Contemporary Conversion Conundrums

Question #1: Who is a Jew?

Are Jews an ethnic group?

Question #2: What is a Jew?

Or is Judaism a religion?

Question #3: Teaching a Non-Jew?

May I teach Torah to someone who is interested in becoming Jewish?

Introduction

When our ancestors accepted collective responsibility to observe the Torah, they did so by performing bris milah, immersing in a mikveh and offering a korban. So, too, a non-Jew who is joining the Jewish people is entering the same covenant and follows a similar procedure (Kerisus 9a). When the bris milah is performed, a special form of the brocha is recited: lamul es hageir. Immediately after immersion in the mikveh, the new convert recites a brocha, al hatevilah.

Since, unfortunately, no korbanos can be offered today, an individual may join the Jewish people and become fully obligated to fulfill all the mitzvos without fulfilling this korban requirement. (We derive from a pasuk that geirim are accepted even in generations that do not have a Beis Hamikdash.) However, when the Beis Hamikdash is iy”H rebuilt, every geir will be required to offer a korban olah, which is completely burnt on the mizbei’ach (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 13:5). Those who have already become geirim will be obligated to bring this korban at that time.

The privilege of becoming a geir tzedek comes with very exact and exacting guidelines. On a technical level, the geir is accepting responsibility to perform mitzvos. Through the geirus procedure, he creates an obligation upon himself to observe mitzvos (Birkas Shemuel, Kiddushin #15).

Who is a Jew?

To the non-Jewish or non-observant world, the definition of a Jew is based on ethno-sociological criteria. But to the Torah Jew, the definition of a Jew is someone who is a member of a people obligated to fulfill the Torah’s commandments. For this reason, it is axiomatic that joining the Jewish people means accepting the responsibility to observe mitzvos (kabbalas mitzvos). This concept, so obvious to the Torah Jew, is almost never appreciated by the non-observant. This is why a not-yet-observant Jew often finds the requirements for giyur to be “unrealistic” or “intolerant.” In reality, attempting to bend the Torah’s rules reflects a lack of understanding of the concept of “commandment” and the unique status of the Jewish people as a nation whose definition is: living according to the laws of Hashem.

In other words, the answer to our opening question — are Jews an ethnic group or is Judaism a religion? — is that the Jewish people are a divinely created religious community chartered with a specific relationship with our Creator. He who made the Rules instructed that others desiring to join the community may do so, but those who choose to leave it may not dispense with their obligation. Thus, we are not technically “an ethnic group,” because you cannot “join” one. On the other hand, we are not simply a “religion” either, because someone who does not believe in the tenets of Judaism may still be Jewish.

Desire to convert

Someone requesting to be converted to Judaism is discouraged from doing so. As the Gemara (Yevamos 47a) says, we ask him, “Why do you want to convert? Don’t you know that Jews are persecuted and dishonored? Constant suffering is their lot! Why do you want to join such a people?”

Why discourage a sincere person from joining Jewish ranks? Shouldn’t we promote this noble endeavor?

This is because even a sincerely motivated convert may not successfully persevere when encountering major adversity. We can never be certain what the future will bring, but placing obstacles in the path to conversion helps a potential geir who might later regret the decision. As the Gemara explains, we tell him, “Until now you received no punishment if you did not keep kosher. There was no punishment if you failed to observe Shabbos. If you become Jewish, you will receive very severe punishments for not keeping kosher or Shabbos!” (Yevamos 47a)

A different method of discouraging someone from converting is to explain that someone not Jewish who observes the seven mitzvos benei Noach properly merits olam haba, without becoming obligated to keep all the Torah’s mitzvos.

The beis din overseeing the conversion attempts to ascertain that the candidate wants to become Jewish for the correct reasons. If we suspect that there is an ulterior reason to convert, the potential convert is not accepted, even if they commit to full mitzvah observance. The Gemara and the Rambam note that a beis din should be aware that a man may seek conversion to allow him to marry a Jewish woman, or a woman because she wants to marry a Jewish man. The Gemara and the Rambam rule that we should reject these conversion candidates, because their motivation is not fully sincere.

If the potential convert states that he/she accepts responsibility to fulfill all the mitzvos, we usually assume that the geirus is valid. However, what is the halacha if the potential convert declared acceptance of all the mitzvos, but the individual’s conduct indicates that this was merely lip service? For example, what happens if the convert eats non-kosher food or desecrates Shabbos immediately following his conversion procedure? Is he considered Jewish? This question is disputed by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, first Chief Rabbi of the new yishuv in pre-state Israel, and Rav Chayim Ozer Grodzenski, accepted posek hador and rav of Vilna until his passing in 1940, in which Rav Kook rules that the geirus is valid, as long as the beis din believes, at the time of the conversion, that the person is fully accepting observance of the mitzvos, whereas Rav Chayim Ozer rules that the geirus is invalid. Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that, when it is clear that the person never intended to observe mitzvos, the conversion is invalid. The person remains a non-Jew, since he never undertook kabbalas mitzvos, which is the most important component of geirus (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:157; 3:106).

Accepting mitzvos

As mentioned above, kabbalas mitzvos is a verbal acceptance to observe all the Torah’s mitzvos. We do not accept a convert who states that he is accepting all the mitzvos of the Torah, except for one (Bechoros 30b). Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses a woman who was interested in converting and was willing to fulfill all the mitzvos, except the requirement to dress in a halachically appropriate manner. Rav Moshe rules that it is questionable if her geirus is valid (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 3:106).

Sincerity

It is important to accept only converts who want to join the Jewish people and observe the mitzvos for sincere reasons. This is why converts are not accepted whenever there is political, financial, or social gain in being Jewish. For example, no converts were accepted by batei din in the days of Mordechai and Esther, nor in the times of Dovid and Shelomoh, nor will geirim be accepted in the era of the Moshiach. In these era, we assume that the interest in conversion is influenced by the financial or political advantages in being Jewish (Yevamos 24b). For this reason, Megillas Esther (8:17) refers to misyahadim, “those who made themselves into Jews,” without acceptance by the official batei din. Similarly, in an earlier era, unlearned Jews created ersatz “batei din” during the reign of Dovid Hamelech, converting people against the wishes of the beis din hagadol (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 13:15).

The Rambam explains that the “non-Jewish” wives that Shelomoh married were really insincere converts. In his words, “In the days of Shelomoh, converts were not accepted by the official batei din…however, Shelomoh converted women and married them… and it was known that they converted for ulterior reasons and not through the official batei din. For this reason, the pasuk refers to them as non-Jews… furthermore, the end bears out – because they worshipped idols and built altars to them” (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 13:15-16).

A successful spouse trap

In all of the above instances, where there is an ulterior motive to convert, should someone manage to become converted, the giyur is valid, provided that the individual, indeed, accepted full mitzvah observance.

Why is this valid bedei’evid?

Since they want to marry this particular spouse, and the only way to accomplish this is by accepting mitzvos and becoming Jewish, he or she has accepted keeping the mitzvos (Ritva and Nimukei Yosef, both to Yevamos 24a).

Because of this rule, we do not accept someone who is converting because he or she wants to marry someone who is Jewish, even if the convert is absolutely willing to observe all the mitzvos (Yevamos 24b; Menachos 44a). However, if the convert followed all the procedures, including full acceptance of all the mitzvos, the conversion is valid, even though we disapprove of what was done (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 13:15-18).

Times have changed

This assumption was true at the time of the Gemara and the Rambam, when societal norms did not permit someone to marry Jewish without being part of a Jewish community that was halachically observant. In the contemporary world, a non-Jew can marry someone Jewish without any commitment to the Jewish people. Does this affect the status of someone who wants to convert to Judaism for the sake of marriage?

The two greatest Litvishe halachic authorities of pre-war Europe both contended that it does affect the geirus, but they reached diametrically opposite conclusions. Rav Chayim Ozer noted that, since in the contemporary world, any couple can get married regardless of their religious affiliation, someone wanting to convert and observe mitzvos for the sake of marriage may be accepted for conversion lechatchilah (Shu”t Achiezer 3:27).

At the same time, the rav of Kovna was the Devar Avraham, Rav Avraham Kahana-Shapiro, who, upon seeing Rav Chayim Ozer’s responsum, wrote him a letter disagreeing with his conclusion. The Devar Avraham contended the exact opposite: that since someone today may marry out of their religion, there is no longer anything to prove that the potential convert indeed accepted to observe mitzvos (Shu”t Devar Avraham 3:28). This is based on the approach, quoted above in the name of the Ritva and the Nimukei Yosef, that kabbalas mitzvos that is not completely sincere, but is somewhat compelled by the desire to marry this particular individual, is acceptable only when there is no other way for him or her to marry this particular spouse.

Hillel

We are all familiar with the famous stories of Hillel, which present a halachic conundrum with very differing resolutions. Let me review the situations as they are presented by the Gemara: Three different non-Jews approached Hillel, the first requesting that he convert him on condition that Hillel teach him only the Written Torah and stating that he rejects the authenticity of the Oral Torah. The second requested that Hillel convert him on condition that Hillel teach him the entire Torah while the convert would remain standing on one foot, and the third, on condition that he can become the kohein gadol. Hillel accepted all of them as righteous converts (Shabbos 31a), and then convinced them to study the rest of the Torah.

This Gemara presents a very great difficulty. In what way did any of these converts accept the Torah? The first one certainly did not – he only accepted the authenticity of the Written Torah; therefore, his conversion should be invalid.

Tosafos (to Yevamos 109b s.v. Ra’ah) answers that Hillel realized that all three of these gentlemen were sincere and would keep the entire Torah.

The Maharsha (Shabbos 31a) understands that Hillel did not convert these three men immediately, but accepted them as students to teach them Torah. In his opinion, it is permitted to teach Torah to an individual interested in converting, since its purpose is to enable him or her to observe mitzvos properly as a Jew.

On the other hand, Rabbi Akiva Eiger holds that Hillel converted the three of them immediately, and only after they were halachically Jewish was he permitted to teach them Torah, In his opinion, it is forbidden to teach Torah to a non-Jew simply because he is in the process of conversion.

Thus, our opening third question —  May I teach Torah to someone who is interested in becoming Jewish? – is a dispute among these acharonim.

Common practice is to follow the Maharsha’s approach. Therefore, if the beis din is convinced of the sincerity of a potential convert, they will usually recommend an appropriate program whereby he or she can learn about Judaism and become knowledgeable in mitzvah observance and proper Torah perspective, to prepare them for their eventual conversion to Judaism.

Typical anecdotes

I shall now present to our readers various situations thatI know of concerning potential converts.

Tom

Tom was converted by a non-Orthodox rabbi because his father wanted him to be of his own religion and not that of his mother. At one point in Hebrew school, he mentioned his Judaic origins to one of his teachers – who happened to be Orthodox. At a discreet time, the teacher told him that how to live his life was his own decision, but he should be aware that his conversion would not be recognized by an Orthodox Jew, or by the State of Israel, to allow him to marry someone Jewish. When he got older and began searching for authentic Yiddishkeit, he remembered being told that his status as a Jew was questionable, at best. He found a proper beis din for conversion and persuaded them that he was seriously interested in observing the Torah and becoming halachically Jewish. He then underwent a proper geirus. Subsequently, he was set up on a shidduch with a ba’alas teshuvah, and they have built a Torah family together. By the way, he no longer goes by the name of Tom.

Manny

Manny’s mother and younger siblings underwent conversion when his sibs were all under the age of twelve. Manny, who eventually became fully frum, was already a teenager at the time of the conversion and also went through the conversion process, although he later reported that he did not believe that he accepted mitzvos at the time of the conversion, but simply pretended to join the family. Now an adult and observant, he wonders whether he should perform a new geirus.

According to Rav Kook’s opinion that I presented above, he is certainly Jewish and has no need to undergo any further conversion procedure. According to Rav Chayim Ozer, it is unclear whether he is Jewish, since he attests to the possibility that his conversion was invalid, since he did not really accept mitzvos at the time of his conversion. For this reason, the conclusion was that he should undergo another geirus to remove any doubt as to his status. Manny underwent the second geirus procedure, without reciting a brocha upon his immersion.

Jennifer

Jennifer has two Jewish grandfathers, but both of her grandmothers are not Jewish. Raised to consider herself Jewish, she keeps a kosher home, no small undertaking in the community in which she lives. She scheduled an appointment with a rabbi about an Orthodox conversion. The rabbi, yours truly, told her what observing Torah entails, and also shared with her that it would be virtually impossible for her to observe Judaism all by herself. Realistically, she would need to relocate to a place where she can live an Orthodox lifestyle, within an Orthodox community. Not surprisingly, the rabbi never heard from her again. This is exactly what is meant when we say that we discourage potential converts.

Iliana

When Iliana became interested in joining the Jewish people, she went to the first rabbi she found, not realizing that not all rabbis are Orthodox, and not even knowing what is meant by Orthodox Judaism. After undergoing a non-Orthodox “conversion,” which did not require any acceptance of mitzvos, she realized that this was not the type of being Jewish she wanted. She found a rabbi who had her accept mitzvos and granted her a conversion certificate. However, once she became part of a Jewish community and became engaged, she and her chosson discovered that the rabbi who had issued her the “certificate” was completely unknown to all the rabbis they approached. At this point, she underwent a third conversion with a recognized rav to facilitate her marriage and the acceptance of her children as Jewish.

Conclusion

Throughout the years, I have met many sincere geirim and have been truly impressed by their dedication to Torah and mitzvos. Hearing about the journey to find truth that brought them to Judaism is truly fascinating. What would cause a gentile to join the Jewish people, risk confronting the brunt of anti-Semitism, while at the same time being uncertain that Jews will accept him? Sincere converts are drawn by the truth of Torah and a desire to be part of the Chosen People. They know that they can follow the will of Hashem by doing seven mitzvos, but they insist on choosing an all-encompassing Torah lifestyle. A geir tzedek should be treated with tremendous love and respect. Indeed, the Torah gives us a special mitzvah, repeated many times in the Torah, to “Love the Geir,” and we daven for them, daily, in our Shemoneh Esrei!

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