Jewish state - are the close to 400,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not halachically Jewish. These people were granted automatic Israeli citizenship under the law of the Right of Return for a compelling reason: since the Nazis' definition of a Jew to be murdered in Auschwitz was someone with one Jewish grandparent - even if it was on the paternal side, those same criteria were adopted for anyone seeking refuge in Israel. Hence, our society is faced with a large influx of non-halachically Jewish citizens who are fighting and sometimes dying for us in the IDF. Their children are attending kindergarten, school and university with other Israeli children, but they cannot be married in a religious ceremony and cannot even be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This opens the door to a massive problem of intermarriage and countless desecrations of God's name as bereaved parents ask why their beloved children were Jewish enough to sacrifice their lives for the Jewish state, but not Jewish enough to be buried with other Jews.
The obvious solution lies in "conversion" - a procedure first described in the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite, and the Pentateuch forbids Moabites from "entering into the congregation of the Lord" (Deut. 23:4). Nevertheless, she forsook her family and culture, committing herself to the faith, fortune and nationality of her beloved mother-in-law, Naomi, saying "wherever you go, I shall go, where you sleep, I shall sleep, your nation shall be my nation, your God my God" (Ruth 1:16).
The Midrash explains that a religious court determined that the ancient Pentateuchal law only prohibited male Moabites from conversion. Ruth is praised as an "Abrahamic" figure, who married the prominent Judean leader Boaz, and became the great grandmother of David, King of Israel and fore-runner of the Messiah.
The Talmud (B.T. Yevamot 45, 46) sets down the fundamental procedures for conversion, which are codified by the Shulhan Aruch to include acceptance of the commandments, ritual immersion, and circumcision for males. The Talmud maintains that while general acceptance of commandments is mandatory, the would-be convert need only be informed of: "some of the more stringent laws and some of the more lenient laws" (specifying only Shabbat, aspects of kashrut, and the charitable tithes). While another Talmudic passage (B.T. Shabbat 31) suggests in the name of Hillel that as long as the conversion candidate has embarked on a positive process of Torah study, he/she is to be accepted immediately.
Unfortunately, however, the religious courts in Israel - and especially the ultra-Orthodox religious community - have established much stricter standards, which is hardly conducive for the large numbers of converts which our present national situation so desperately demands.
I believe that whether or not we apply a user-friendly attitude towards potential converts depends upon how we see our Jewish mission, especially now that we have returned to the Land. Many Talmudic commentaries actually count conversion as one of the 613 commandments. The Raavad (12th Century) derives this command from our biblical portion, which mentions the "souls [Abraham and Sarah] made in Haran" (Genesis 12:5). The Midrash, cited by Rashi, says Abraham converted the men while Sarah converted the women.
Maimonides goes one step further (Book of Commandments, Positive Command 3), citing the Sifre that "the command to love the Lord means to make Him beloved to all of humanity, like Abraham your father, as it is written, 'the souls they made in Haranâ€¦ who sought out people for our faith because of the great love he felt for Godâ€¦' As the Mishna in Avot (1, 12) teaches us, 'love all humanity and bring them close to Torah.'"
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.