Conversion confusion

Conversion confusion

The current controversy over whether the Rabbinical Council of America may soon water down its standards for conversion demands the question: Are the RCA’s current conversion standards more difficult than they should be?

For that matter, are anyone’s conversion standards, regardless of stream, more stringent than they should be?

The question is as old as rabbinic Judaism itself, and it is not easily resolved, because the answers range from yes, to no, to maybe yes, maybe no, to it depends.

Seriously; this is not an attempt at being glib. The answers really are all over the place.

The Tanach offers no help here, except to provide prooftexts for one opinion or another. The Torah certainly does not deal with conversion.

In the Prophets, David’s third wife, Absalom’s mother, was a daughter of the king of Geshur. Solomon married many women, including Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, and even an Egyptian princess. Did any of them convert? Nehemiah said no. (See Nehemiah 13:26.) And even the Talmud insists that “no converts were accepted either in David’s day or Solomon’s.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Y’vamot 24b.)

Rampant intermarriage left Ezra “ashamed and mortified,” and he ordered Israel’s men to cast out their non-Jewish families.

And then there was Ruth. Did she convert? Was conversion in her day a simple matter of stating that “your people shall be my people, and your God, my God”? Could she convert, seeing that Ruth was a Moabite and the Torah forbids any Moabite from entering “into the congregation of Israel…even in the tenth generation….”? (See Deuteronomy 23:4.)

So the Tanach is of no help in deciding the question. If anything, it would seem to preclude conversion, unless it was based on a sincere desire to be a part of Israel and a righteous follower of Israel’s God.

The Talmud would seem to settle the matter when it states, “If a pagan comes to us prepared to accept all the words of the Torah except for one thing, we do not accept him,” adding that this is so even if he accepts the entire Torah but rejects an enactment of the Scribes. (See BT B’chorot 30b. Also see Tosefta Demai 2,5.)

In other words, unless a person is prepared to observe all the mitzvot as interpreted by the Sages, he or she may not be accepted as a convert.

This strict rule is based on Exodus 12:49, which requires that “there shall be one law for the citizen and for the [circumcised] stranger who dwells among you.” The verse refers to the Passover sacrifice, but was interpreted to mean “the proselyte [is] equal to the born Jew regarding all the mitzvot of the Torah.” (See Mechilta d’Rabi Yishmael, Tractate Pischa, Chapter 15.)

Elsewhere, however, the Talmud lets us know that many of its Sages adopted far more liberal approaches.

Conversion for the sake of marriage – or even for some truly frivolous reason, such as to be a waiter at King Solomon’s table – is not something to be encouraged, but it is acceptable, they said. (See BT Y’vamot 24b.)

Then, of course, there are the three people whom Hillel converted, including a man who wanted to become Israel’s high priest because he liked the special clothing, and a man who wanted to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. One of them came to “gentle Hillel” years later and blessed him “for bringing me under the wings of God’s Spirit,” a blessing the other two echoed. (See BT Shabbat 31a.)

There also is the story of the harlot who was so smitten by how a young man’s tzitzit prevented him from sleeping with her after he had paid her 400 gold dinars for the privilege that she decided to marry the young man. Because he was a student of Rabbi Chiyya, she went to the sage, and asked him to convert her so that she could marry the student. The sage apparently converted her on the spot. (See BT Mencahot 44a.)

To these Sages, the conversion process was not meant to be onerous or made to be onerous by stringencies, at least according to BT Y’vamot 47b.

Thus, the Talmud says, “If at the present time a man comes [before a bet din] to convert, we say to him: ‘What is it that you saw [in or about Judaism] that brought you here to convert? Are you not aware that Israel currently is [despised and/or beset by great troubles]….’ If he says, ‘I know this and yet [I consider myself] unworthy [to be a part of Israel],’ we accept him immediately. And we instruct him in some minor commandments and some major ones….We do not, however, intimidate him in any way or burden him [with the particulars of individual mitzvot].”

Clearly, if the prospective convert is not taught all of the mitzvot before conversion, the strict ruling of BT B’chorot 30b was not widely accepted back then, or even a millennia later.

Neither the law code of Maimonides nor the now authoritative Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Joseph Karo included the strict statement in BT B’chorot 30b. Instead, they echoed the more lenient views, while adding more structure to them. Says Karo, “inform [the prospective convert] of the principles of the faith, of the unity of God, of the prohibitions against idolatry, and go on at length with him about this. Also, instruct him [or her] a bit in a few of the less strenuous mitzvot and a few of the more serious mitzvot, [and] about a few of the punishments [for transgressing] the mitzvot….” (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268,2.)

Compare all this to what the RCA informs the prospective convert on its website. Conversion, it says, “is a commitment that cannot be made without extensive thought, learning and preparation. The process of conversion to Judaism is a lengthy one. Before a beit din (rabbinic court) will approve the conversion, its members must be positive that you are fully knowledgeable and committed to observing all of the laws and precepts of Judaism, that you are fully integrated into the Jewish way of life and are comfortable in the Jewish community – that you will be able to live a full, happy and productive life as a Jew.”

Most Orthodox authorities would agree with this. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein expressed it quite strongly in one of his later responsum on conversion: “I do not know the motive of the rabbis who maintain otherwise,” he wrote, referring to accepting converts even if they are not prepared to commit to a fully Orthodox lifestyle. “Besides, what use are such converts to the community of Israel?” (See lggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, Vol. No 157.)

Simply put, he said, “a convert who has not accepted the mitzvot is not a convert even after a conversion ritual.”

This in itself is strange, because that does not appear to be the prevailing view in the Talmud. For example, the rival Babylonian sages Rav and Sh’muel both agreed that in their day converts who were never taught the basic laws of Shabbat observance were still acceptable Jews by choice. (See BT Shabbat 68a.) Once they do learn the rules of Shabbat observance, both agreed these converts remained Jewish, but were required to bring sin offerings for each violation, just as a born Jew is so required.

Both Maimonides and Karo codified that the conversion rituals alone suffice to make a person a part of Israel, although they ruled that way reluctantly. (See Maimonides, Issurei Bi’ah 13:17 and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268,2.)

What motivated the lenient talmudic sages was a sense of pragmatism, coupled with a heavy dose of exigent circumstances, blended with a several hefty dashes of hope. They obviously felt it was more important to keep the Jewish partner in the fold, even if it meant converting the non-Jewish partner, even if he or she was not serious about being Jewish, while hoping that exposure to a Jewish life would bring that person around eventually.

Conservative and Reform conversion guidelines follow this liberal approach. Even those guidelines, however, require more extensive study than the liberal rulings in the Talmud or the codes are willing to accept.

So the question remains: Are anyone’s conversion standards, regardless of stream, more stringent than they should be?

Another question must be answered before answering this one can be: With the intermarriage rate in the United States now estimated at 58 percent, and with 32 percent of American Jews born after 1980 saying they have no religion – and more than two-thirds of them also saying they are not raising their children as Jews – are stringencies of any sort in our best interest?

I pose these questions. Thank God, I am not the one who must answer them.