On conversion

It is unfortunate that in Israel, religious issues often become political issues, all too often leading to juridical battles in the courts.

conversion class 248.88 (photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
conversion class 248.88
(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
It is unfortunate that in Israel, religious issues often become political issues, all too often leading to juridical battles in the courts. One such issue that has come to the fore again lately is conversion to Judaism. The specific issue at hand is the State's recognition for purposes of Israeli citizenship of conversions performed in Israel by rabbis of the Masorti and Reform Movements. Politics aside, let us consider the topic of conversion in general. There seems to be a prevailing feeling that Judaism is averse to converts, wishes to discourage them and to make conversion difficult. That is certainly the feeling that one gets from the way in which many Batei Din (Rabbinical Courts) both here and elsewhere conduct themselves. 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, conversions being cancelled for one weak reason or another and conversions being valid only so long as the convert stays in Israel. One wonders at exactly what moment as the convert is flying out of Tel Aviv does it become permissible for her or him to eat non-kosher food? And of course there is the refusal of Orthodox courts to recognize conversions simply because the rabbis involved were not Orthodox rabbis, even when the halachic requirements were observed. Obviously, the problem is not simply who is a convert - but who is a rabbi. All too often, potential converts are turned down if they are ignorant of minute laws that most observant Jews have never heard of; Jewish law supports none of these instances. Religious conversion as such with the specific regulations and ceremonies that attend it came into being sometime during the period of the Second Temple. The well-known stories concerning Hillel and Shammai being approached by potential converts make it very clear that Hillel was at least ready and even eager to accept converts, placed no stumbling blocks in their way and welcomed them immediately with no instruction and no declarations on their part except the intent to become Jews (Shabbat 31a). Rabbinic midrashim spoke favorably of conversion and went so far as to teach fancifully that Abraham and Sarah were the first to teach converts. He taught the men, she the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14). The rabbis also looked upon Ruth as having been a convert. It is not insignificant, therefore, that she is the ancestress of the chosen king, David, who in turn is to be the ancestor of the Messiah. Rabbi Elazar ben P'dat went so far as to say that "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 tevilah - immersion in a mikve - and, for males, brit mila - circumcision. The Talmud goes so far as to specify that there is no need to postpone this procedure; rather, it should be done speedily (Yevamot 47b). 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). However, after the fact, even the lack of a formal acceptance of mitzvot is not enough to void the conversion (ibid 13:17). The picture that emerges from a careful study of the sources, then, is one of great leniency. The authorities were concerned that the convert be sincere, but they were also eager to ease the way into Judaism and were loath to invalidate a conversion so long as the individual had undergone the technical ritual requirements and had not remained a practitioner of another religion. This perversion of Judaism by placing unnecessary stumbling blocks before potential converts is particularly painful when one considers the fact that the number of Jews in the world is shrinking. If we have people who are eager 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 it to be 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, why should we not ease their way toward Judaism rather than pushing them away? I suggest that all those involved carefully consider the statement of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: The convert is more beloved by God than the multitude that stood at Mt. Sinai. Why? Because that multitude would not have accepted the Sovereignty of God were it not for the noise and 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 Lekh Lekha 6). The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.