Based on: Jewish Conversion, Its Meaning and Laws, by: Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, 1995, Feldheim Publishers, Pages 14-60.
The meaning of conversion can only be explained in the light of Israel’s universal role. However, the failure to clarify the terminology and concepts employed by Chazal (our sages), and the framework that encases their ideas, can cause this role to be misconstrued. A step by step analysis of these concepts, paves the way for such an understanding.
Israel and the Nations
Creation can be compared to a magnificent ensemble. As an ensemble plays harmonious music, so Creation sings G d’s praises. As each member of the ensemble is charged with a specific function, so every member of Creation serves G d in a unique manner. Referred to as ?My son, my firstborn” (Exodus 4:22), the Jewish Nation serves as Divine Providence’s conduit. Called ?a priestly kingdom” (Ibid. 19:6), she is required to proclaim G d’s glory and sing praises to His name.
Both Jews and gentiles are fashioned in G d’s image and as such, are beloved by Him. But just as the Jew must appreciate the gentile’s place in the universe, so must the gentile acknowledge Israel’s uniqueness and purpose. He should understand that the Jew’s special qualities and character traits, have been bestowed on him, by G d, as part of the Divine world plan. It is also important for him to know that G d’s love for the nations extends only to those who recognize Him.
Chazal (our sages) teach that in the Messianic era, Israel and the nations will function as partners. Israel will teach belief to humanity, and will consecrate herself to the service of G d. The nations will function alongside her, providing her with the fruits of their labor, as material and physical support partners. Jointly, they will create a harmonious world, where wisdom and lovingkindness will prevail.
Despite Israel’s obligation to demonstrate the meaning of monotheism to the world, she functions in a manner that seems to contradict her role. Generally, we associate influencing, with reaching out. Yet, Israel’s influence is effective, only when she separates herself from the nations. Attempts, on her part, to mingle with them, result in the diffusion of her light and the tarnishing of her lofty standards.
Abraham embodied this principle. While instructing the masses, he maintained a distance from them. He did not permit his progeny to marry outsiders (Talmud:Avodah Zarah 36b), nor did he mingle with the Canaanites. It is to him, that Chazal (Our sages) ( Talmud:Avodah Zarah l8b) attribute the words, “Happy is the man who did not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Psalms 1: 1). “Wicked”, refers to the Sodomites and the Philistines. Abraham’s “outreach” activities were essentially directed towards pagans. With Abraham’s abolishment of paganism, even such interaction with the nations ceased. Since then, Israel has influenced only by personal example.
Abraham’s most distinctive feature was his bris milah (circumcision). Nevertheless, instead of lessening his power to influence, it increased it. Logically, the nations should have been repelled by this factor. However, Scripture refers to Abraham as “A father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5), a phrase on which the Malbim comments: “Do not think that the nations will reject you because you have circumcised yourself. On the contrary, as a result of your distinction, they will regard you as their guide and patriarch.”
The phrase ??v?nivrechu b?cha kol mishpechos ha?adamah???..??and in you shall be blessed all the families of the earth” (Ibid. 12:3), further highlights the nature of Abraham’s influence. According to Baalei HaTosafos, the word “nivrechu” is a derivative of the infinitive “mavrich, which means “grafting.” Although grafting results in merging, Baalei HaTosafos is not implying that Abraham mingled with the nations. It is referring to the “grafting” of the gentiles with the Jewish Nation, through the process of conversion, and to the merging of the progeny of Esau and Ishmael with the remainder of humanity. While joining the Canaanites and forming their own nations, Ishmael and Esau spread Abraham’s basic ideology; Ishmael’s influence, giving rise to Islam, and Esau’s, to Christianity. Although they presented distorted versions of Abraham’s doctrines, they still diminished, if not abolished, idolatry and spurred on the progress of truth.
Rambam (Maimonides) discusses this point in Hilchos Melachim (Laws of Kings) Chapter 12, saying that Christianity and Islam are functioning in accordance with G d’s plan, and are actually helping pave the way for the era in which the entire world will serve G d. He supports his ideas, by pointing to the fact that both Christianity and Islam, who accept Scripture, have disseminated the Bible on a worldwide, massive, basis. As a result, he adds, non Jews have become acquainted with G d’s commandments, a factor that will facilitate their acceptance of Torah’s truths in the Messianic era.
THE ESSENCE OF CONVERSION
Chazal’s (our sages?) approach to conversion is often misunderstood. The main source of this misunderstanding is an account in the Talmud, Shabbos (Sabbath) 31a, which relates how Shammai rejected three would be converts, while Hillel accepted them. Many erroneously assume that these two sages disputed the fundamentals of conversion. However, such misconceptions stem from a superficial understanding of the context of Chazal’s (Our sages?) statements.
This text is not presenting two different attitudes. As Rashi explains, Hillel accepted the candidacy of the applicants, because he felt that they would eventually become sincere converts. Shammai rejected them, because he doubted their sincerity, and felt that their motives were ulterior. Both Hillel and Shammai maintained that would ?be converts, with pure motives, should be drawn closer, while those with ulterior motives, should be repelled.
Nor is this text advocating proselytism. Not only do Jews have no obligation to proselytize, but the Torah regards such actions negatively. Jews are forbidden to teach Torah to gentiles. When a gentile asks to be taught the Seven Noachide Laws, a Jew is obligated to explain them to him.
As alluded to by the usage of the word ?bah?:?comes?, in our sages? frequently used phrase, “ger she’bah l?hisga?yer” “a stranger who comes to convert,” a convert must initiate his own conversion. His desire to join the Jewish Nation must be volitional. However, once he has applied for conversion, and has proven his sincerity, it is a mitzvah (positive commandment) to draw him closer, as is written, “I am the One Who drew Yisro near and did not repel him. You also, when a person comes to you to be converted, and comes solely for the sake of Heaven, draw him closer and do not repel him” (Yalkut Shimoni, Yisro 268). Hillel and Shammai were dealing with gentiles who approached them of their own accord.
The Talmud, in Gittin 56a, casts additional light on G d’s attitude towards converts, explaining that G d seeks out the finer elements of the human race, those with the noblest spiritual attributes, and desires their conversion. This principle, though, does not contradict the rule that Israel must not proseletyze. Instead, it reflects two levels of operation, G d’s and Israel’s. These levels are distinct, but not opposing, and have a cause and effect relationship, as is written: “When Israel does G d’s will [as a Nation apart], He scans the universe, in search of righteous gentiles, and causes them to join the Jewish Nation [through conversion]” ( Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachos 2a). Of course, G d no longer seeks to draw entire nations into Judaism’s stream, as He did prior to presenting the Torah, at Sinai. Over the generations, they determined their own spiritual molds, and their present task is to fulfill the mission which best suits their essence.(See Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, The Way of G d, Feldheim Publishers pp. 139 43.) Since the Giving of the Torah, G d has sought to draw only unique individuals into our faith.
Over the past two hundred years, alien ideologies have infiltrated into our thinking processes. One of the most dominant, is humanism, a doctrine that stresses the centrality of man and regards the attainment of human happiness as the ultimate value. Religion’s role in such a world view is peripheral. It serves only as a means to achieve happiness. The logical conclusion of this philosophy is that man has a right to attain such happiness.
According to the Torah’s view, serving G d and doing His will, is man’s ultimate goal. Of course, such service engenders happiness, because G d is benevolent and kind, to His creations. However, such happiness is not defined as tranquility or physical well being, but rather as closeness to the Creator. Nor does the Torah stress that man is entitled to happiness, for in a world governed by an Absolute Being, man has no claim to rights. The benefits he enjoys, are gifts bestowed on us by G d, in His lovingkindness. The very air he inhales, is G d’s gift to him. His rational faculties are gifts. Nature’s bounties are gifts. Man is a constant recipient, bound by obligations. However, once we perceive that the ultimate purpose of life is to fulfill G d’s will, duty, is transformed into joy, and obligation, into privilege.
Israel’s function as a Chosen Nation, is primarily a matter of obligation. She was selected to fulfill a function that would benefit not only herself, but humanity at large. Her exclusivity involves responsibility, and her talents and superlative qualities, are G d given and commensurate to her task.
CONVERTS AND CONVERSIONS
The Origins of Converts
Rambam (Maimonides) writes: “All converts may consider themselves Abraham’s progeny, and may, in their prayers, recite the phrase: ‘The G d of my Fathers.’ … Every individual who converts, and believes in the unity of G d (in accordance with Torah’s principles) is considered his disciple. Just as Abraham uplifted his generation with true beliefs and character refinement, so is he credited with the rectification of all future converts. He is considered the father of those of his offspring who emulate him, the father of his disciples, and the father of every person who converts” ( Hilchos De’os, Laws of ?-need transl. of De?os in English).
As previously mentioned, righteous converts are people with lofty spiritual attributes. One of the most well known converts was the Polish nobleman, Abraham ben Abraham. He converted to Judaism in the eighteenth century, and was sentenced, by the church, to death. He died, sanctifying G d’s Name. It is said that even before his conversion, unidentifiable feelings, which testified to the greatness of his spirit, would overwhelm him every Sabbath.
In Yehudi Mihu? Mahu? (A Jew Who is He? What is He?), A. Korman notes that Abraham ben Abraham, traced the roots of converts to the Giving of the Torah. “Although the nations rejected the Torah,” Abraham ben Abraham is quoted as saying, “Individual members of those nations sought to accept it. Only the refusals of their peers, prevented them from realizing their aspirations. The souls of these individuals appear in every generation as converts.”
Another perspective on conversion emerges from Chazal’s statement that “although the convert, himself, may not have been present at Sinai, his mazal was there (“According to Rashi in the Talmud (Megilla 3a). ?Mazal?, here, means the spiritual counterpart that every human being has been assigned in the upper celestial world. This entity, has a most important affect upon man’s lower world destiny.) ( Talmud: Shabbos 146a).
The expression, “ger she’nisga’yer,” (a convert who has converted) used throughout our sources, expresses a similar idea. The use of the word ger, and not goy or nochri (gentile), in the stage preceding conversion, implies that the genuine convert was inspired by Judaism, even before he converted. Prior to his drawing closer to Torah, he possessed the makings of a ger (convert).
The origins of those who convert for insincere motives are quite different. They generally stem from the souls of the erev rav (group of Egyptians) who joined the Jewish Nation, during the Exodus, for ulterior motives. Throughout history, these reincarnated souls have caused much damage to the Jewish Nation, and have brought about her degeneration. According to Tikunei Zohar Chadash ( 37 ), in the pre-Messianic era, these souls will manifest themselves as heads of the Nation, attempting to cause its spiritual ruin.
The Essence of Conversion
Conversion is a unique process. When one converts, he assumes an entirely new identity, and becomes a full fledged member of the Jewish Nation. The factor effecting his rebirth, is the embracing of truth, for truth and the faith that follows in its wake, cause a person to refashion his entire lifestyle. Truth and faith, which do not bring man to action and do not influence his entire being, are not genuine.
Prophets undergo a similar metamorphosis when they become prophetically inspired. Therefore, Samuel told King Saul: “And G d’s spirit will come, mightily, on you, and you will prophesy with them, and will be turned into another man” (Shmuel Aleph, Samuel 1 10:6).
The baal teshuva (penitant) undergoes such a change too. “In a brief instant, he goes from pitch darkness into great light … He realizes repentance and becomes a different person” (Rabbenu Yonah, The Gates of Repentance, Feldheim Publishers, Gate Two, 10).
The Talmud uses the expression, :”One who has become a proselyte is like a newly born child” (Yevamos 22a), to describe the convert’s rebirth. As a new person, he has no connection with his past, and as a result of his conversion, attains atonement for all his sins ( Talmud Yerushalmi, Bikkurim 83a).
Of course, his transformation does not detract from our obligation to treat him with the extra sensitive concern due a stranger. Thus, despite his new status as a newly born individual, the Talmud tells us, “Do not insult a [non Jew] before a proselyte, even unto the tenth generation” ( Talmud: Sanhedrin 94a). The statement in Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth 601 ?…a convert, for twenty four generations, falls back on his negative aspects,” does not contradict these principles. Yalkut Shimoni is referring to non Jews who convert for ulterior motives, and not to righteous converts. Residues of the past are retained in the genetic make up of the descendants of insincere converts, for a long period of time. (Even science is beginning to corroborate the theory that not only physical characteristics, but also emotional inclinations and character traits, are hereditary.)
PRE REQUISITES OF CONVERSION
Conversion entails merging with the Jewish Nation and accepting the yoke of the commandments at the time of the conversion. Although these are separate acts, they are deeply interrelated, for one cannot receive Torah, unless he is part of the Jewish community. It is for this reason, explains Rashi, that Torah was not given, until Israel demonstrated unity. Commenting on the words, “And they encamped at Mount Sinai” (Shemos 19:2), Rashi notes that the Hebrew word used, here, for encamped, is the singular “vayichan.” He points out that everywhere else that Scripture refers to encampments, it uses the plural form, ?vayachanu.? “This is so,” he explains, “because discord had prevailed at all other encampments. However, when the Jewish People reached Sinai, they were ‘as one man, with one heart.’ Seeing the unity which prevailed at Mount Sinai, G d said, ‘It is time to give the Torah.’ “
It is for this reason, too, that an Israelite who withdraws from the community, loses a great part of his uniqueness as a Jew, and cannot be considered a complete member of our Nation. Of such people it is written: Our Rabbis have taught: When Israel is in distress, and one of them separates himself from the community, the two ministering angels, who accompany every man, come and place their hands on his head and say, “He who separated himself from the community, shall not share, with them, in the consolation of the community.” Another Beraisa teaches: When the community is in distress, let not a man say, “I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me.” … But rather, a man should share in the distress of the community, for we find that Moses shared in its distress, as is written, “But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat thereon” (Exodus 17:12). Did Moses lack a bolster or a cushion on which to sit? Through his conduct, Moses meant to convey that “As the People of Israel are in distress, I, too, will share with them. He who shares in the distress of the community, will merit to behold its consolation.” (Talmud: Ta’anis I I a)
The reason that Israel and Torah are so deeply linked, is that Israel, as the bearer of G d’s word, is the only channel through which Torah can be received. When we pray, “Guardian of Israel, preserve the remnant of Israel; let not Israel perish, who say: ‘Hear, 0 Israel,’ “ we are expressing this idea, and are affirming that Israel deserves to be protected, because she is the unique Nation who professes G d’s unity.
The Acceptance of the Yoke of the Commandments
The Sifri (Devarim:Deuteronomy 33:6) explains the essence of the second pre requisite for conversion, the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments, stating: ?When G d sought to give the Torah to Israel, He revealed Himself not only to Israel, but to all the nations. At first, He approached the children of Esau, and said, “Will you accept the Torah?” They answered, “What is written in it?” He said to them, “You shall not kill.” They replied, “Lord of the Universe, the very essence of our father is that he is a murderer … . We cannot accept the Torah … He went to Ammon and Moab and said, “Do you accept the Torah?” They answered, “What does it contain?” … He replied, “You shall not commit adultery.” They answered, “ … our very essence is that we come from adultery. We cannot accept the Torah.”
He went to the children of Yishmael. They asked, “What is written in the Torah?” He answered, “You shall not steal.” They replied, “Our very basis, in life, is that we live from thievery and robbery. We cannot accept the Torah.” As this midrash indicates, acceptance of Torah requires genuine commitment to observing its precepts. The absence of such commitment, invalidates acceptance of Torah. There?fore, the prerequisite for conversion, is the unequivocal acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.
THE APPLICATION PROCESS
A would be proselyte must apply to a conversion court (bais din), and in the presence of its members, express his sincere and total, willingness to accept the commandments and share the destiny of the Jewish Nation. Once his candidacy has been approved, he begins to prepare for his conversion.
The Conversion Court
A conversion court is a rabbinical body, invested with the authority to issue halachic (Jewish law) decisions. To be valid, such a court must have derived its authority in direct transmission from Moses. Such courts do not exist today. Nevertheless, a current court that abides by the standards of its ancient counterparts, may halachically (in respect to Jewish Law) function as their deputy.
Although a valid conversion court must be comprised of three members, not all of them have to be talmiday chachamim (Torah scholars). However, all must understand the laws of conversion, when explained to them by one of the rabbinical judges (Iggros Moshe: Letters of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein,, Yoreh De’ah, 1, no. 159).
The Duties of the Court
The function of the conversion court is one that demands discernment and discretion. It requires maintaining a correct balance between the obligation to reject insincere candidates, who are “hard for Israel [to endure]” ( Talmud:Yevamos 47b), and the duty to accept sincere ones, of whom it is said, “Beloved is the [sincere] convert” ( Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha). Much spiritual damage has been caused to the Jewish People by insincere converts, and tragic consequences have ensued when sincere converts were needlessly rejected.
When approached by a prospective convert, a court must examine his case history and ascertain his true motives. Is he about to marry a Jew? Is he already married to one? Are his Jewish partner’s relatives pressuring him to convert? Will his social environment enable him to observe the command?ments after he has converted? Does he truly intend to observe them? Acceptance of the yoke of the commandments is a very demanding undertaking, and the court must ascertain whether the candidate can sincerely and truly, execute his commitment. A candidate might not realize the full extent of the requirements made of him, and might not be thoroughly aware of the feasibility of pursuing his obligations.
During a candidate’s interview with the court, the nature of his motives generally surface. At this encounter, he is informed that conversion demands deep commitment to the Jewish faith. He is told that as a gentile, he has absolutely no obligation to convert, and that once he becomes a Jew, he is required to observe the precepts, and is held culpable for their violation. He is apprised of the “downtrodden and oppressed condition of the Jewish Nation and “ … is taught selected precepts, so that if he desires to withdraw, let him do so” (Talmud: Yevamos 47b). The purpose of this is so that he will not later retract his conversion, on the pretext that the commandments are burdensome.
Once his sincerity has been proven, the members of the court encourage him, and acquaint him with the main fundamentals of Judaism, which are that G d is one, and that idol worship is forbidden. They introduce him to the idea of reward and punishment, and describe Israel’s eternity, as opposed to the nations’ transcience. They point out that Israel suffers on earth, only so that her eventual reward will not be diminished.
Maimonides describes the interview in the following manner: He … is thusly addressed: “Be it known to you, that before you came to this status, if you had eaten chaileb (forbidden fat), you would not have been punished with extinction; if you had profaned the Sabbath, you would not have been punished with stoning; but now, should you eat chaileb, you would be punished with extinction.” And as he is informed of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments, so is he informed of the reward granted for their fulfillment. He is told that by way of these mitzvos, he will merit the World to Come, for there is no wholly righteous person, except he who has attained wisdom, performs these commandments and acquires complete knowledge of them. Then the court says to him, “You should know that the World to Come is reserved specifically for the righteous, who are the Jewish People. The reason Jews suffer in this world, is that suffering is of great benefit for them, since they cannot cope successfully with an overabundance of good, as do the rest of the nations. Too much good is liable to cause the Children of Israel to become arrogant and go astray and lose their recompense in the World to Come. (One must not deduce from this discussion that the righteous gentiles, who observe their seven commandments, the Noachide Laws, have no share in the World to Come. This is absolutely not true. Maimonides ,himself, states, in the end of Chapter Eight of Hilchos Melochim: Laws of Kings, that they certainly do. What is meant, here, by the words, ‘the World to Come is reserved specifically for the righteous of the Jewish People, is that the qualitative maximum that the World to Come has to offer, will be enjoyed by the Jewish People, and only a semblance of it will be attained by righteous gentiles. Why? Rationally, this idea is very simple to understand. The Jewish People who observed six hundred and thirteen commandments, that entail much hardship and self sacrifice and often suffered persecution and death, to uphold them, are entitled to much more than one who observes seven fundamental, relatively easy to fulfill, commandments. His road in life does not markedly clash with the rest of the world, nor does it set him apart, radically, from the cultures and peoples, among whom he lives.
On the other hand, G d does not bring upon them an excessive measure of punishment, so that they will not face extinction … But in the end, all the heathen nations will cease to exist and the Jewish People will remain.”
He is not, however, to be overly persuaded or overly dissuaded. If he is accepted, he is circumcised forthwith.
(Rambam: Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Hilchos Issurei Biah: Laws of forbidden relationships) Chap. 14
Because this encounter marks a would-be convert?s first meeting with official representatives of the Jewish faith, the court should strive to create an atmosphere of Kiddush Hashem (term which refers to any action reflecting honorably on Jews or Judaism (Chukas Hager, p.49). It should not delay an approved candidate’s conversion, nor should he unjustifiably postpone it. Once a person is on the road to conversion, we should assist him. This is part of the precept, “love the ger (convert).” The extent to which one must exert himself on behalf of one undergoing conversion, requires clarification. Chazal (our sages) would travel long distances for the sake of prospective converts who displayed sincerity and approached Judaism of their own accord.
VALID AND INVALID CANDIDATES
To be valid, a conversion must be sincerely motivated, and accompanied by the willingness and opportunity, to observe the precepts. Insincerely motivated candidates, are unacceptable, and are to be rejected, even if we merely suspect their insincerity. Although the Talmud (Yevamos 24) rules that once performed, insincerely motivated conversions are valid, this statement requires much clarification, and is dependent on numerous, complex, factors.
The Talmud is speaking of situations in which mitzvah (commandment) observance is the traditional requirement for acceptance into Jewish society. When such is the case, even the insincere proselyte has to conform to the norm. Thus, of necessity, his conversion results in religious observance. Because our current society is free and permissive, conversion does not necessarily result in mitzvah (commandment) observance. In addition, those who interdate or intermarry, are obviously totally uncommitted to Judaism, and it is highly improbable that they will build Torah homes, once their Christian partners have converted. It is highly unlikely, too, that a female proselyte, will be more observant than her Jewish husband, who by his very behavior, in chosing a gentile for a wife, demonstrates that he is far removed from Jewish values.
In the light of these problems, how do we procede when faced by applicants whose motives are ulterior?
a. The conversion of one who evidently has no intention to observe the precepts, who is merely mouthing a false acceptance declaration, is obviously invalid.
b. The conversion of one who did not present the court with sufficient guarantee that he would
observe the precepts, is highly problematic, and under certain circumstances may be invalid.
c. According to Maimonides: Laws of Forbidden Relations 13:12 and the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) (yoreh De’ah 268:12), a person who has already converted for ulterior motives, but whose intentions at the time of conversion (regarding precept observance) are not known, is accorded the status of a doubtful convert. When he demonstrates, by his subsequent conduct, that he is indeed precept observant, he is accorded the status of a genuine proselyte. The reason we do not nullify his conversion at the outset, as in case “b,” is that we fear that as he uttered his acceptance declaration, he might have truly intended to observe the precepts. (Case “b”, involves a conversion performed without sufficient guarantee that the convert had fully accepted Torah observance.) (Recently, the Worldwide Central Rabbinic Committee for Conversion Matters, alerted converts involved in such cases to this problem. Since then, many conversions have been referred to the Committee. Each case was presented to Israel’s greatest rabbis for a decision. In cases where the convert was currently Torah observant, and it was not possible to ascertain exactly what took place at the time of his conversion, the Committee advised the convert how to procede.
(Note: We have not presented halachic (Jewish Law) decisions. A qualified rabbi or conversion court, must be consulted in each and every case. Our purpose is to provide a general understanding of the conversion issue.)
Sometimes, various arguments are forwarded to justify the validity of conversions performed for the sake of marriage. It is worthwhile to review these arguments and to point out their flaws.
The first argument is based on the principle that “devarim she’balev, einam devarim,” which literally means that “tacit thoughts are inconsequential.” Some people use this principle to prove that the insincere convert’s mental negations of the precepts, cannot nullify his positive oral acceptance of them. However, nearly all of our rabbinic authorities, assert that this claim is invalid. In Teshuvos Achiezer (111, no.26), HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski maintains that one who mentally negates the precepts, while orally accepting them, is not a true convert. He bases his argument on the rationale that because conversion is in itself a “davar she’balev” “a matter of the heart,” it is the candidate’s inner conviction which determines the validity of his conversion. Other authorities invalidate the claim of “tacit thoughts are inconsequential” as it pertains to conversions, on the grounds that this principle applies only to matters of transaction, and not to ritual acts.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein views the problem from a different vantagepoint. He accepts the argument that tacit thoughts cannot invalidate ritual acts. However, he points out that it is inapplicable in the case of such conversions, because the very marriage of a gentile woman to a non observant Jew, is equivalent to an open declaration that she will not observe the precepts. As we have already explained, this is so, because it is highly unlikely that the gentile member of such a union, will be more committed to Judaism than her remiss Jewish husband. Unlike mental or tacit negations, explains HaRav Feinstein, open declarations do invalidate conversions. When such cases appear before a rabbinical court, its members actually become witnesses to an acceptance declaration that is not sincere. Therefore, it is no longer a tacit insincerity, but rather an obvious one. As such, they are forbidden to sanction the conversion.
There are rabbis who permit such conversions, even when it is highly unlikely that the converting partner will observe the precepts. They base themselves on the principle advanced in the Talmud Shabbos 34, that “one who converted amidst gentiles, is still a convert.” This principle is referring to one who converted, even though he knew very little about the precepts, particularly the Sabbath. These modern rabbis claim that such candidates assume that the precepts are merely ceremonial and not obligatory, and therefore place them in the category of those who have accepted Judaism on the basis of a very meager knowledge. However, this argument is faulty for two reasons. Firstly, the Talmud is speaking of one who would observe the Sabbath, if informed of its laws. Generally, people who convert only to facilitate marriage, have no interest in leading Torah lives, and as such, cannot be equated with the above mentioned Talmudic archetype. In addition (as taught by the Chazon Ish: Rabbi Karelitz), the conversion of one who does not believe that the Divine origin of the Torah is the binding force of all the precepts, is invalid. As a rule, most people who convert for the purpose of marriage, lack this basic inner belief.
Other Types of Candidates
1. A mentally incompetent person (shoteh) may not be converted, because, according to Jewish law, he cannot be held responsible for his actions, and lacks the requisite intelligence for mitzvah (precept) performance.
2. A dispute exists concerning the status of the deaf mute. While one who cannot hear or speak may not be converted, some authorities maintain that a deaf or mute person, who has been taught to speak, is mentally competent in the eyes of the halacha (Jewish Law). Others disagree with this opinion (see Chukas Hager, p.43).
3. Some authorities maintain that a deaf mute or mentally incompetent, child of converts, may be converted along with his parents (Nachlas Tzvi, p.58).
4. A person who resides in an area where he will not be able to practice the mitzvos (precepts), such as a child adopted by non observant parents or the child of a Jewish father and a gentile mother, may not be converted. The same holds true for a gentile who plans to join a non religious kibbutz.,
5. Although Scripture forbids us to convert male Amalekites, today, we accept converts from every nation, because over the millenia, the nations intermingled and we have no way of determining Amalekite lineage.
6. Apparently conflicting views appear in our sources regarding the conversions of known Amalekites. Mechilta, B’Shalach, says that “we do not accept Amalekites as converts,” while the Talmud (Sanhedrin 96B) relates that some of Haman’s descendants converted (Haman wass of Amalekite lineage). The Chazon Ish, (in his commentary on the Rambam, Melachim, Chapter 6, law 4) resolves this seeming contradiction by explaining that the sons of female Amalekites, who married men from other nations, are not not included in this prohibition, nor are Amalekites who did not wage war with Israel.
7. According to some authorities, Italian proselytes who reside in Italy, pose a halachic (Jewish Law) problem, because the Edomites and Romans intermarried.
8. Shomronites are not considered Jews, because our sages have banned their conversions. They are regarded as gentiles, yet as such, cannot be classified as mamzerim (children born of an adulterous relationship) (Shulchan Aruch, Hilchos Ketanos 1, Yoreh De’ah, no. 126).
9. A gentile who was corrupt, or a gentile who, in the past, treated Jews cruelly, may convert, if he has repented. The source of this ruling is the case of Nevuzaradan, who destroyed the Temple and murdered hundreds of Jews, yet became a sincere convert (Chukas Hager , no.3, pp. 103 4).
10. (**Attention, I do not understand this paragraph, either make it understandable or delete it**)Spaniards who intermingled with the descendants of’ Marannos, are acceptable candidates. So are those known to be of Maranno descent. The reason Marannos require conversion, is that during recent generations, they intermarried. However, their legitimacy is not questionable, because the Catholic countries in which they resided, did not sanction divorce. In addition, their marriages were not contracted according to the halacha (Jewish Law), and the witnesses at their marriage ceremonies were not valid. (** I do not understand this paragraph**).
11. When such individuals apply for conversion, they should not be rejected, because it is quite possible that they are Jews.
12. Apostates are accepted back to Judaism without converting. However, in accordance with rabbinic prescription, they should immerse in a mikvah (ritual bath).
13. Different laws apply to Kara’ites and Shabba?tites. According to Tzitz Eliezer (IV, no. 15) and Otzar HaPoskim (sec. 4, no. 178), they are not to be accepted into the Jewish community. Other authorities present a more lenient ruling, and permit their acceptance back into the fold, provided that they take an oath, on a Torah scroll, that they will observe the entire Oral Law, as it has been handed down from genera?tion to generation, since the time of Moses. The ruling not to accept them, pertains only to their acceptance as potential marriage partners. This is so, because their legitimacy is questionable, and some of them might possibly be mamzeirim (born of an adulterous relationship), who cannot marry regular mem?bers of the Jewish Nation. However, regarding the necessity of bringing them back to the cor?rect path, they should be accepted back into the Jewish fold. Therefore, it is recommended to convert them through the process of giyur l?chumra. Giyur le’chumra is a term which refers to conversions performed as precautionary measures. They are undertaken when a doubt exists about one’s Jewishness or about the validity of his conversion. Such conversions involve accepting the commandments before a rabbinical court, and immersing in a mikvah. Some authorities maintain that they also entail undergoing hatafas dam bris ? extraction of a few drops of blood from his organ (When possible, it is preferable to undergo this procedure, because over the generations, gen?tiles joined their community through halachi?cally invalid conversion procedures.)
14. There are other groups whose Jewishness is doubtful, such as the Bnai Israel group from India. Some authorities also doubted the legiti?macy of this group. Others took a more lenient standing and accepted them into the Jewish Na?tion. The Ethiopian Falashas regard themselves as Jewish. Nevertheless, the halachic authorities of our time have ruled that members of this group must undergo giyur l?chumra (conversion). However, even after this procedure has taken place, a statured halachic authority should be consulted as to their exact halachic status.
15. Non Jews converted by Reform or Conservative courts, must be reconverted according to the halacha (Jewish Law). (They do not undergo giyur le’chumra, but reconversion.) Although they are essentially non Jews, many authorities maintain that we should make every effort not to reject their re?application, (if we are convinced of their sincerity), for even when they are rejected by valid courts, they generally continue to present themselves to society as Jews. By mistakenly considering them true converts, legitimate Jews are liable to contract marriages with them, and to include them in quorums. In addition, they, themselves, transgress, when, in their unconverted states, they observe the Sabbath and study Torah. These problems are avoided if they undergo a proper conversion procedure, assuming that they are sincerely committed to keeping the Torah and living as a Jew.
FACTORS WHICH INVALIDATE A CONVERSION
Reform and Conservative Conversions
Conversions performed by Reform and Conservative clergymen or courts have no validity. This is so, because their movements deny the Divine origin of the precepts and the Divine origin of the very conversion process (Chazon Ish, Niddah 119), and it is axiomatic, that a teacher cannot convey ideas that he personally repudiates. ( The terms ?observant?? and ?outwardly observant??, are used, in this piece, to refer even to people of Orthodox affiliation. We use the term ?outwardly observant??, to indicate that by co-operating with Conservative and Reform bodies, in any way whatsoever, such people are transgressing. This is so, because such co-operation is forbidden, since it implies recognition of movements that deny the Divine origin of the Written and Oral Law.) They mistakenly think that the laws of the Torah are nothing more than cultural expressions, and that they can be changed according to the whims of the time. Because of their beliefs, such courts cannot serve as deputies of authorized ones. This holds true, even if all three of their members are outwardly religiously observant.
All that Reform courts require is that would ?be converts undergo circumcision. Conservative courts require both circumcision and immersion. Nevertheless their conversions are also invalid, for the above mentioned reasons.
Faulty or Incomplete Acceptance
1. The acceptance of the yoke of the commandments must be sincere at the time of the conversion and must be meant to include all the precepts. The conversion of a person who agrees to observe all the commandments, except one Rabbinic precept, is not valid.
2. According to the Chazon Ish, the willingness to observe the commandments, is not the only factor that validates an acceptance declaration. He says: “The acceptance of the commandments, must be backed by both firm inner belief in the Divine origin of the commandments and by the understanding that conversion is included in this principle. A declaration not based on this belief is null and void.”
3. A declaration of acceptance made in a Reform or Conservative court is invalid, because these movements do not believe in the Divine origin of the Torah, and as a result, impart a distorted view of this basic tenet of faith.
4. A proselyte, converted by a court that is comprised of even one non observant member, must re immerse and recite another blessing over his new immersion. (This law does not refer to Reform or Conservative courts, whose conversions are invalid even if all its members are observant.)
5. Merely voicing an acceptance declaration in the presence of a conversion court, does not make it effective. One’s declaration is effective only if his candidacy has been endorsed by a court. The declaration of an unendorsed candidate is meaningless, even if he made it in the presence of three rabbinical judges.
6. Only a reliable halachic (Jewish Law) authority can determine the validity of the conversion of one who has accepted the yoke of the commandments and believes in their binding force, but intends to violate them, because he lacks moral strength.
Sometimes, so called Orthodox rabbis perform conversions that are invalid, according to Jewish Law. Such conversions are generally referred to as “wholesale” or “quickie” conversions, because of the non thorough manner in which they are conducted. What invalidates these conversions, is the fact that the candidate does not sincerely intend to observe the commandments after his conversion, even though he has orally stated that he will do so at the time of his conversion. A conversion may not be performed until the court is completely certain and convinced, that the candidate will observe the commandments.
But how does a judge know what is occurring in the mind of a candidate? Can he always discern an applicant’s inner sentiments? As we have already explained, nearly all the candidates who desire to convert in order to facilitate marriage to a Jew, are not acceptable, because their future marriage partners generally lack Jewish awareness and commitment. (Were this not so, they would not have interdated.) Because it is highly unlikely that such a couple will build a Torah observant home, the conversion cannot be sanctioned. In Israel, this problem is usually manifested by couples who plan to live on non religious kibbutzim, where it is nearly impossible to observe the commandments. Yet, sadly, every year, hundreds of gentile volunteers “convert,” only in order to marry members of Israel’s kibbutz movement.
HaRav Moshe Feinstein speaks out against conversions performed to facilitate marriage, especially when the future convert has no intention to observe the precepts. In Iggros Moshe, Letters of Moshe (Yoreh De’ah, no. 157), he writes that “According to the Law, it is certain that one who converts for the sake of marriage, yet does not intend to keep the commandments, is not a proselyte at all.”
THE ACTUAL CONVERSION PROCESS
Prior to giving Israel the Ten Commandments, G d made a covenant with the Children of Israel, as is written:
You are all standing before the Lord, your G d … to enter into the covenant of the Lord, your G d … and into His oath … which the Lord, your G d, is making with you today, that He may establish you, this day, as His own people, and that He may be your G d, as He promised you, and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is not with you alone that I am making this covenant and oath … but also with those who are not here this day.
(Devarim 29.9 14)
To finalize this covenant, they had to perform three rituals: circumcision, immersion and the offering of sacrifices. Once a court has approved a would be convert’s candidacy, he begins to prepare for conversion by studying the laws he will be required to practice when he initially becomes a Jew, and by performing these very same basic rituals. His status as a full fledged member of the Jewish People is achieved when this has been done. (When the Sanctuary stood, converts were also required to bring sacrifices, something that we cannot do today, without its existence. Therefore, the convert undergoes only circumcision and immersion.)
Circumcision is a sign of the covenant between G d and Israel, as is written, “This is My covenant which you shall uphold, between Me and you and your progeny after you: every male among you shall be circumcised” (Beraishis 17: 10). It is a precept that the Jewish People has kept with joy and self sacrifice, throughout the generations. It is a precept that helped preserve her sanctity.
Laws Pertaining to a Convert’s Circumcision
1. A non Jew who cannot be circumcised for medical reasons, may not convert (Har Tzvi, Yoreh De’ah, no.220).
2. A convert who was born circumcised or was circumcised while still a gentile, must undergo hatafas dam bris when he converts. This is a ritual that entails the extraction of a few drops of blood from his organ.
3. A child, born or conceived, prior to his mother’s conversion, must convert when he reaches adulthood (which is age thirteen, for males, and twelve, for females). Such males are generally circumcised when they are young, to fulfill their general obligation as Jews. At such a ceremony, the mohel (person performing the circumcision) should also perform the circumcision for the purpose of conversion. If the mohel had no such intention, the convert may have to undergo hatafas dam bris (extraction of a few drops of blood from his organ) later on in life.( Some authorities dispute this point. Har TzYi (Yoreh De’ah, 21a) and Achiezer (111, no. 27) apparently maintain that such converts are not required to undergo hatafas dam bris (extraction of a few drops of blood from his organ). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 1, no. 128 and Yoreh De’ah, 11, nos. 2 and 23) seems to express a conflicting view.)
4. A would be convert should be circumcised im?mediately after a court has accepted his candi?dacy for conversion.
5. Converts should not be circumcised on Thursdays or Fridays, because if there are medical complications, they generally develop on the second and third, days after the circumcision, (which, in these cases, would be the Sabbath). Such complications sometimes necessitate Sabbath desecrations that could have been averted.
6. A convert and a born Jew, are circumcised in the same manner.
7. When circumcising a convert, it is best to administer local anesthetics, so that he will be alert during the proceedings, and able to concentrate on accepting the commandments. However, if this is not feasible, he may be given general anesthetics, for he has already willingly accepted the commandments in the presence of a court (see Yabiah Omer, V 22).
8. A convert’s circumcision must take place in the presence of three members of a court. If only two were present, or if they are related, the circumcision is valid postfactum.
9. Some authorities maintain that only one member of a Jewish court must be present at such a circumcision.. However, we do not follow their ruling, and when such was the case, the convert must undergo hatafas dam bris (extraction of a few drops of blood from his organ) in the presence of the entire court (Iggros Moshe “Yoreh De’ah”, 1).
What we have stated regarding the requirement of hatafas dam bris (see translation above), when only one member of a Jewish Court is present, fulfills all the various opinions. But there are some who fol?low the more lenient opinion which does not require it.
10. A minor must be circumcised in the presence of three members of a court, otherwise, even post factum, his circumcision is not effective. This is so, because a minor may not apply for conver?sion on his own, and is only converted with the permission of the court.
11. The mohel (The one who performs the circumcision) says: “Blessed are You, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us concerning milah (circumcision).” Some authorities recommend that he close with the words, … Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to circumcise the proselytes” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah sec.267, no.5).
12. After pronouncing this blessing, the mohel (see definition above) pours a cup of wine, and says: “… Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to circumcise the proselytes and to extract dam bris (blood of circumcision) from them, because if not for dam bris, Heaven and Earth would not be maintained … . Blessed are You Who has made the covenant.”
13. He recites these blessings even when circumcising a minor, despite the fact that a minor may later protest his conversion.
14. A convert is given a new name after his immersion. A child below the age of two, is physically incapable of immersing. However, if his parents find it difficult to leave him unnamed for so long, they may name him after his circumcision.
15. At such ceremonies, we replace the words, “and he shall be called in Israel”, with: “May he merit to enter the sanctity of Israel, … to Torah, to chuppa (marriage canopy) and to good deeds.”
16. No blessing is recited over the extraction of blood.
Tevillah Ritual Immersion
Immersion is not a cleansing process, but one whereby states are changed through a Divine purification process. Therefore, once a convert emerges from the waters of the mikvah, he “is … a Jew in every way” (Yevamos 47b).
1. As soon as the convert’s bris has healed, he immerses in a mikvah. Such immersion finalizes the act of conversion.
2. A convert who immersed prior to circumcision, must re immerse after his circumcision. (Maimonides maintains that while immersion is one of the pre requisites of conversion, it does not specifically finalize it. He therefore rules that post faction, immersion performed prior to circumcision is also effective. However, we do not follow his ruling)
3. The rabbinical judges must observe the immersion of a convert and be present in the very room in which he immerses (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, I I no. 127). For reasons of modesty, a female convert must wear a wide garment that permits the water to reach every part of her body.
4. The immersion of a convert should take place during the day. If it transpired at night, it is effective, postfactum.
5. During the immersion ceremony, the judges, once more, explain the basic tenets of faith to the convert, as well as the overall meaning of the Sabbath and of some of the other commandments. A female convert is reminded to carefully observe the laws of family purity and to light Sabbath and festival candles.
6. A convert may not immerse on the Sabbath.
7. A pregnant woman must inform the judges of her condition, so that her conversion will
include her fetus.
8. Prior to immersing, the convert must bathe in warm water, brush his teeth, wash and comb, his hair, and remove all intervening objects (chatzitza) from his body. After completing these preparations, he may enter the mikvah (ritual bath).
9. After immersing, the convert says, “Blessed are You … Who has commanded us to immerse.”
10.The mikvah (ritual bath) attendant may not recite a blessing in behalf of a minor who is incapable of pronouncing it on his own.
Naming the Convert
1. After completing his immersion, the convert is given a new name. A special prayer is recited to mark his naming. Except for a few minor differences, it is identical to the name ?giving prayer at a bris (circumcision of a Jewish infant, eight days after he is born). At the name giving ceremony of a ger katan (a convert who is a minor), we delete these words from the prayer said at a regular bris: “Let the father … as G d has commanded him.” (* I don?t understand the previous sentence. Either make it understandable or delete it.*) As in the standard version, we close with, “Give thanks to the L rd, for He is good … May he enter the world of the Torah, of chuppa (marriage canopy) and the practice of good deeds” (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ahj, nos. 161 2).
2. It is customary to re name a convert, even if his previous name was Hebraic (i.e. Emanuel, David, Jonathan). If he finds it difficult to change his life long Hebrew name, he may retain it. However if he has a non Jewish name, he should change it nonetheless.
3. He may select any Jewish name he pleases. The names Avraham, Ovadia and Akiva, are often chosen by converts.
4. A male convert is referred to as “ploni ben Avraham Avinu,” (so and so, the son of Abraham, our father) and a female convert to as “plonis bas Avraham Avinu” (so and so, the son of Abraham, our father)
5. He is re named immediately after his conversion has been finalized. When we convert a female below the age of twelve, we do not wait until the forthcoming Torah ?reading service to name her.
6. We reprove the Jewish member of a mixed ?marriage who seeks to name his non Jewish child in a synagogue.