Article 5 - Conversion to Judaism: A Discussion of Standards

Conversion To Judaism: A Discussion Of Standards

By: Rabbi Marc Angel
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A recent Jewish Press editorial commented on an article I wrote for the Jerusalem Post calling for a reevaluation of the role of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. The editorial provided an excerpt of my article, including my critique of the Chief Rabbinate’s extreme position on conversion to Judaism. It then raised an important question: why didn’t I entertain the need for a uniform standard? “We need to hear his [Rabbi Angel’s] views regarding the consequences of an absence of universal acceptance of halachic legitimacy…”

I thank The Jewish Press for raising the question, and for granting me the opportunity to respond to it. I will limit myself to the thorniest of the issues: conversion.

On the topic of conversion, halachic literature itself does not present a uniform standard. In describing the procedure of receiving converts, the Talmud (Yevamot 47a-b) teaches the need to inform candidates of the dangers of being Jewish. If they still want to proceed, we are to instruct them in some of the minor and some of the major commandments and tell them about punishment and rewards. “[The candidate for conversion] is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much. If he accepted, he is circumcised forthwith.”

The Talmud does not spell out in detail how much the convert needs to know; but it clearly does not require the candidate to spend years of study or be ready to fulfill all the mitzvot before conversion takes place. Interestingly, the Talmud (Shabbat 68a) speaks of “a convert who was converted among gentiles,” who did not even know about Shabbat, who is nevertheless considered a valid convert.

Neither the Rambam nor the Shulchan Aruch provides a specific regimen for preparing a would-be convert, and neither invalidates a halachic conversion if afterward the convert was lax in religious observance.

The requirement of kabbalat hamitzvot (accepting the commandments) is subject to a range of interpretations. (For a discussion of the halachic, historical and sociological aspects of conversion, please see my book Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion.) Indeed, throughout the generations, each rabbi decided how to deal with each particular potential convert. There was no uniform, universal standard other than following the basic guidelines of the Talmud, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch – all of which gave latitude to the rabbi to use his own judgment.

In their important studies on conversion, Dr. Zvi Zohar and Dr. Avi Sagi have found that the first significant posek to equate conversion with 100% fulfillment of mitzvot was Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes (Beit Yitzchak, 2:100) – and that was not until 1876! He went so far as to invalidate a conversion if the convert did not scrupulously observe the mitzvot after conversion. Although this was a dramatic break from halachic tradition, a number of subsequent poskim have adopted this view, and this seems to be the view accepted by the current Chief Rabbinate in Israel.

Many significant poskim have rejected this extreme view, relying instead on the classic halachic sources – Talmud, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. For example, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, late Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, was outspoken in his demand that rabbis convert non-Jews wishing to marry Jews, even when the expected level of mitzvah observance is not high. He was concerned with maintaining Jewish families, having children raised in Jewish homes, strengthening the Jewish people – even in non-ideal cases of conversion.

He wrote: “I admit without embarrassment that my heart is filled with trembling for every Jewish soul that is assimilated among the non-Jews. I feel in myself a duty and mitzvah to open a door to repentance to save [Jews] from assimilation by [invoking] arguments for leniency. This is the way of Torah, in my humble opinion, and this is what I saw and received from my parents and teachers” (Mishpetei Uziel, 5698, no. 26).

Rabbi Uziel viewed himself not so much as being lenient in matters of conversion as being stringent in opposing the sin of intermarriage. Decisions relating to conversion entail a balancing of values. If one is overly restrictive, this may result in the candidate opting for non-Orthodox conversion, or giving up entirely on Judaism. This approach can only contribute to an increase in intermarriage, and children from such marriages are, of course, lost to the Jewish people.

The call for uniform standards with universal halachic acceptance leads to a constriction of halacha. Calling for universal acceptance essentially means adopting the most extreme position. This invalidates the range of legitimate halachic options and unfairly ties the hands of Orthodox rabbis who wish to help potential converts rather than drive them away.

Serious problems arise when the convert’s level of observance after conversion falls short of the standards of Rabbi Shmelkes and his followers. Thousands of people will have their Jewish status questioned or invalidated, causing confusion and suffering. Moreover, those who converted under halachic auspices and who are halachically Jewish according to the Talmud, Rambam, Shulchan Aruch and a great many poskim, are now told that they are not Jewish – e.g. that they may eat non-kosher food, violate Shabbat, marry a non-Jew etc.

Instead of solving problems, this sort of “uniform” standard creates chaos. Adopting the most extreme position and invalidating the range of legitimate halachic views is not only bad for halacha, but bad for Judaism and the Jewish people.

Whose “universal acceptance” are we talking about? A woman in the Midwest was studying for conversion for three years. The rabbis of the bet din all agreed she was qualified to convert. They wouldn’t convert her, though, because they thought her Jewish boyfriend was not religious enough. This bet din, thus, raised the bar for conversion beyond the convert him/herself to include the religious level of prospective spouses. This woman is in her forties; aside from the anguish caused by this inordinate delay in her conversion, she has probably lost the ability to produce a child. (How many Jewish children are not being born because batei din protract the conversion process of women in their childbearing years?)

In discussing this case with colleagues, I was told that some batei din insist that the convert be living entirely (or almost entirely) among Orthodox, religiously observant Jews. A bet din in Israel turned down a would-be convert because she enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and would be wearing pants. I was called by a rabbi in Latin America who thought he had to invalidate the halachic conversion of a generally observant woman (mother of three children) because she did not wear a head covering in public.

The point is: how can “universal acceptance of standards” ever be achieved when there is such a strong tendency to keep adding new layers of restrictions and to invalidate conversions that don’t achieve the particular standards of the most stringent batei din?

What may seem “universal” today will be trumped soon enough by a posek or bet din that adds even more restrictions. No convert is “safe,” since twenty or thirty years from now more layers of stringency may be added, leading to the retroactive invalidation of conversions. Is this the sort of “universally accepted” standard that halacha mandates or desires? Certainly not.

We must remember that we are dealing with real human beings, not chess pieces. It is far from a simple decision for a non-Jew to choose to convert to Judaism according to halacha.

We need to take the time to look into the eyes of potential converts, hear their stories, try to understand their concerns and needs. We need to consider their individual circumstances, whether they are married to (or plan to marry) a Jewish spouse, how we can best ensure the Jewishness of their children. Certainly, conversions should be performed responsibly and fully in accord with halacha; “conversion factories” where someone can buy a conversion are a reprehensible mockery of halacha and Judaism.

We must always do our utmost to inspire converts to be faithful to the Jewish people, Torah and mitzvot. But we do not live in a perfect world, and we often have to deal with real people in less than ideal situations.

The Chief Rabbinate should not be imposing an extreme, monolithic “universal standard” that eliminates halachic options and contracts the ability of rabbis to cope responsibly with the many cases that come before them. It should not, wittingly or unwittingly, turn potential converts away from Orthodox rabbis, or increase intermarriage, or jeopardize the Jewish future of children of would-be converts, or be oblivious to the genuine pain caused to converts and potential converts.

We teach that the ways of Torah are pleasant and all its paths are peace. We must also strive to live by this ideal – which indeed should be our uniform and universally accepted standard.

Rabbi Marc Angel is senior rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City; past president of the Rabbinical Council of America; and author of “Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion” (Ktav, 2005).