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


Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik made a very brief but highly intriguing assertion in his daily Shiur at Yeshiva University in 1985[2]. He stated that every non-Jew enjoys a right to convert. Rav Soloveitchik did not present evidence for this assertion and did not develop this point at any length. However, he seemed quite certain about this point. We shall attempt to develop this idea and support it with Talmudic evidence, and we shall present some very important ramifications of this assertion of a Torah giant.

Clarifying and Modifying the Idea

We begin by clarifying Rav Soloveitchik’s assertion that a non-Jew has the right to convert only if he is committed to living a fully observant Jewish life. Otherwise, this assertion would contradict the Gemara’s (Bechorot 30b) insistence that “A non-Jew who is willing to accept the Torah except for one matter, even a nuance of rabbinic law, is not accepted for conversion.”

We might also modify Rav Soloveitchik’s statement in light of an equally intriguing assertion made by Rav J. David Bleich that the Torah has no concept of rights. Unlike the accepted Western attitude that, quoting the American Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” Rav Bleich argues that the Torah believes that we can be the beneficiaries only of others’ obligations. For example, a wife is not entitled to spousal support from her husband. Rather, in Rav Bleich’s view, the wife is the beneficiary of the husband’s obligation to support her.

Thus, we might slightly modify Rav Soloveitchik’s formulation saying that since the Jewish People have an obligation to accept worthy converts into their midst, a committed non-Jew is the beneficiary of Am Yisrael’s obligation to accept[3] him into the Jewish community[4]. Let us explain why Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis is vitally important and proceed to support the idea from Talmudic sources.

Rav Soloveitchik’s Thesis and Jewish Thought

Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis has enormous Hashkafic (Jewish Thought) implications. It reflects the fundamental equality of Jews and non-Jews. The Seforno expresses this idea (introduction to his commentary to the Torah) as such:

“[After telling the story of the Tower of Bavel] the Torah proceeds to relate how after the hope that all of humanity would be devoted to Hashem had vanished after three major failures[5], Hashem separated the most righteous of all of humanity, Avraham and his descendants, to achieve the ultimate goal God has for humanity.”

The Seforno, unlike Rabi Yehuda HaLeivi in his Sefer HaKuzari, does not believe that Hashem originally planned to create the Jewish People. He believes that Hashem’s original plan was for all of humanity to draw close to Hashem and imitate Him to the extent possible, in keeping with man’s being created in the image of Hashem[6]. Only after this plan failed did Hashem unveil a second plan and introduce the idea of an Am Segulah (special nation). This means that the Torah believes that Jews are not inherently superior to non-Jews, as Hashem wanted a special relationship with all of humanity[7]. Thus, since all of humanity should fundamentally be “Jewish,” a committed non-Jew has the right to join Am Yisrael (or we have the obligation to accept him).

Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis reflects another fundamental point. The Torah undoubtedly stresses the importance of the Jewish People’s identity as the biological descendants of the Avot and Imahot. Nonetheless, The Torah believes that ideological affiliation is even more important than biological descent. For example, the Rambam instructs Ovadiah the Convert (in a famous letter) to recite “Elokeinu VEilokei Avoteinu” (our God and the God of our fathers) in Shemoneh Esrei. The Rambam explains that the mandate given to Avraham Avinu by Hashem as the Av Hamon Goyim (the father of a multitude of nations; BeReishit 17:5) allows converts to view themselves as the descendants of Avraham Avinu. In Halachic documents, the convert is designated as the daughter or son of Avraham Avinu (Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 129:20).

Similarly,[8] the Gemara (Gittin 57b) teaches “From among the descendants of Haman there were those who learned (or even taught[9]) Torah in Bnei Berak.” This dramatic assertion of Chazal teaches that even descendants of Amaleik[10] are no longer considered Amaleik if they abandon the evil ideology of their ancestors[11].

Rav Soloveitchik’s Thesis and Jewish Practice

Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis is of enormous Halachic importance as well. Suppose the members of a non-Jewish family come to a Beit Din in the United States as candidates for conversion and eventually prove to be exceptionally worthy to join our people, but they are economically impoverished. Suppose as well that two of the family’s children are developmentally disabled and require special education classes. Converting this family will cost the Jewish community tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship money each year. Nonetheless, if Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis is correct, the community must accept this family regardless of the financial consequences. Similarly, a devoted candidate for conversion who is socially awkward or physically handicapped must be accepted into the community even if some are (wrongly) uncomfortable with such people.

Moreover, Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis teaches that converts should not be expected to pay exorbitant fees for the conversion process. While it is certainly sensible to demand payment of reasonable expenses, we must not treat conversion as an entrepreneurial opportunity[12]. The Rabbinical Council of America and the Beth Din of America articulate a very appropriate approach in their Geirut Policies and Standards (GPS) document[13]:

“Fees: Conversion is a not-for-profit endeavor. Nonetheless, the candidate should be made aware at an early point in the process that he or she will bear certain reasonable expenses, including some or all of the following: Outside tutoring fees, purchase of study materials, Mikveh and Mohel costs and administrative fees to cover Beit Din costs. Each regional Beit Din should consider maintaining a “special cases” fund, for use as needed. It should share cost structures and arrangements with the RCA/BDA and the other regional Batei Din, for mutual benefit.”

Finally, if Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis is correct, then it is inappropriate for Jewish communities to adopt a permanent policy to categorically reject all converts. Although Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Teshuvot Har Tzvi Yoreh Dei’ah 216) endorses such a policy adopted by a specific community presumably due to concerns of intermarriage or improper conversions, it is improper for well-established Jewish communities to maintain such a policy[14].

The following information appeared on the website of the Israeli not-for-profit organization ITIM: “There are at present no recognized rabbinic conversion courts and no Orthodox conversions in any Latin American country. Residents of Latin America who wish to convert do so before a rabbinic court in the United States, or – if the convert is eligible for Aliyah status – in Israel.” If this information is accurate, Rav Solovetichik’s thesis would require remedying this situation.

First Proof to Rav Soloveitchik’s Thesis from the Rambam

The most straightforward proof to Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis is a passage from his beloved Mishneh Torah of the Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 13:2). The Rambam writes “In all generations when a non-Jew wishes to enter the covenant, seek shelter beneath the wings of the Shechinah [the divine presence], and accept the yoke of Torah, he requires immersion (Tevilah) in a Mikveh and Berit Milah for a male[15].” The Rambam clearly makes the conversion contingent only upon the desire of the non-Jew and his commitment to Hashem and His Torah, and not whether we believe it is in our best interest to accept him into our midst.

Second Proof to Rav Soloveitchik – Timna Mother of Amaleik

Chazal’s presentation of Timnah’s (BeReishit 36:12) story constitutes highly compelling evidence to Rav Soloveitchik’s approach. Chazal (Sanhedrin 99b) explain that she was unjustifiably denied conversion by our Avot (forefathers) and out of bitterness agreed to be a concubine to Eisav’s  son Eliphaz; with him, she bore Amaleik who inflicts great pain upon Israel. This Gemara is a very powerful proof that the Jewish people are forbidden to reject a committed candidate for conversation unless there is an extremely compelling reason to do so.

We shall continue IY”H and B”N in our next issue present two more proofs to Rav Soloveitchik’s assertion that dedicated non-Jews are entitled to convert.

[1] A few examples of this are BeReishit 44:33, Shemot 21:26, and Iyov 28:15

[2] This author was present at the Shiur.

[3] There is no obligation nor is it Halachically desirable for us to actively encourage conversion. As we shall discuss, Halachah demands that we at first discourage a non-Jew who wishes to convert. However, the Torah does want us to set a positive and attractive example for all of humanity (Kiddush Hashem) and maintain portals of entry for interested and committed non-Jews. For example, the Gemara (Pesachim 87b) states “Why are the Jewish People scattered in all countries more than any other nation? In order for converts to join them.”

There is no fundamental obligation for Nochrim to convert, but the Gemara (Berachot 17b) criticizes the Nochrim of the city of Machsi’yah since not one of them converted despite the fact that they lived in a major center for Torah learning and observance and experienced many inspirational opportunities. The Gemara similarly criticizes the nation of Govai since none of its members converted. Apparently, the Torah might be displeased with those Nochri communities which did not take advantage of readily accessible opportunities for spiritual inspiration from their Jewish neighbors.

[4] In his introduction to his work on the laws of conversion “Nachalat Tzvi,” Rav Gedalia Felder elegantly writes:

“Am Yisrael at all times opens its gates to all who wish to enter the vineyard of Hashem. It accepts all who come to be shielded beneath the wings of the Shechinah (Divine presence) and extends equal rights as a native born Jew. However, it demands from all complete rootedness in its culture and a spiritual attachment to the spirit of Am Yisrael, acceptance of the responsibility of Mitzvot, internalization of the spirit of Judaism in his soul and spirit and acceptance of the values of the nation and its way of life.”

[5] Adam and Chavah eating from the Eitz HaDa’at, the Dor HaMabul and the Dor HaPelagah.

[6] This idea also appears in the Seforno’s introduction to his commentary to the Torah.

[7] The Seforno (Shemot 19:6) similarly explains our status as a Mamlechet Kohanim as an obligation to set an example for all of humanity of developing a close relationship with Hashem.

[8] For a discussion as to whether a biological descendent of the Avot and Imahot can lose his identity as a Jew see Gray Matter 1:145-149.

[9] This depends on whether one pronounces the word in this passage “למדו” as Lomdu (learned) or Limdu (taught).

[10] Haman is regarded by Chazal as a descendent of Amaleik (Megillah 30a) since the Megillah repeatedly refers to Haman as “Agagi” and Agag was an Amaleiki king (Shmuel I Perek 15). Teshuvot Sheivet HaLevi interestingly permits the conversion of a Nochri from Germany despite the possible association of Germany with Amaleik.

[11] Kesef Mishneh to Rambam Hilchot Melachim 6:4 and Chazon Ish Yoreh Dei’ah 157:5. See, though, Margaliot HaYam to Sanhedrin 96b number 13.

[12] Charging excessive fees for Torah services is wrong for other reasons as well- see Mishnah Avot 1:13 (DeIshtameish BeTaga Chalaf) and Bechorot 4:6 with the commentary of the Bartenura.

[13] Israel’s government-funded Chief Rabbinate stopped charging a conversion fee in 2005.

[14] Teshuvot Minchat Asher 1:51 approves the Syrian Jewish community’s 1935 ban on conversion to prevent intermarriage. One wonders whether Rav Asher Weiss approves of continuing to uphold this ban eighty years later. It is one matter to issue the ban in 1935 when the community was struggling to adjust to American life and it is quite another eighty years later when the Syrian Jewish community in this country, Baruch Hashem, is flourishing.

[15] In the times when the Beit HaMikdash stood, all converts were required to also bring a sacrifice at the time of their conversion. The Gemara (Keritut 9a) clarifies that conversion can occur even if the Beit HaMikdash is not functioning since the Torah (BeMidbar 15:14) describes converts’ presence among our people as a phenomenon that will occur in “all generations” (LeDoroteichem). Tosafot (Kiddushin 62b Geir) asserts that it is for this reason that a Beit Din is authorized to accept Geirim even if its members do not have authentic Semichah as a received tradition from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu (no rabbi has received such Semichah in at least one thousand years). 

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