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


In our last issue, we continued our discussion of 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 the right to convert (or that we have an obligation to facilitate their conversion). We addressed some vitally important ramifications to Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis and presented five proofs to his assertion. We also defended his thesis from two important sources. In this issue, we shall continue to develop Rav Soloveitchik’s idea by defending him from three more questions one may pose to challenge his powerful point.

Question #3 on Rav Soloveitchik – Yevamot 47b

The Gemara (Yevamot 47b) quotes Rabi Chelbo who states “Geirim are as difficult for the Jews as Sapachat[1]”. While there are a wide variety of explanations for this phrase (Tosafot to Kiddushin 70b-71a presents no less than seven explanations), the most straightforward explanation that fits with both the context of the Gemara and Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Biah 13:18) is that it refers specifically to those Geirim who will not properly observe the Torah after their conversion. Meiri (Yevamot 109b s.v. LeOlam) writes that Rabi Chelbo’s concern is that one who converts for ulterior motives may tend, once the original motivation disappears, to become less careful in his observance and serve as a negative influence on other Jews. The Bach (Yoreh Dei’ah 268:4), however, assumes this understanding in Rashi and Rambam as well.

A most important ramification emerges from the fact that Tosafot (ad. loc.) quote an explanation from an authority known as Rabbeinu Avraham Geir[2]. Rav Yosef Adler reports that Rav Soloveitchik noted this fact when asked by Yeshiva University whether it may grant Semichah (rabbinical ordination) to a convert. He noted that Tosafot clearly permit a Geir to serve as a rabbi since they approvingly present the view of a convert and refer to him as a rabbi. On other occasions Rav Soloveitchik was fond of noting that in Rambam’s list of the Chachmei HaMesorah (pillars of the oral Jewish Tradition) in his introduction to his Mishneh Torah, the chain of great rabbis extending all the way to Moshe Rabbeinu lists Shemayah and Avtalyon as converts. Rav Soloveitchik explains that Rambam teaches that Geirim are worthy of the greatest title a human being can have – inclusion as a member of the Chachmei HaMesorah.

Question #4 on Rav Soloveitchik – Yevamot 47b and Rambam (Issurei Biah 13:14)

The Gemara (Yevamot 47a-b) records:

Our Rabbis taught: If a [prospective] convert comes to convert nowadays, we say to him/her: “Why do you desire to convert? Do you not know that Israel at the present time is persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions[3]?” If he/she replies, “I know and yet am unworthy,” we accept him/her immediately, and we inform him/her of some of the minor commandments and some of the major commandments. And we inform him/her of the punishment for the [transgression of the] commandments. We say to him/her: “You should know that before you had come, if you had eaten forbidden fats (Cheilev), you would not have been punishable with Kareit (Divine excision), if you had violated the Shabbat you would not have been punishable with stoning; but now were you to eat forbidden fats, you would be punished with Kareit; were you to desecrate the Shabbat you would be punished with stoning.” And just as we inform him/her of the punishment for [the transgression of] the commandments, so too do we inform him/her of the reward [granted for their fulfillment] … and we inform him/her of some of the minor commandments and some of the major commandments - what is the reason? In order that if he/she desires to withdraw let him/her do so.

The practice to initially dissuade the prospective convert is both well-known and well-supported in the Tanach, as its basis is Naomi’s attempts to dissuade Rut and Orpah from conversion (Rut 1:8-18). The question we must ask, though, is why attempt to dissuade the potential convert if he simply wishes to exercise his right (assuming such a right exists) to convert.

There are three explanations as to why we discourage a potential convert at first. The basic explanation, as indicated by the Gemara[4], is the need to discover those whose commitment to Halachah and Jewish life is not firm, whose conversion would be detrimental to the Jewish people. They set a bad example and may bring punishment to the community since Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh LaZeh (all Jews are responsible for each other) and this makes us collectively responsible for the deviant actions of all members of the Jewish people[5]. Beit Yosef (Yoreh Dei’ah 268 s.v. UKeSheBa) quotes Semag (Lo Ta’aseh 116) as explaining that the attempts at dissuading the potential convert serve to prevent any subsequent claim on his part of a Mekach Ta’ut, that had he known what he was getting himself into, he would never have converted.

An additional explanation is that not only is it not in the interest of the Jewish People to have uncommitted converts in their midst, but it is also not in the long term interest of the convert. As noted in this Gemara, the convert’s entry into the Jewish People exposes him to consequences for failing to uphold Halachah. Thus, the obligation to provide advice that is in the best interest of the one who comes for guidance (Ei’tzah HaHogenet Lo, based on the prohibition of Lifnei Iveir Lo Titein Michshol, VaYikra 19:14[6]) compels us to warn potential converts of the potential downside of conversion.

In addition to attempting to dissuade the convert, Rambam writes (Hilchot Biah 13:4) that a Beit Din should investigate the motivation and sincerity of a prospective convert and decide whether the convert’s motive is money, a position, fear, or interest in a member of the opposite gender. This is in keeping with the teaching of the Mishnah (Avot 5:16) that a love that is contingent upon an external factor is unstable; once the factor is eliminated the love dissipates.

The idea that emerges from all of these sources is that while it is a Mitzvah to convert a worthy convert and he/she may even enjoy a right to convert, Beit Din is obligated to make sure that unworthy candidates do not enter the ranks of the Jewish People. Conversion of individuals who will not observe the Torah does not serve the long term interest of either the candidate or the Jewish People.

Beit Din is placed in a very delicate and challenging position in its role as the selective gatekeeper for the Jewish People. On the one hand, it must not refuse entry to the deserving, but on the other hand, it must vigilantly protect the vineyard of Israel from those for whom it is best they not enter.

Question #5 on Rav Soloveitchik

We have seen that Rav Soloveitchik’s assertion that a devoted non-Jew has a right to convert is compatible with Beit Din’s obligation to restrict conversion to those who are committed to lifelong Torah observance. However, the Gemara (Yevamot 24b) states and Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Biah 13:15) codifies that during the times of Kind David and King Shlomo, Beit Din did not accept Geirim due to concern that the conversion was motivated by the prominence of the Jewish People at that time[7].

While it is understandable that during these eras Beit Din must exercise extra caution with those who convert, eliminating conversion entirely seems to devastate Rav Soloveitchik’s postulating a right of a worthy non-Jew to convert. Why did Beit Din adopt such a sweeping policy which seems to make no exceptions during that era?

The answer appears to lie in the words of Rambam (ad. loc.):

“Nevertheless there were many converts who converted during the times of David and Shlomo, before non-prestigious Batei Din (Hedyotot). The Sanhedrin monitored these converts. They did not immediately reject them or accept them until they demonstrated their long term commitment to Torah observance and Jewish life.”

In other words, even during the days of David and Shlomo, a back channel was established to keep the gates of conversion open due to the right of devoted non-Jews to convert. Living amongst Jews after their less than ideal conversions served as a living laboratory to determine the validity of their conversions.

Interestingly, although the Gemara (ad. loc.) presents an opinion that Beit Din will not accept converts during the times of Mashiach, Rambam does not cite this view. This certainly accords with Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis as well as the words of Nevi’im such as Yeshayahu (Perakim 2 and 11), Michah (Perek 4) and Zecharyah (Perakim 8 and 14) who envision the days of Mashiach as a time in which many non-Jews will be attracted to make a pilgrimage to the Beit HaMikdash and serve Hashem.

Next week, we IY”H and B”N will conclude our discussion of the right to convert by presenting four important ramifications to Rav Solovetichik’s thesis.

[1] A form of leprosy.

[2] He explains this phrase to mean that since Geirim are so devoted to Mitzvot, the Jewish People suffer because it exposes their insufficient intensity and commitment to Mitzvah observance.

[3] This author once, while sitting on a Beit Din for conversion, posed this question to a potential convert. The candidate, who had been raised as a Jew - her mother had been converted in a Reform ceremony – responded that even if I did not convert her, she would be persecuted since anti-Semites regard her as a Jew. Obviously, only the second concern, the consequences of failure to abide by Halachah, is a relevant concern for someone in this predicament who wishes to become a Jew as defined by Halachah.

[4] Rabi Chelbo’s aforementioned assertion is cited to explain this practice.

[5] See Tosafot (Yevamot 47b s.v. Kashim) for a discussion as to whether Jews are collectively responsible for errant activities of converts.

[6] See Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1:35 in which Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach asserts that a Beit Din which converts someone who seems most likely not to observe Mitzvot violates Lifnei Iveir Lo Titein Michshol. Teshuvot Minchat Elazar (4:63), in justifying the practice of teaching Torah to conversion candidates despite the Talmudic prohibition (Chagigah 13a and Sanhedrin 59a) of teaching Torah to a non-Jew, argues that if a Beit Din were to convert someone without previously educating him in the proper observance of Mitzvot (he specifically references proficiency in the Siddur), the convert would, upon conversion, violate numerous prohibitions, and the Beit Din would have violated the prohibition of Lifnei Iveir.

[7] Similar concerns arise in Israel today whose Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to any Jew. This law potentially motivates billions of people who live in third or second world countries to convert to enable them to become Israeli citizens and benefit from living in an affluent and attractive country. Batei Din throughout the world must exercise caution that candidates for conversion are not motivated by the lure of Israeli citizenship. 

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

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