A Right to Convert? Developing an Idea of Rav Soloveitchik – Part Four by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


In our last three issues, we have been discussing a powerful idea presented by Rav Soloveitchik during a Shiur at Yeshiva University – that non-Jews who are committed to living the remainder of their lives in full accordance with Halachah enjoy a right to convert (or that we have an obligation to facilitate their conversion). We addressed some vitally important ramifications to Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis, presented four proofs to his assertion, and defended his idea from five potential challenges. In this issue, we shall conclude our discussion on the right to convert by presenting four important ramifications to Rav Solovetichik’s thesis.

Four Applications of Rav Soloveitchik’s Thesis

Now that we have presented evidence to Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis that worthy non-Jews enjoy a right to convert and have defended his thesis from five potential challenges, let us proceed to apply his theory to four important situations.

Application #1 – The Candidate Whose Motivation is Unclear

We have seen that Beit Din must selectively distinguish between worthy and unworthy candidates for conversion. It is not an uncommon situation, though, for a Beit Din to be unsure as to the worthiness of certain candidates. Rabbeinu Eliyahu Guttmacher addresses this situation in one of his Teshuvot (Yoreh Dei’ah 87). He suggests that if a Beit Din doubts the sincerity of a potential convert but has no credible evidence of lack of sincerity, the Beit Din should accept the convert. In Rabbeinu Eliyahu Guttmacher’s opinion, the consequences of rejecting a genuinely sincere convert, as the Avot did with Timna, are more severe than those of accepting a candidate who appears sincere to the Beit Din but may be masking ulterior motivations. He argues that the Avot 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 it, had ulterior motivations which he deliberately withheld from the Beit Din, the conversion would still be valid post facto (as the Gemara states in Yevamot 24b, assuming that the Geir sincerely accepted the yoke of observance) and the Beit Din would not be liable for any wrongdoing. This approach certainly fits with Rav Solovetichik’s thesis. If a worthy non-Jew has a right to convert, then in case of uncertainty as to the candidate’s sincerity, he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Application #2 – Converting an Adolescent

Rav Mordechai Willig at a Shiur delivered at a convention of the Rabbinical Council of America expressed a sense of unease with the conversion of adolescents[1]. He noted that youngsters at this stage are unstable and adolescent conversion might not last a lifetime. Rav Willig does not contradict Rav Soloveitchik’s assertion. It simply might not be in the long term interest of the Jewish People, as well as the youngster, for him to convert before reaching an age at which he is capable of sound judgment. Interestingly, we find precedent in other areas of Halachah for waiting until age twenty to permit someone to make a decision of monumental importance. Halachah is well aware of the problematic nature of adolescent judgment as evident in the following rulings. Rama (Y.D. 1:5) records that there are those who are strict and do not permit authorizing those under the age of eighteen to Shecht (ritually slaughter) animals. Only upon reaching the age of eighteen “is (one) an individual of judgment who understands how to exercise caution.” Most famously, the Shulchan Aruch (E. H. 1:3) records that there is no obligation to marry before the age of eighteen, despite the fact that males become obligated in all other Mitzvot beginning at age thirteen. Obviously, one is not necessarily ready to assume the responsibility of marriage before eighteen. Thus, consistent with these Halachot, the Orthodox Union[2] instructs adolescents to refrain from alcohol even on Purim and wait to fulfill this Mitzvah until they reach the age at which they will be “individuals of judgment who understand how to exercise caution.”

Similarly, the Gemara (Gittin 65a) permits a youngster to sell real estate from his father’s estate only after reaching the age of twenty. Rambam (Hilchot Mechirah 9:12-13) and the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 235:9) in codifying this Gemara explain that “even though he understands business transactions, we are concerned he will not receive proper compensation since his is unduly inclined to have cash on hand and his mind is not yet settled and established in the ways of the world”.

In later generations, the Jewish community of Lithuania invalidated marriages of those who married before the age of eighteen without parental approval[3]. They similarly legislated that a Beit Din should pay no heed to notes of obligation undertaken without parental consent by youngsters below the age of eighteen. Rav Asher Weiss (Teshuvot Minchat Asher 1:119), citing these three precedents, invalidates an adolescents’ agreement to donate even a life-saving organ unless he has parental agreement[4].

Thus, it is reasonable for a Beit Din to wait until an adolescent reaches the age of twenty for conversion. In this way, we may be confident that his commitment will be a stable and lasting one. An exception would be a case in which the youngster is converting together with the rest of his family or if the youngster was raised as a Jew and practiced Halachah, but a technical Halachic flaw was discovered in his mother or grandmother’s conversion. Since concern for lack of an ability to make a lifelong commitment to Halachah is irrelevant in such situations, a Beit Din would likely approve the conversion of adolescents in such situations.

Application #3 - A Sincere Convert who Misled the Beit Din About her Ancestry

Rav Asher Weiss (Teshuvot Minchat Asher 1:51) addresses an unusual case of a sincere convert who misled the Beit Din about her ancestry. The woman received misguided advice from a rabbi who exercised extremely poor judgment and advised her to lie to the Beit Din and tell them that she has evidence that her mother is Jewish, since she lights Shabbat candles and engages in various Jewish practices. The rabbi determined that she was sincere, which was later proven by her consistent observance of Jewish Law for years after her conversion. He advised her to tell this lie to give the Beit Din the impression that the woman was already possibly Jewish, thereby motivating the Beit Din to expedite the conversion process[5].

Rav Weiss concludes that if the Beit Din is convinced that it would have administered[6] the conversion even if they knew that the woman’s mother was certainly non-Jewish, then she need not convert once again. However, if the Beit Din is not certain, Rav Weiss rules the following: “It is proper to conduct another conversion since one should not enter any doubt regarding a conversion. One cannot countenance a situation where the woman and her children and grandchildren will live their entire lives harboring doubts concerning their Jewish identity.” The woman in this case was in theory entitled to convert when she did but might not have yet proven her worthiness to the Beit Din at the time of conversion[7]. According to Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis, her conversion seems to have been valid, since she was legitimately exercising her right to convert. On the other hand, one could argue that a Beit Din’s presence and consent is required for Geirut. If the Beit Din was misled, then there is a technical flaw in the Geirut since the Beit Din did not properly consent to the conversion[8].

Application #4 – Refusing to Perform a Geirut for a Committed Candidate

Our final application brings Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis to the forefront. A small and relatively isolated Diaspora community posed the following dilemma to Rav Asher Weiss (Teshuvot Minchat Asher 1:51). The Beit Din was convinced of the sincerity of the conversion candidate and his commitment to a lifetime of Torah observance. However, some of the Beit Din members and some of the community’s leaders opposed administering the conversion due to three considerations: 1) The candidate appeared to have a “problematic and overly sensitive personality and therefore would not successfully integrate into the community and in his frustration and anger would cause damage to the community’s image.” 2) The candidate is a member of a very prominent family that is very famous in the Notzri community and the conversion will enrage the family and cause a backlash of Anti-Semitism. 3) Since this Jewish community is small and isolated, it will be difficult for him to find a marriage partner, thereby increasing concern for his psychological stability.

The community wished to know whether the Beit Din had a right to reject a candidate due to policy concerns that do not relate directly to the conversion. Rav Asher Weiss expressed uncertainty in his response. On the one hand, he considered the aforementioned punishment we received for the Avot rejecting Timna’s conversion, which Rav Weiss surmised occurred due to policy considerations[9] similar to those of the community that posed the question to him. Rav Weiss proceeded to note that Rambam (and the Shulchan Aruch) presents the option of excluding a convert solely on the basis of lack of commitment. He also noted that the Gemara (Gittin 57b and Sanhedrin 96b) records that Nevuchadnetzar’s commanding general Nevuzadran, who had killed tens of thousands of Jews, was accepted as a convert despite his horrific past.

Nonetheless, Rav Weiss is not convinced that Beit Din is obligated to convert all devoted candidates. He cites the Gemara Yerushalmi (Avodah Zarah 11a or 2:2) which he believes implies the right to refuse to convert someone who murdered a large number of Jews. He also cites the practice of Jewish communities which for generations did not accept converts. This refers to Jewish communities in areas where conversion to Judaism was illegal and often punishable by death[10]. Rav Weiss seeks to conclude from these sources that a Jewish community might enjoy the right to reject converts if it believes it will be harmed “physically, spiritually or financially” by doing so. Rav Weiss concludes that he is unsure about this matter.

While Rav Weiss is unsure since he does not find any of the evidence to be compelling in either direction, Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis teaches that the Torah does not grant a right to reject committed converts other than in a situation in which there is a fear for the safety of the community. Rav Weiss cites Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community’s ban on conversion issued in 1935 as a source for the possibility he raised. However, it seems Rav Soloveitchik would not approve of this policy, and no Halachic source is cited to support the Halachic legitimacy of this policy[11].

It seems that the only possible manner to reject this convert is to conclude that it is not in the interest of this gentile to convert and that the Beit Din would violate “Lifnei Iveir Lo Titein Michshol” (VaYikra 19:14, as interpreted by Rashi) by converting him. Otherwise, as Rav Soloveitchik asserts (and implied by the Timna incident as well as Rambam and Shulchan Aruch) that a Beit Din must convert a worthy and committed conversion candidate.

Although Rav Asher Weiss is unsure about this matter, Rav Soloveitchik’s assertion that a worthy non-Jew has a right to convert is supported by many Halachic sources and represents a fundamental cornerstone of a proper and functioning Jewish community that upholds the values of Avraham Avinu, the Av Hamon Goyim.


Rav Soloveichik’s thesis is that every non-Jew committed to a lifetime of devotion to Halachah and the Jewish community is of monumental Halachic and Hashkafic importance. It is worthy not only for Beit Din members to bear this in mind, but it should be incorporated in the mindset of every Jew. It certainly constitutes a major step in further advancing and enhancing the prestige and majesty of Hashem’s beautiful Torah and His very special people.

[1] Presumably he refers even to a situation in which there is parental consent. Converting an adolescent without parental consent might pose civil legal problems.

[2] See Gray Matter 4:266-270.

[3] Rav Asher Weiss (Teshuvot Minchat Asher 1:119) discusses whether this actually invalidates the marriage or only the agreement to marry.

[4] However, he notes that Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein, citing his father-in-law Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, disagrees.

[5] Rav Weiss, of course, castigates the rabbi for such outrageous and unethical behavior.

[6] In this Teshuvah, Rav Weiss raises the fascinating question as to whether the Beit Din administers the non-Jew’s conversion or if it actually performs the conversion.

[7] The woman cannot be faulted for deceiving the Beit Din since she was misled by the misguided advice of the rabbi she consulted. One cannot conclude from this behavior her lack of commitment to the prohibition to avoid falsehood (MiDvar Sheker Tirchak, Shemot 23:7).

[8] This would be analogous to a case in which the convert had all the appropriate intentions and commitment but a Halachic flaw was discovered in the structure of the Mikveh where the conversion immersion occurred (this is yet another reason for making every effort to satisfy all Halachic opinions when constructing and maintaining a Mikveh; see Gray Matter 2:258-261). A right to convert does not permit overlooking a technical flaw in the conversion proceedings.

[9] The Gemara (Sanhedrin 99b) mentioned that Timna was a princess and Rav Weiss speculates that the Avot feared antagonizing her royal family members.

[10] For example, Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein (late nineteenth and early twentieth century Lithuania) in his Aruch HaShulchan writes in his heading to the laws of Geirut: “In our land we are not authorized to accept converts due to the Dina DeMalchuta, the law of the land” (Y.D. 268).

[11] To cite a common Talmudic phrase, “Arvach, Arva Ba’i”, the 1935 ban cited by Rav Weiss itself requires evidence of its Halachic legitimacy. 

The Case for Restrictions – Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

A Right to Convert? Developing an Idea of Rav Soloveitchik – Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter