May one convert without intent to keep mitzvot?

Ask the Rabbi: Controversies over appropriate standards for conversion to Judaism have abounded since the Enlightenment period.

Rabbi teaching converts (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Rabbi teaching converts
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Controversies over appropriate standards for conversion to Judaism have abounded since the Enlightenment period and continue to confound in Israel and across the Diaspora.
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.
Rabbi Ovadia 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.
To prevent 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. [email protected]