In praise of conversion

Traditional Jewish law regarding conversion is actually quite lenient.

conversion illustrative thumb 88 (photo credit: )
conversion illustrative thumb 88
(photo credit: )
The Book of Ruth, which we have just read on Shavuot, is often considered to be the story of the first convert to Judaism. Although the book itself contains no description of a formal conversion such as we practice today, there is no doubt that Ruth takes the step of joining herself both to the people of Israel and to the religion of Israel when she says, "Your people will be my people, your God will be my God" (Ruth 1:16). Throughout the book Ruth is praised for her acts of hessed - her loyalty and compassion as expressed in her help to Naomi and her desire to continue the family line (Ruth 3:10). As the ancestress of David and therefore of the entire line of Davidic kings that later tradition said would lead to the messiah, she is worthy of praise and plays a central role in Judaism, only slightly less than that of the matriarchs themselves. It is very likely that one of the reasons for the writing of the book was to trace the ancestry of David. The fact that it proudly presents this woman who came from a different people but joined ours - a convert - as David's great-grandmother demonstrates a positive attitude toward such an act. Yet Ruth the Moabitess would have a difficult time acquiring the right to make aliya today and to attain Israeli citizenship. In fact her chances would be close to zero. We can imagine Ruth applying to the Interior Ministry where she would be met with a series of questions reflecting the ministry's current proposals for conversion requirements: Please show us your conversion certificate. What rabbinical court issued it? What Jewish community does it represent? No beit din? So who converted you? Where did you study and what? Was the program a year long and did it consist of at least 360 hours? No course at all? You said something about "your people, my people, your God, my God" and that was it? What is this, a joke? Did you remain in the Moab Jewish community for a year afterward? No? You say you had a Jewish husband - OK - but he's dead so that does not give you any rights. No, mothers-in-law don't count. Look, it's pretty obvious that you're simply one of those foreign workers looking for a job in agriculture that pays better than what you could earn in Moab. That's exactly what we're afraid of. Back to Moab with you. SO MUCH for David and the messiah! Obviously at the time of the writing of the Book of Ruth, conversion as we know it did not exist - although later interpretations sought to read it into the book. See, for example, Yevamot 47b. The Torah envisions non-Israelites living in the land and after a period of generations some of them could become part of "the community of the Lord" (see Deuteronomy 23:4). The Book of Ruth seems to posit this happening immediately when the person actively desires it. During and after the Second Temple period Jewish law gradually created conversion as we know it, with a formal ceremony before a court. But even the requirements of Jewish law in that regard are hardly those of the Interior Ministry or the Chief Rabbinate. The basic requirements are that the candidate be taught some of the laws, declare acceptance of the mitzvot and of God's sovereignty, undergo immersion and, for males, circumcision (see Yevamot 47:a-b, Shulhan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268; Maimonides, Issurei Biah 13). There is no provision for retroactively canceling the conversion if later they are found not to be observing each and every one of the mitzvot. Then they become like the rest of us - Jews who transgress but remain Jews (Maimonides ibid 13:17). Numerous studies have shown without any question whatsoever that the rules of conversion that traditional Jewish law has codified are in truth quite lenient. WHY THEN do we find it so difficult to accept converts today - particularly in Israel? Why are we so stringent? What is our problem? The most well known rabbinic stories of converts are those concerning people who came first to Shammai with unreasonable requests - such as not having to learn the Oral Torah, learning the whole Torah on one foot or becoming high priest. Shammai angrily rejected them. They then turned to Hillel who patiently taught them and accepted them. These converts then said, "Shammai's impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel's gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence" (Shabbat 31a.). Why is it that so many rabbinic authorities today seem intent on imitating Shammai when it is obvious that the tradition is lauding the actions of Hillel? Although conversion was quite common in the Second Temple period - Judaism was, after all, the only non-pagan, monotheistic religion - it virtually ceased when Christianity became dominant and would not permit Judaizing. In the modern period, when religion and state in the Western world were separated, conversion to Judaism became possible again but many religious authorities frowned on it. They felt that it was basically a way to bring gentile wives into Judaism and in many places, such as South America, they banned conversion altogether. They may have hoped to thus discourage intermarriage, but in reality the only result was that the children of these marriages were not brought up as Jews and whole generations were lost to Judaism. ONE WOULD have thought that in Israel the attitude would be different. And indeed under such chief rabbis as Benzion Uziel, the Sefardi chief rabbi who died in 1953, such reasonable conversions had taken place. When Jews from Eastern Europe and the USSR first began to emerge and were brought to camps in Austria, rapid but proper conversions took place there quietly. The spirit of Hillel seemed to have risen again. Those days are long gone. Under the influence of an ever increasingly haredi rabbinate here and with pressure from haredi rabbinical groups in Europe, conversions have become more and more difficult in Israel. Furthermore the Chief Rabbinate has attempted with some success to control Orthodox conversions in America as well and to impose its stringent standards there. The fact that Israeli citizenship may be determined by conversion brings the state into the picture in ways that are otherwise inappropriate. Conversion is a religious matter. Here it has become a political matter. THE INTERIOR MINISTRY has sometimes been even more stringent than the rabbinate. It has done its best to ignore or negate rulings by the Supreme Court regarding the acceptance of converts from non-Orthodox rabbinical courts, attempting to impose regulations that have no sanction in law. It has imposed draconian rules on many an Orthodox conversion as well. There may be legitimate concerns about people who would like to attain citizenship through conversion for reasons that are less than pure, mainly economic, but there is absolutely no proof that any recognized conversion courts here or abroad have fallen prey to this. There is a paranoia here that exceeds rational bounds. We are now a small people, much smaller than we ought to be. The well known demographer Sergio Della Pergola recently wrote that were it not for the Holocaust we would today be 36 million strong. That would still be small but better than what we have. Why should we be so reluctant to have others join us? We are also a small country, suffering from a demographic problem. Why would it not be better for Israel if the 300,000 non-Jewish Russians - or even half of them - were to join the Jewish people? Would it not be better for us for sincere converts to make aliya and join in strengthening our nation? We are allowing a combination of bureaucratic incompetence, unjustified paranoia, overly and unnecessarily strict application of halachic norms and Diaspora-originated fear of the non-Jew to result in counterproductive conduct. We are, in short, cutting off our noses to spite our faces. MY OWN INVOLVEMENT with candidates for conversion both in this country and elsewhere has been overwhelmingly positive. With few exceptions, those with whom I have been in contact have been sincere in their desire to become part of Judaism and of the people of Israel and join our destiny. I have seen many who have Jewish ancestry and wish to reclaim it. I consider it to be a true mitzva to bring to Judaism someone whose ancestors, either immediate or in the distant past, were lost to Judaism. There are others who suddenly discovered Judaism and sincerely desire to be part of it. There are those from the former Soviet Union who live here and want to be part of the Jewish people. Should we discourage them or should we be willing to answer their call? It is regrettable that conversion, which has played an important role in Judaism, should today be such a matter of controversy. After all, fancifully and anachronistically our tradition has even read conversion much further back than Ruth in our history. It asserts that Abraham and Sarah led conversion classes. He taught the men, she the women. (Genesis Rabba 39:5). Furthermore in a very real sense we and our ancient ancestors were the first converts when we stood at Sinai - at Shavuot - and accepted upon ourselves the yoke of God's sovereignty and the yoke of the commandments, pledging to become God's holy people. Maimonides even insists that the people went through both circumcision and immersion before entering that covenant and that this set the pattern for all future converts (Issurei Biah 13:1-4). So in a profound sense we are all converts - or the descendants of converts. As such we should welcome those who wish to follow in our ways. It is time to let the spirit of Hillel reign once again. The writer is the head of the Masorti Rabbinical Court. His most recent book is Entering Torah.