How Alexander became a Jew

How Alexander became a Jew

The story you are about to read is true. Distinguishing characteristics have been changed to make a point.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day When Alexander visited Borough Park some years ago during the intermediate days of Sukkot, he was taken by the manner of dress of a certain chasidic sect, especially the fur hats and the silk ankle-length jackets. He wanted to dress that way, too, and went into clothing store after clothing store to buy the same clothes. No one would sell them to him because he was not Jewish, much less a member of that chasidic sect.

“Well,” Alexander thought to himself (as he later reported), “if I need to be Jewish in order to wear these clothes, then I’ll convert. I’m not religious as a non-Jew, so what difference does it make if I’m not religious as a Jew?”

Alexander decided to find the leader of the sect whose clothes attracted him and have that rabbi convert him. The rabbi sent him running from his presence in fear of his life.

Not one to give up, Alexander searched the Internet and found another rabbi, who was not a chasid and who had a reputation for being more liberal in his approach to conversions.

The two met a few days later. The rabbi asked him why he wanted to convert. Alexander was honest with him. “Okay,” the rabbi said (he later confirmed this, so there can be no mistake), “from now on, you’re Jewish. Now, if you’re going to wear the clothes of this chasidic sect, you should know what this sect is all about. So go to the library, take out a couple of books on this sect, and learn as much as you can about them before you start to dress like them.”

And with that, the rabbi sent Alexander off in search of his Jewish education.

There are rules for conversion – and, clearly, those rules were not honored in this case. There is not even a hint here that Alexander was either circumcised or was immersed in a mikvah before being converted, both indispensable to the process. Alexander does not speak of it and neither does the rabbi who converted him. There also is no record of a bet din having sat in this case. The rabbi merely told Alexander he was now Jewish and to go study the history of this chasidic sect.

As it turns out, Alexander never put on those clothes, but his reading about the sect led him to read about Judaism itself and he eventually became a righteous convert. It is likely, then, that, at least somewhere down the line, he was properly circumcised and was immersed in a mikvah for the purposes of conversion.

More about this case later.

The current crisis over a conversion bill in Israel is a case of déjà vu all over again. We have seen it before and we almost certainly will see it again after this bill is defeated – and it should be defeated, Alexander’s case and similar ones notwithstanding.

First, let us set the record straight. We American Jews are being told that the bill now before the Knesset questions whether non-Orthodox Jews are legitimately Jewish in the eyes of the Jewish state. That is untrue. Anyone born of a Jewish mother is Jewish – in the eyes of the state and in the eyes of halacha. This is a question of birth, not observance, and it is neither open to debate nor subject to the whims of rabbis or legislators.

The issue has always been “who is a rabbi,” not “who is a Jew.” The question has always been about the legitimacy of the approaches of certain groups of rabbis to halacha. These groups include most Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist rabbis, as well as those of the non-Orthodox streams. For the most part, then, it is an equal opportunity offender.

Let us now set the record straight about the laws of conversion.

Conversion for the sake of marriage – or even for some truly frivolous reason – is not ideal and is not something to be encouraged, but it is acceptable under Jewish law. The Talmud makes the acceptability of such conversions clear, even if the person was converting in order to be a waiter at King Solomon’s table (see BT Yevamot 24b).

The conversion process is not meant to be an onerous one and should not be made onerous.

That is certainly true of someone who wants to convert because, he says, he wants to be Jewish. Thus, “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].”

Nearly 1,000 years later, Maimonides confirmed that these rules remained in place in his day. (See chapters 13 and 14 of his Mishneh Torah Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations, which are quite instructive on conversion law.) The Rambam, as Maimonides is commonly known, added that the prospective convert also should be taught about the unity of God and the prohibition against idolatry (14:2). He stated, too, that the conversion is valid even if none of these rules were followed, except for the convert being circumcised and immersed in a mikvah (13:7).

Four hundred years after the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch again confirms these rules, adding a few of its own. (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268, S’if 2.)

As for a convert’s having to take upon himself or herself the performance of every commandment, that is not possible if the convert is not taught all the rules before converting. Yet 1,800 years ago, 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.)

The rabbi who converted Alexander said nothing to him about easy rules or hard ones. Yet he was not pilloried by his peers or even by those who opposed him – at least not as far as we know. Instead, he was praised for what he did.

The rabbi’s name, by the way, was Hillel. The actual account of this case and two others like it can be found in BT Shabbat 31a.

It is a safe bet that he would not be a fan of the conversion bill or of the rabbis who promote it.

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