July 19, 2024
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Timna, Ruth, Rachav, Naama and Onkelos

Conversion to Judaism

Yevamot 24b,46b and 47b.

The purpose of this article is to introduce the reader to the Jewish laws of conversion and not to decide any halachic question the reader may have. For a psak, please consult your posek.

“Convert me to Judaism and teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot,” said the gentile to Shamai. “No,” said Shamai and pushed him aside with his measuring stick.

So the gentile went to Hillel. “All right,” said Hillel, “behave towards others as you would have them behave towards you. That is the Torah in a nutshell. The rest is an elaboration on that theme. Go now and study it.”

This story illustrates the tension our sages struggle with when it comes to conversion. All agree that Judaism is not a religion of missionaries. It is not looking for converts. As in the Hillel story, the initiative must come from the potential convert, not from the Jew.

But then, how easy does Judaism make conversion? Should it be as difficult as a Fifth Avenue condominium interview, or should it be as easy as joining the Democratic Party? What are the basic requirements of acceptance and what level of commitment is required?

If we recall that all Jews are converts, we just need to ask ourselves what we had to do when we left Egypt to become the Jewish nation.

First, all males had to be circumcised. Then both men and women had to purify themselves by immersing themselves in the mikvah, the ritual bath. In the Temple era, an olah sacrifice had to be brought. Finally, we had to unconditionally undertake to perform God’s commandments. Except for the Korban Olah which, in the absence of the Temple, is not brought today, nothing has changed.

Like then, so now, the convert must undergo circumcision. Once fully recovered, he immerses himself in the mikvah. Although the conversion ceremony involves more than circumcision and immersion, these are the two essential requirements for a male, without which the conversion is ineffective.

The conversion ceremony itself strikes a delicate balance between Judaism’s distaste for the missionary approach and its concern not to dissuade those who genuinely desire to convert.

The Court of three that conducts the conversion ceremony goes about it in a gentle manner and does not overwhelm the convert with details or intimidate him with the weight of Jewish history. Nevertheless, the Court owes the gentile the duty of full disclosure, for he or she is about to voluntarily accept a code of behavior that will regulate his or her daily life, like never before.

“Why do you want to convert?” asks the Court. “Don’t you know that the Jewish people are afflicted, downtrodden, oppressed and harassed?” If the gentile responds, “Nevertheless, I would like to belong to the Jewish people,” he or she is accepted as a conversion candidate immediately.

The Court then tells him about certain major and minor commandments, the punishments endured for their violation and the reward enjoyed for their observance. If he accepts, he is scheduled for circumcision immediately, to be followed by immersion, as soon as is medically possible. Just before the immersion, the Court reminds the conversion candidate of the commandments he or she will be subject to and that he or she is still at liberty to walk away and change his or her mind.

The gentile then immerses his or her entire body in the mikvah. Upon resurfacing, the gentile is now a Jew in every respect. The convert, now Jewish and subject to the mitzvot, recites the blessing required after mikvah immersion, as well as the blessing of shehecheyanu, in which he or she, who is now considered a newborn, thanks God for giving life.

Perhaps the most accurate harbinger of the conversion ceremony is the dialogue between Naomi and Ruth.

When Naomi decided to leave Moab, where she survived the famine, to return to Israel, she bade Ruth and Orpah, her two Moabite daughters-in-law, farewell. Orpah returned to Moab but Ruth was determined to convert and follow Naomi to Israel.

Naomi then attempted to dissuade Ruth. “But we have all these laws,” said Naomi. “On Shabbat and Yom Tov, we are not even allowed to walk 2,000 Amot beyond our homes!” “Where you go, I will go,” responded Ruth.

“We have a very strict social code; a woman may not seclude herself with a married man,” continued Naomi. “Where you lodge, I will lodge,” replied Ruth.

“We are commanded to observe 613 commandments!” warned Naomi. “Ýour nation is my nation,” responded Ruth.

“We may not engage in idolatry,” said Naomi. “Your God is my God,” responded Ruth. And when Naomi saw that Ruth was determined, she stopped arguing with her.

Is the convert’s motive for conversion relevant?

Rabbi Nechemia says that the conversion is ineffective unless the motivation is solely religious.

The rabbis disagree. Even where the Court knows that the sole motive is the desire to marry a Jewish person, the conversion is effective, as long as the minimum requirements of circumcision and immersion before a court of three are fulfilled.

The halacha is in accordance with the rabbis’ opinion.

In the end, the Court, basing itself upon all the facts and circumstances of each particular case, has the discretion to decide whether or not to perform the conversion.

And what level of commitment to mitzvah observance does the Court require as a precondition to conversion? Even if the gentile commits to observing all the mitzvot except for one, we cannot convert him. How do we square this statement with reality, wherein it is often transparent that the convert’s commitment to observe all mitzvot may be less than sincere?

The Achiezer differentiates between two types of potential converts. There is the convert who conditions his acceptance of the mitzvot upon the exemption from one certain mitzvah. Then there is the convert who accepts all the mitzvot, even as he is dubious about his ability to observe them all. Whereas the conscientious objector is not a good candidate for conversion, the conscientious observer is, even though he, like the rest of us, is aware of the frailty of human determination.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein differentiates between before the fact and after the fact. A person who conditions his conversion before the Court on an exemption from a certain mitzvah is not the right candidate for conversion. Nevertheless, if the Court went ahead and converted him, the conversion is valid and such a person as a full-fledged Jew must observe the mitzvah he spurned. Nobody has the power to override a mitzvah and the condition is void.

The Tosafot Yeshanim suggest that any Jewish ambivalence towards conversion is perhaps rooted in the innate fear of being upstaged. Many converts are more conscientious in their observance of mitzvot than those who are born Jewish. Rather than allowing this to lead to the rejection of the convert, it should encourage those who are born Jewish to follow the example of the conscientious convert and increase their own commitment to mitzvot.

Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received semichah in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, zt”l. This article is an extract from Raphael’s book “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerai’m” available for purchase at www.amazon.com/dp/057816731X  or by emailing Raphael at [email protected].

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