Am I Jewish?

Situation #1: Richard

Richard was born into a non-observant family and married a woman who keeps a kosher home, but she is not interested in becoming more observant. Richard is under the impression that, going back a few generations, his mother’s family was not originally Jewish, and, as far as he is aware, never was observant; yet his mother’s kesubah, which was written up and witnessed by a talmid chacham, identifies her as Jewish from birth. Does this mean that he is halachically Jewish and can wear tefillin and be counted as part of a minyan?

Situation #2: Gail

Gail does not think that her maternal grandmother was born Jewish, but she has little information about that part of her family.

Situation #3: Julia

Julia’s mother always told her that she was Jewish, although she grew up in an area with few Jews and no Jewish community. Recently, she has discovered that her mother is fond of inventing stories about her life, and Julia’s father tells her that he never believed that Mom is Jewish.

Situation #4: Norman

Norman, who was not raised Orthodox, has since become fully frum, is married and has children. Years ago, his bar mitzvah was at a local Orthodox synagogue, but his mother was not Jewish at the time. The rabbi had him undergo a conversion, but he has no recollection whether this was before or after his bar mitzvah, and he was certainly not interested in being observant at the time, so any statement that he was planning to observe mitzvos would not have been serious.

Introduction:

Although I have made some modifications to the above stories, each represents a shaylah that I have been asked. In all four situations, and for literally thousands of similar individuals, their status as Jews is unclear. This article is not intended to provide halachic ruling for any individual, who should address their specific question to a posek.

Korban Pesach

The Gemara in Pesachim (3b) records the following event. A non-Jew came to Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira, taunting him that, although the Torah states in parshas Bo, kol ben neichar lo yochal bo (Shemos 12:43), kol areil lo yochal bo (ibid. Verse 48)any son of a stranger (i.e., who is not Jewish) may not eat from it (the korban Pesach), no one uncircumcised may eat from it — he had successfully posed as Jewish and eaten the best cuts of the korban Pesach on a number of occasions. Without batting an eyelash, Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira turned to the gentile and asked him if they ever offered him to eat the alyah, the fatty tail of sheep that was a prized delicacy. Thereby, Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira implied to the non-Jew that they had given him only the scrawny parts of the korban, not the juicy, tasty parts that they reserved for the gentry (see Rashi).

Upon his return to the Beis Hamikdash the following Erev Pesach, the gentile requested the alyah portion, not realizing that he had thereby fallen into Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira’s trap: the alyah is offered on the mizbei’ach. When they asked the non-Jew who told him to ask for the alyah, and he told them that it was Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira, the people in Yerushalayim now realized that something serious was amiss. They researched the matter, discovered that the fellow was a charlatan, and made certain he would never give them trouble again. The Torah leadership then sent a message to Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira that although he was very distant from the Beis Hamikdash and unable to attend the offering of the korban Pesach (see Tosafos ad loc. s.v. Ve’ana), his trap set from quite a distance had snared its prey.

This story provides opportunity to discuss the following problem, raised by Tosafos and other rishonim: How was this gentile able to attend the Beis Hamikdash on Erev Pesach and pretend that he was Jewish? Did he not have to bring proof that he was Jewish before being allowed to consume korban Pesach? May anyone claiming to be Jewish be believed, without having to produce a driver’s license, passport or other photo identification?

Tosafos notes that our story does not prove that this conclusion is true. Indeed, someone claiming he is Jewish might require proof, but, since most of those who attended the korban Pesach procedures were Jewish, there was no need for someone to bring additional proof. Halachically, we accept the principle of rov, that we follow the majority, which includes that someone in a place where most people are Jewish may not be required to prove that he is, too. This is similar to the halachic rule that, although the milk of an animal containing unknown internal injuries, tereifos, is not kosher, we may drink milk, assuming that the cow is kosher, since most living animals are kosher. This is a very useful ruling, because if we needed to prove that every cow whose milk we drink is kosher, it would increase the price of kosher milk considerably.

Shidduch crisis

Tosafos notes that other passages of Gemara imply that someone is accepted as Jewish on their say so, without any other proof. For example, the Gemara (Yevamos 45a) quotes several amora’im who contend that someone whose mother is Jewish, but not his father, is halachically Jewish, a principle called matrilineal descent. (Compare, however, Shu”t Chemdas Shelomoh, Even Ha’ezer #2, who quotes an extensive responsum from Rav Yaakov Loeberbaum of Lissa, the author of the Nesivos Hamishpat and many other major halachic works, who understands this passage of Gemara differently.) Subsequently, the Gemara quotes several anecdotes in which sons of such relationships wanted to marry, but were having difficulty finding a shidduch; Rava advised one to move to a place where his genealogy was unknown, in order to find a shidduch.

Tosafos questions: If this person whose father is not Jewish has to prove his lineage wherever he goes, how does this self-imposed exile help? Tosafos concludes (in both Pesachim and Yevamos) that someone presenting himself as Jewish does not need to prove it. Therefore, someone whose father is not Jewish will be able to keep his personal family circumstances a secret.

When the Rambam quotes this law, he records the following: “Someone who came and said, I was a non-Jew and now I have properly converted in beis din, he is believed (without any other proof, because without his saying so we would have no basis to assume that he was once non-Jewish). This is true in Eretz Yisroel, in an era when we could assume that everyone is Jewish. However, outside Eretz Yisroel, he needs to bring proof before he may marry a Jewish woman. In my opinion, this requirement is a stringency created by Chazal to protect proper yichus” (Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 13:10). The Ra’avad disagrees, contending that, whether he is in Eretz Yisroel or in chutz la’aretz, and regardless of what era he is in, he is required to bring proof that he is Jewish before he marries.

Three opinions

Thus, it appears that we have three differing opinions among the rishonim:

1. Tosafos, who rules that he is never required to prove that he is Jewish, even to marry. It should be noted that this is probably true only when the individual is living a frum lifestyle.

2. The Rambam, who rules that, in Eretz Yisroel, at a time that we would assume that everyone is Jewish, he may marry without any evidence proving his Jewish identity, but, in all other times and places, he must prove he is Jewish to marry, but not for any other benefits.

3. The Ra’avad, who rules that, in all times and places, he must prove he is Jewish to marry. (Also see Yam shel Shelomoh, Kesubos 2:40, who cites, without sources or clarification, the opinions of Rashi and the Remah, who dispute some of what we have written above. However, the Maharshal, the author of the Yam shel Shelomoh, does not provide the sources whence he derived these conclusions from the writings of Rashi and the Remah; it appears that their position may have been similar to that of the Ra’avad.)

How do we rule?

As the primary opinion, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 268:10) quotes Tosafos, although he also then mentions the Rambam’s position. However, several major authorities understand that the Rambam agreed with Tosafos that someone arriving in our community, presenting himself as born Jewish, does not need to prove this. They explain that the Rambam contends only that someone who admits to having once been non-Jewish must provide evidence that he had a proper conversion to allow him to marry (Yam shel Shelomoh, Kesubos 2:40; Bach, Yoreh Deah 268; Shach, Yoreh Deah 268:21). This approach to understanding the Rambam explains how the Rambam can easily explain the Gemara (Yevamos 45a), quoted above, that advised someone to hide his family’s past and get married, without any other proof. This individual,  who had a non-Jewish father but a Jewish mother, was Jewish from birth and, therefore, exempt from providing any other proof to verify his being Jewish.

It should be noted that the Migdal Oz (Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 13:10)and the Gra (Yoreh Deah 268:25) provide a different approach to explain the Rambam, based on a passage in Mesechta Geirim (4:4), which they both accredit to the Talmud Yerushalmi, that seems to conflict with the Gemara in Yevamos. The Gra’s halachic conclusion agrees with that of the Shulchan Aruch.

Halachic conclusion

In summary, the following are the halachic conclusions:

  • Someone that we know was not Jewish and claims to have been properly converted must prove that he underwent a proper conversion (Tosafos, Yevamos 47a s.v. Bemuchzak quoting Rabbeinu Tam; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:10).
  • Someone claiming to be Jewish from birth is believed, without any proof, even to marry (Shach, Yoreh Deah 268:21).
  • Someone claiming that he was properly converted, about whom we have no previous information whether he is Jewish or not, is a subject of dispute, whether he needs to prove that he was properly converted in order to marry. However, if he is observant, we accept him as fully Jewish for all other halachos (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:10; Shach, Yoreh Deah 268:21; Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh Deah 268:14).

Why is he believed?

At this point, I would like to discuss a question that underlies what the rishonim have concluded. Why is someone believed on his own that he is Jewish? What is the halachic reasoning behind this assumption?

I have found three answers to this question:

1. Tosafos (Yevamos 47a s.v. Bemuchzak) states that there is a concept of rov, majority – meaning that most people who act like frum Jews and claim to be Jewish are indeed Jewish.

2. The Tiferes Yisroel (Kesubos 2, Boaz 1) questions Tosafos’s approach by noting that most people in the world are not Jewish. Therefore, he suggests a different approach: when an individual claims he is Jewish, he requires himself to observe all the laws of Shabbos, kashrus, etc., which he is not required to do if he is not Jewish. It is difficult to imagine that someone would do this, if he were not, indeed, already observing these mitzvos.

3. The Tiferes Yisroel then shares another option, which is very similar, and perhaps logically identical, to that of Tosafos,although he explains it in a slightly different way than Tosafos does. Someone who observes halacha as a frum person has a chazakah that he is Jewish, and there is no further reason to require him to prove that he is Jewish (see Yevamos 47a; Kiddushin 80a).

It would seem that all three approaches we have presented accept that only someone who is clearly religiously observant when he presents himself as Jewish is believed.

Situation #1: Richard

Richard was born into a non-observant family and married a woman who keeps a kosher home, but neither he nor his wife are interested in becoming more observant. He is under the impression that, going back a few generations, his mother’s family was not originally Jewish, and, as far as he is aware, never was observant; yet his mother’s kesubah, which was written up and witnessed by a talmid chacham, identifies her as Jewish from birth. Does this mean that he is halachically Jewish and can wear tefillin and be counted as part of a minyan?

At the time that this shaylah came up, I asked Rav Yisroel Belsky, zt”l , who answered me that once we saw that a talmid chacham wrote a kesubah assuming that Richard’s mother was born Jewish, this becomes the accepted halacha. Therefore, Richard is assumed to be Jewish for any halachos.

Situation #2: Gail

Gail does not think that her maternal grandmother was born Jewish, but she has little information about that part of her family.

Answer:

Gail is now living a fully frum lifestyle. As such, for all halachos, those around her should assume that she is Jewish. The only question is whether she can marry someone Jewish. Since she has no proof of her Jewish identity, according to some authorities she may not marry someone Jewish. As opposed to Richard, Gail has no evidence that her grandmother and mother are Jewish. Therefore, Gail was advised to have a giyur lechumra, meaning to undergo a geirus process, but without reciting any brachos when immersing in the mikveh, because of safek brachos lechumra — when we are uncertain about whether to recite a brocha, we do not do so. She subsequently married a fine, frum-from-birth young man.

Situation #3: Julia

Julia’s mother always told her that she was Jewish, although she grew up in an area with few Jews and no Jewish community. Recently, she has discovered that her mother is fond of inventing stories about her life, and Julia’s father tells her that he never believed that Mom is Jewish.

Since Julia is now living a fully frum lifestyle, other people should assume that she is Jewish. However, there is major uncertainty whether or not to believe her mother, and, therefore, I advised her to undergo a geirus procedure.

Situation #4: Norman

Norman, who was not raised Orthodox, has since become fully frum, is married and has children. Years ago, his bar mitzvah was at a local Orthodox synagogue, but his mother was not Jewish at the time. The rabbi had him undergo a conversion, but he has no recollection whether this was before or after his bar mitzvah, and he was certainly not interested in being observant at the time, so any statement that he was planning to observe mitzvos would not have been serious.

Does Norman need to have another conversion procedure?

The answer to this question takes us a bit afield from our topic at hand, but I will supply some of the information in a cursory way. If the conversion process was performed before Norman was bar mitzvah, there are halachic authorities who would rule that he is certainly Jewish, but there are others who might question this, depending on the circumstances. Therefore, it was advised that he perform geirus leshufra demilsa, which means a geirus that may not be necessary, but resolves all issues. This was expedited very discreetly and very swiftly.

Conclusion – geirim are special

A geir tzedek should be treated with tremendous love and respect. Indeed, the Torah gives us a special mitzvah to “Love the geir,” and we daven for them daily in our Shmoneh Esrei! 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 usually 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.

One sincere young woman, of Oriental background, stood firmly before the beis din. “Why would you want this?” questioned the rav.

“Because it is truth and gives my life meaning.”

“There are many rules to follow,” he cautioned.

“I know. I have been following them meticulously for two years,” was the immediate reply. “I identify with the Jews.”

After further questioning, the beis din authorized her geirus, offering her two dates convenient for them. She chose the earlier one, so that she would be able to keep an extra Shabbos.

We should learn from the geir to observe our mitzvos every day with tremendous excitement – just as if we had received them for the first time!

Bill’s Saga or The Power of a Single Word

Since parshas Pinchas discusses many of the relationships of Hashem and His people, I’ll share with you the following true story:

Bill’s Saga or The Power of a Single Word

There was a knock on the door to my shul office. I knew Bill, an active member of one of the large Conservative temples in the city. Bill and his wife were respected members of the non-observant Jewish community; involved Jews, they kept a kosher home, made kiddush and ate Shabbos meals, although they certainly were not Shabbos compliant.

The matter that brought Bill to my office this morning was obviously disconcerting. Usually a very relaxed and jovial fellow, Bill was today uncharacteristically agitated.

“Rabbi,” he hesitantly began, “I have a matter I want to discuss with you that I want absolutely no one to know about.” I assured Bill that I always assume matters I am told are confidential unless specified otherwise.

Reassured that his big secret would remain as confidential as he wanted, Bill blurted out his issue. Bill had been raised as a reform Jew; furthermore, he was unaware of any ancestors of his who had been shomrei mitzvah. He had gradually been finding his way towards more observant Judaism, and had married a woman who kept a kosher home and a semblance of a traditional, although certainly not fully observant, Shabbos.

“Rabbi,” he now got to his point, “I do not think I am Jewish according to halacha! I am fairly certain that my mother’s mother was not born Jewish. Since the family was never observant, how could she have had a proper halachic conversion? And, if she was not Jewish, neither am I.” With this confession accomplished, Bill breathed a sigh of relief.

After relaxing from the trauma of his introduction, Bill continued with his request. He wanted me to help him proceed with the path of becoming a proper Jew according to halacha, and he meant a 100%, correct halachic conversion. He made it quite clear that he was not pressuring anyone to convert him quickly; that would defeat his purpose. He was asking me to direct and guide him as to how to convert to Judaism in a way that I would be comfortable. He was quite frank that I should not proceed with steps for conversion until I felt he was ready.

I marveled at Bill’s honesty. Unfortunately, many people who are aware of this type of information choose to ignore it, pretending to be Jewish, although they realize deep inside that they are not. Bill realized, intellectually, the truth of Torah, and was eager to observe many mitzvos, such as brachos and tefillah. However, he was not ready to observe a fully Torah-observant life. He was in the spiritual throes of someone in the process of becoming observant: intellectually convinced of the truth of Torah, able and eager to observe some mitzvos, but not ready for others. This is the typical and healthy route for someone moving towards greater observance of halacha.

At the same time, Bill wanted his status to be kept an absolute secret. He did not mind people knowing that he was studying with the Orthodox rabbi in town, but he did not want ANYONE to know that his Jewishness was in question, and that he was thinking about pursuing an Orthodox conversion.

In the interim, since conversion to Yiddishkeit requires accepting all mitzvos, Bill was clearly not a candidate for geirus kehalacha. This led us to many interesting shaylos.

STUDYING TORAH

Since Bill was not Jewish, what Torah and halacha could he study? The Gemara (Sanhedrin 59a) prohibits a gentile from studying Torah, one opinion contending that since the Torah belongs to the Jewish people, a gentile studying it is “stealing” Jewish property. Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that one is permitted to teach Torah to Jews while a non-Jew is listening (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:132). Thus, I would not violate any halacha if Bill attended a class I was delivering. However, although Rav Moshe permits giving the class under those circumstances, if the gentile involved asks a shaylah, he should be told not to attend, since he is still “stealing” Torah that he should not be studying.

HALACHOS THAT APPLY TO A GENTILE

A gentile may study Torah in order to observe the mitzvos in which he is obligated, and he may study the basics of Jewish belief (Meiri, Sanhedrin ad loc.). This includes a rather extensive list of mitzvos, and according to many opinions even requires him to know all the laws of Choshen Mishpat, the entire body of halachic civil law, so that he can observe these mitzvos correctly. This is because many poskim contend that a gentile’s requirement to keep halachic civil law (dinim) requires him to keep the laws as the Torah instructed them (Shu’t Rama #10; Tumim 110:3; Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #91). However, other authorities contend that non-Jews are not required to observe Choshen Mishpat, but instead to create their own legal rules and procedures (HaEmek Shaylah #2:3; Chazon Ish, Bava Kamma 10:1; see Shu’t Maharam Schick, Orach Chayim #142; Shu’t Maharsham 4:86; Shu’t Avnei Nezer, Choshen Mishpat #55, all of whom contend that this is a dispute between amora’im in the Gemara). According to the latter opinion, one may not teach a gentile halachic civil law.

STUDYING FOR CONVERSION

The poskim dispute whether one may teach a non-Jew Torah if he is planning to convert. Meiri (Sanhedrin 58b) and Maharsha (Shabbos 31a s.v. amar lei mikra) rule that one may, whereas Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Shu’t #41) forbids it.

Was Bill really studying for conversion at this point? Although he strongly desired to be Jewish, he was not prepared to observe all the mitzvos. Since one cannot select which mitzvos one wants to observe, Bill was not really a candidate for conversion. Thus, teaching him Torah might be a problem, even according to the lenient opinions noted above.

Yet, Bill was very eager to study the laws of tefillah and brachos, both areas of halacha he was already observing to the best of his knowledge. Could I teach him these laws?

There is a basis to permit teaching him these halachos: One may teach a non-Jew the laws of offering korbanos if he intends to bring them, even though he has no requirement to observe this mitzvah. Nevertheless, once he decides to observe it, he should fulfill it correctly, and a Jew may instruct him how to proceed (Zevachim 116b; Rambam, Maasei HaKorbanos 19:16). Since a non-Jew may pray and recite brachos it follows that he may learn the laws of these mitzvos, to know how to observe them correctly (Meiri, Sanhedrin 58b).

COMING TO SHUL

At this point, Bill presented the following question:

“I once heard that Jews may not daven with a non-Jew in attendance. Would this present a problem?”

The authorities rule that someone outside a shul who can hear the prayers recited there may answer Amen and the other appropriate responses to their brachos and thus fulfill his responsibilities (Tur Orach Chayim 55). However, some authorities contend that one may not respond or fulfill the mitzvah if something ill-smelling or an idol is between the shul and the person listening (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 55, quoting Mahari Abohav). The idea is that the sanctity of the bracha becomes interrupted by something that prevents one from reciting prayer or learning Torah, and one may not recite a prayer near an idol or something with an unpleasant odor. The original sources imply that not only an idol, but also an idol worshipper, prevents the prayer from spreading beyond this point (Elyah Rabbah 55:18; cf. Magen Avraham 55:15, who is lenient).

However, it seems that only an idol worshipper is a problem, not a G-d-fearing person who is not Jewish. An idol worshipper ignores G-d’s presence, and thus, the prayer to   G-d is blocked; a G-d-fearing gentile is made in the image of G-d, and certainly does not block a prayer to Him from passing through (Shu’t Nimla Tal).

And so, life continued. Bill slowly increased his commitment to Judaism, yet was unable to make the commitments necessary to consider true geirus. In the meantime, I studied with him. It was a good lesson to me in working on my own middos; I tend to be impatient and like to have projects completed quickly. Here, I needed to resign myself to the fact that Bill might never become sufficiently committed for proper geirus, and certainly needed to proceed at his own pace, without any encouragement. For his own part, Bill seemed satisfied with his direction and had no timetable.

THE FAMILY HISTORY

One day Bill called, asking to see me as soon as possible.

We met, and he told me the following story:

He had decided to press his mother for the details of the Jewishness of her family history. His mother told him what she knew about the background, which was not a lot, but then shared with him an interesting tidbit: “You know, the rabbi who performed my sister’s wedding was Orthodox, and I know that she never had an Orthodox conversion.”

By now, Bill knew enough not to rely on his mother’s description of a rabbi as Orthodox; and his mother’s older sister, Susan, was long deceased, thus making it difficult to verify the story. However, Bill’s uncle, Susan’s husband, was alive and well and living in town. Bill decided to have a chat with Uncle, who was an eccentric sort of fellow, a bit of a recluse and also a notorious packrat. Bill’s idea proved to be wise, as we will see.

Uncle told Bill that indeed, he and his late wife had been married by an Orthodox Rabbi, a Rabbi Leibel Tabachnik*, an old Eastern European rabbi who had been the rabbi in the shul where Uncle’s parents had davened. “If it’s important to you, I’ll see if I can find some verification.” Bill wasn’t sure what information Uncle would locate, but decided to press his uncle for details anyway. Uncle promised to sift through his memorabilia that he stored in his massive basement and see what he could find.

A few days later, presented Bill with two very interesting pieces of memorabilia. The first was a copy of his late wife’s kesubah, a withered, sixty-five-year-old document that appeared to have been perfectly valid. The kesubah was indeed signed in Hebrew by Rabbi Leibel Tabachnik, who, apparently, had signed on the document with another witness of his own choosing to guarantee that the ceremony was 100% kosher. The rav had served as one of the witnesses, not an uncommon procedure when performing a wedding in a community of nonobservant people. He and the other witness had affixed their signatures, complete with family name and position.

Uncle produced another interesting tidbit; a fifty-year-old newspaper obituary of Rabbi Tabachnik. From the obit and the accompanying photo, it was apparent that we were discussing a bearded rav who had studied in the citadels of Torah in Eastern Europe. Moreover, he had clearly remained committed to Torah and mitzvos throughout his illustrious rabbinic career, notwithstanding the challenges of the profession in America in that era.

Bill was uncertain whether any of this information had any ramifications to his own status, but eagerly presented me with the data.

I carefully examined the data. Although newspaper obituaries are not primary sources for halachic decisions, this one corroborated the information of the kesubah. Rabbi Tabachnik had apparently been a knowledgeable rav who followed halacha meticulously, as one would expect from someone with his education. The importance of this fact was a significant and surprising bit of information that the kesubah supplied: The kesubah referred to the bride, Susan (Bill’s aunt), as a besulah, a designation which is halachically inappropriate to use, unless she had been Jewish at birth. However, this information conflicted with the original assumptions Bill had presented me. According to Bill’s information, Susan’s mother was a non-Jewish woman who had married a Reform Jew who, presumably, would not have had any reason to ask her to convert to Judaism according to the Torah. Thus, their children would not have been Jewish, according to halacha. If Susan had become Jewish at some point, the kesubah would say that she was a geyores, a convert to Judaism. The pieces of the puzzle did not fit together!

There was one obvious answer. Maybe Rav Tabachnik, esteemed scholar that he was, was unaware of Susan’s family background. Perhaps Susan was not halachically Jewish, or had converted to Judaism, and the rav was unaware of this.

There was another possibility: Bill’s information was completely wrong and his mother’s mother was in fact Jewish, either born Jewish or converted according to halacha, sometime before her daughters were born. Thus, the kesubah was perfectly accurate, and Bill was, indeed, Jewish! I stored this information but was uncertain what to do, based on the new evidence.

THE P’SAK

Shortly thereafter, I saw a well-known posek and eagerly discussed with him the details that I had. After hearing me out, the esteemed posek turned to me and said, “Rav Tabachnik would have known if this woman was not born Jewish. If he wrote in the kesubah that she was born Jewish, then she was born Jewish. End of discussion.”

If Susan, Bill’s mother’s older sister, was born Jewish, then Bill’s mother was also definitely born Jewish, and Bill was born Jewish, although we did not know any other details. To make sure I understood the ramifications of the psak I had just heard, I repeated:

“Does that mean, that Bill is 100 percent Jewish?”

The rav replied, “Absolutely.”

Suddenly I realized the power of a single written word. Somehow, Rabbi Tabachnik knew that Bill’s grandmother was Jewish, and he had conveyed this message to us through the carefully written kesubah.

Suddenly, Bill came out of hiding! He could now proudly count himself as a member of a minyan, and was obligated to keep all the mitzvos of a Jew – and to learn all parts of the Torah!

 

*all names in this article have been changed*

How Does Someone Convert to Judaism?

Judaism Starburst grunge background

When our ancestors accepted responsibility to observe the Torah, they did so by performing bris milah, immersing themselves in a mikveh, and offering korbanos. In the same way, a non-Jew who chooses to join the Jewish people is entering the same covenant and must follow a similar procedure (Gemara Kerisus 9a).

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

DEFINITION OF A JEW

To the non-Jewish or non-observant world, the definition of a Jew is based on sociological criteria. But to the Torah Jew, the definition of a Jew is someone who is a member of a people who are obligated to fulfill all of the Torah’s commandments. For this reason, it is axiomatic that no one can become Jewish without first accepting the responsibility to observe mitzvos (kabbalas mitzvos). This concept, so obvious to the Torah Jew, is almost never appreciated by the non-observant. Someone who does not (yet) observe mitzvos himself usually does not appreciate why observing mitzvos is imperative to becoming Jewish. This is why a not-yet-observant Jew often finds our requirements for giyur to be “unrealistic” or even “intolerant.” However in true reality, attempting to bend the Torah’s rules reflects an intolerance, or more exactly, a lack of understanding. The Torah Jew realizes that the basic requirement for becoming a Jew is accepting Hashem’s commandments, since a Jew is by definition someone who is bound by the Torah.

DISCOURAGE CONVERTS

As we all know, when someone requests to be converted to Judaism, we discourage him. As the Gemara (Yevamos 47a) says, if a potential convert comes, 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 do we discourage a sincere non-Jew from joining Jewish ranks? Shouldn’t we encourage someone to undertake such a noble endeavor!

The reason is that even if the potential convert is very sincerely motivated, we still want to ascertain that he or she can persevere to keep the mitzvos even under adversity. Although we can never be certain what the future brings, by making the path to conversion difficult we are helping the potential convert who might later regret his conversion when the going gets hard. Because of this rationale, some batei din deliberately make it difficult for a potential convert as a method of discouraging him.

I have used a different method of discouragement, by informing potential converts of the seven mitzvos bnei Noach. In so doing, I point out that they can merit olam haba without becoming obligated to keep all the Torah’s mitzvos. In this way, I hope to make them responsible moral non-Jews without their becoming Jewish. As the Gemara explains, we tell him, “Until now you received no punishment if you failed to 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).

I once met a woman who was enthusiastically interested in becoming Jewish. Although she was living in a town with no Jewish community – she was already keeping a kosher home!

After I explained the mitzvos of bnei Noach to her, she insisted that this was not enough for her. She wanted to be fully Jewish.

Because of her enthusiasm, I expected to hear from her again. I was wrong. I never heard from her again. It seems that her tremendous enthusiasm petered out. This is exactly what Chazal were concerned about. Therefore they told us to make it difficult for someone to become Jewish and see whether his or her commitment survives adversity. It was better that this woman’s enthusiasm waned before she became Jewish than after she became Jewish and had no way out.
The following story from my personal experience is unfortunately very common. A gentile woman, eager to marry an observant Jewish man, agreed to fulfill all the mitzvos as a requirement for her conversion. (As we will point out shortly, this is not a recommended procedure.) Although she seemed initially very excited about observing mitzvos, with time she began to lose interest. In the end, she ended up giving up observance completely. The unfortunate result is that she is now a chotei Yisrael (a Jew who sins).

MOTIVATION FOR CONVERTING

We must ascertain that the proposed convert wants to become Jewish for the correct reasons. If we discern or suspect that there is an ulterior reason to convert, we do not accept the potential convert even if he is committed to observing all the mitzvos.

For this reason converts are not accepted at times when there is political, financial, or social gain in being Jewish. For example, no converts were accepted in the days of Mordechai and Esther, nor in the times of Dovid and Shlomoh, nor will geirim be accepted in the era of the Moshiach. During such times, we suspect that the convert is somewhat motivated by the financial or political advantages in being Jewish (Gemara Yevamos 24b). This applies even if we are certain that they will observe all the mitzvos.

Despite this rule, unlearned Jews created “batei din” during the reign of Dovid HaMelech and accepted converts against the wishes of the gedolim (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Biyah 13:15).

The Rambam explains that the “non-Jewish” wives that Shlomoh married were really insincere converts. In his words, “In the days of Shlomoh converts were not accepted by the official batei din…however Shlomoh 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 treats them as non-Jews…furthermore the end bears out that they worshipped idols and built altars to them” (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Biyah 13:15-16).

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 (Gemara Yevamos 24b). I have seen numerous instances of non-Jews who converted primarily for marriage and who agreed to keep all the mitzvos at the time of the conversion. Even in the instances where mitzvos were indeed observed, I have seen very few situations where mitzvos were still being observed a few years (or even months) later.

GEIRUS WITH IMPROPER MOTIVATION

What is the halachic status of someone who went through the geirus process for the wrong reasons, such as they converted because they wanted to marry someone?

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. If the convert remains faithful to Jewish observance, we will treat him with all the respect due to a Jew. However, before reaching a decision on his status, the beis din waits a while to see whether the convert is indeed fully committed to living a Jewish life (Rambam, Issurei Biyah 13:15-18).

However, someone who is not committed to mitzvah observance and just goes through the procedures has not become Jewish at all.

Jim was interested in “converting to Judaism” because his wife was Jewish and not because he was interested in observing mitzvos. At first he went to a Rav who explained that he must observe all the mitzvos, and certainly they must live within the frum community. This was not what Jim had in mind, so he went shopping for a “rabbi” who would meet his standards. Is there any validity to this conversion?

CONVERSION PROCESS

How does a non-Jew become Jewish? As mentioned above, Klal Yisrael joined Hashem’s covenant with three steps: bris milah (for males), immersion in a mikveh, and offering a korban (Gemara Krisus 9a). Since no korbanos are brought today, the convert becomes a ger without fulfilling this mitzvah. (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 ger will be required to offer a korban olah which is completely burnt on the mizbayach (Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Biyah 13:5).

Besides these three steps, the convert must accept all the mitzvos, just as the Jews accepted to keep all the mitzvos.

Preferably, each step in the geirus procedure should be witnessed by a beis din. Some poskim contend that the bris and tevilah are valid even if not witnessed by a beis din. But all poskim agree that if the kabbalas (accepting) mitzvos does not take place in the presence of a beis din, the conversion is invalid (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:3). Thus, a minimal requirement for proper giyur (conversion) is that the ger’s commitment to observe all the mitzvos and practices of a Jew be made in the presence of a kosher beis din. Any “conversion” with no commitment to mitzvos, or where the commitment is made without observant Jews present, is by definition invalid and without any halachic foundation.

Unfortunately, some well-intentioned converts have been misled by people purporting to be batei din for geirus. I know of a woman who underwent four different conversion procedures until she performed a geirus in the presence of a kosher beis din!

KABBALAS MITZVOS

As mentioned above, kabbalas mitzvos is a verbalized 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 (Gemara Bechoros 30b). Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses a woman who was interested in converting and was willing to fulfill all the mitzvos except that she did not want to dress in the halachically-required tzniyus way. Rav Moshe rules that it is questionable if her geirus is valid (Shu”t Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah 3:106).

If the potential convert states that he/she accepts kabbalas mitzvos, we usually assume that the geirus is valid. However, what is the halacha if a person declares that he accepts the mitzvos but his behavior indicates the opposite? For example, what happens if the convert eats non-kosher or desecrates Shabbos immediately following his conversion procedure? Is he considered Jewish?

Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that if it is clear that the person never intended to observe mitzvos, his 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).

BEIS DIN

As mentioned before, conversion is an act that requires a proper beis din, meaning minimally three fully observant male Jews.

Since a beis din cannot perform a legal function at night or on Shabbos or Yom Tov, conversions cannot be performed at these times (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:4).

CHILD CONVERSION

Until now we discussed the conversion of adults. A child can also be converted to Judaism (Gemara Kesubos 11a). There are two common reasons why this is done: Either when the child’s parents are converting to Judaism, or when a non-Jewish child is adopted by Jewish parents.

The conversion of a child involves an interesting question. As we explained above, the convert’s acceptance of the mitzvos is the main factor that makes him into a Jew. However, since a child is too young to assume legal obligations and responsibilities, how can his conversion be valid when it is without a legal accepting of mitzvos?

The answer is that we know that children can be converted from the historical precedent of Sinai where the Jewish people accepted the Torah and mitzvos. Among them were thousands of children who also joined the covenant and became part of klal Yisrael. When these children became adults, they became responsible to keep mitzvos (Tosafos Sanhedrin 68b).

There is, however, a qualitative difference between a child who becomes part of the covenant together with his parents, and an adopted child who is becoming Jewish without his birth parents. In the former case the parent assumes responsibility for the child’s decision (Gemara Kesubos 11a; Rashi Yevamos 48a s.v. eved), whereas an adopting parent cannot assume this role in the conversion process. Instead, the beis din supervising the geirus acts as the child’s surrogate parents and accepts his geirus. This same approach is used if a child comes of his own volition and requests to be converted (Mordechai, Yevamos 4:40).

CAN THE CHILD REJECT THIS DECISION?

Yes. If the child convert decides on reaching maturity that he does not want to be Jewish, he invalidates his conversion and reverts to being a gentile. The age at which a child can make this decision is when he or she becomes obligated to observe mitzvos, twelve for a girl and thirteen for a boy (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:162).

CAN HE CHANGE HIS MIND LATER IN LIFE?

No. Once the child achieves maturity and is living an observant lifestyle, this is considered an acceptance of the conversion that cannot be rejected afterwards.

WHAT IF THE CHILD CONVERT WAS UNAWARE THAT HE WAS A GER AND DID NOT KNOW THAT HE HAD THE OPTION?

Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses the case of a couple that adopted a non-Jewish child but did not want to tell him that he was adopted. (Not telling the child he is adopted may be inadvisable for psychological reasons, but this is an article on halacha, not psychology.) Rav Moshe raises the following halachic reason why the parents should tell the child that he is a convert. Assuming that the child knows he is a child convert, he has the option to accept or reject his Judaism when turning bar mitzvah (bas mitzvah for a girl), which is a time that the parents have much influence on their child. Subsequent to this time, he cannot opt out of Judaism. However, if he does not discover that he is a convert until he becomes an adult, he would have the option at that time to accept or reject his Judaism, and the parents have limited influence on his decision.

WHAT IF THE CHILD WANTS TO BE A NON-OBSERVANT JEW?

What is the halacha if the child at age thirteen wants to be Jewish, but does not want to be observant?

There is a dispute among poskim whether this constitutes a rejection of one’s conversion or not. Some contend that not observing mitzvos is not the same as rejecting conversion; the conversion is only undone if the child does not want to be Jewish. Others contend that not observing mitzvos is considered an abandonment of one’s being Jewish.

Many years ago I asked my rebbe, Rav Yaakov Kulefsky zt”l, about the following situation. A boy underwent a giyur katan and was raised by non-observant “traditional” parents who kept a kosher home but did not observe Shabbos. The boy wanted to be Jewish without being observant, just like his adopted parents. The family wanted to celebrate his bar mitzvah in an Orthodox shul and have the boy “lein” the Torah. Was this permitted or was the boy considered non-Jewish?

Rav Kulefsky zt”l paskined that the boy could “lein” and was considered halachically Jewish. Other poskim disagree, contending that being halachically Jewish requires acknowledging the mitzvos we must perform. Someone who rejects the mitzvos thereby rejects the concept of being Jewish.

GERIM ARE SPECIAL

Once a potential ger persists in his determination to join the Jewish people, the beis din will usually recommend a program whereby he can learn about Judaism and that sets him on track for giyur. A ger tzedek should be treated with tremendous love and respect. Indeed, the Torah gives us a special mitzvah to “Love the Ger,” and we daven for them daily in our Shmoneh Esrei!

Throughout the years, I have met many sincere gerim 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 usually 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.

One sincere young woman, of Oriental background, stood firmly before the Beis Din. “Why would you want this?” questioned the Rav.

“Because it is truth and gives my life meaning.”

“There are many rules to follow,” he cautioned.

“I know. I have been following them meticulously for two years,” came the immediate reply. “I identify with the Jews.”

After further questioning, the beis din authorized her geirus, offering her two dates convenient for them. She chose the earlier one, so she could keep one extra Shabbos.
We should learn from the ger to observe our mitzvos every day with tremendous excitement – just as if we just received them for the first time!

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