July 18, 2024
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Encouraging Conversion Candidates

There is a well-known Talmudic directive to attempt to dissuade a prospective convert through informing him or her of the vast obligations and responsibilities of a Jew (see Yevamot 47) and ascertaining his or her sincerity. A message derived from this week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach) provides an important complementary perspective. The rabbis of the Talmud record (Sanhedrin 99b) that our forefathers were punished for not allowing Timna to convert despite her sincere intentions. Timna came from royal stock, but wanted to embrace the faith of Avraham’s family. Our forefathers rejected her, and, as we find in this week’s Torah portion, Timna subsequently became a concubine of Elifaz the son of Esav, and gave birth to Amalek (Bereishit 36:12), which the rabbis viewed as a punishment for not facilitating the conversion of a sincere potential convert. According to some authorities, facilitating the conversion of a sincere, committed convert may be included either in the imperative of ahavat hager, loving the convert, or subsumed more generally under the mitzvah of ahavat Hashem, loving God.

Bayit Chadash (R. Yoel Sirkus, 1561-1640, Yoreh Deah 268:5) views the detailed instructions of the above-referenced Gemara in Yevamot as striking the appropriate balance between discouraging the insincere convert and encouraging the sincere one. The Gemara requires that we initially apprise the interested party about a sample of complex mitzvot as well as a sample of simple mitzvot. We hope that upon hearing about the complexity of Jewish observance, evidenced by the selection of complex commandments and the punishment for noncompliance, the insincere convert will abandon his quest. At the same time, we inform the prospective convert of some easier commandments and of the reward for proper observance. This is due to the opposite concern: if the prospective convert is sincerely motivated and we fail to inform him that there are also easier elements of observance and immense reward for proper observance, we will unjustifiably discourage him from what would be an appropriate conversion.

Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher (1796-1864; Responsum 87) suggests that if a beit din has doubts about the sincerity of a potential convert but has no credible evidence of lack of sincerity, the orientation of the beit din should be to accept rather than reject the convert. In his calculation, the consequences of rejecting a genuinely sincere convert, as our forefathers did with Timna, are more severe than of accepting a candidate who appears sincere to the beit din but may be masking ulterior motivations. He argues that our forefathers presumably had at least speculative grounds for rejecting Timna but were nonetheless punished for doing so. If, however, a beit din were to accept a convert who, unbeknownst to them, had ulterior motivations that he or she deliberately withheld from the beit din, the conversion would still be valid post facto (Yevamot 24b) (assuming that the convert sincerely accepted the yoke of observance) and the beit din would not be liable for any wrongdoing.

While a beit din must strike an appropriate balance between discouraging and encouraging a prospective convert, there are situations in which the general orientation to push away may be minimized or dispensed with entirely. In 1864, as the American Civil War was raging, Rabbi Bernard Illowy (1814-1875), a student of the Chatam Sofer who served as the rabbi of New Orleans, Louisiana, issued an edict prohibiting local mohalim from circumcising children born to a union of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. He reasoned that since the mothers had no intention of converting themselves or even raising the children as Jews (and neither did the non-observant Jewish fathers), performing a brit on these children would give the incorrect impression that these children were halachically Jewish. In response to R. Illowy’s proclamation, two of the local mohalim pledged to follow his directive; a third mohel refused and R. Illowy publicly denounced him.

R. Illowy’s actions led to an exchange of letters between two German halachic authorities of the time, R. Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and R. Ezriel Hildesheimer. As part of their discussion, R. Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, in disagreeing with R. Illowy, cites the verse in Ezra (9:2) that refers to zera kodesh, “holy seed.” R. Kalischer claims that zera kodesh is a reference to the progeny of the unions between Jewish men and non-Jewish women that were rampant in the time of Ezra and Nechemia. These children, while not halachically Jewish, have a different status than full non-Jews and therefore, argues R. Kalischer, it is appropriate to do what we can to provide them, when possible, with a proper conversion. R. Hildesheimer argues that zera kodesh refers not to the progeny of these unions but to the husbands. Thus, there is no evidence to the notion of treating these children differently than any other non-Jew.

What emerges from R. Kalischer’s argument is the possibility of a different orientation toward conversion candidates with Jewish blood or identity who are not halachically Jewish. He suggests that the general orientation to push off conversion candidates may not apply to the same extent to an individual who has a Jewish father. While we generally do not accept the entirety of R. Kalischer’s approach, there may be grounds to distinguish between the formal pushing away reflected in the Gemara’s specific directives that should still be followed, and the less rigorously defined process of investigating motives.

Notwithstanding the initial attempts that we must make to discourage a prospective convert, our rabbis laud the sacrifices and commitment demonstrated by the sincere convert. As the Medrash Tanchuma (Lech Lecha 6) writes:

R. Shimon b. Lakish said: The convert is more precious to Hashem than the people who stood at Har Sinai. Why? Because if those multitudes had not seen the sounds, the torches, the lightning, the trembling mountains and the shofar blasts, they would not have accepted the yoke of heaven. This [convert] did not see any of those [signs] and he came to complete himself before Hashem and accepted upon himself the yoke of heaven. Is there someone more precious than that?

Rabbi Michoel Zylberman serves as sgan menahel (associate director) of the Beth Din of America and as geirut (conversion) coordinator of the Rabbinical Council of America. Information about the beth din may be accessed at www.bethdin.org.

By Rabbi Michoel Zylberman

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