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


In last week’s issue, we introduced a powerful idea presented by Rav  Soloveitchik during a Shiur at Yeshiva University in 1984 – 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 of Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis and presented proof to his assertion from Rambam and from the punishment we receive for the Avot’s rejection of Timna’s conversion. In this issue, we shall continue to develop Rav Soloveitchik’s idea by presenting three more proofs to his powerful point. 

 Proof #3 to Rav Soloveitchik’s Thesis – Menachot 44a

A powerful proof to Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis may be derived from a most fascinating Talmudic passage. The Gemara relates:

“[A Torah student] heard that there was a woman of ill repute in a faraway city who charged four hundred gold talents for her services. He sent her the exorbitant fee and set an appointed time to meet her. When he arrived at the appointed time ...as he was unclothing himself, the four fringes of his Tzitzit slapped him in his face. He immediately slid off the bed on to the floor, where he was quickly joined by the woman. "I swear by the Roman Caesar," the harlot exclaimed, "I will not leave you until you reveal to me what flaw you have found in me!" "I swear," the Jew replied, "that I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. However, there is one Mitzvah that we were commanded by our God, and Tzitzit is its name. Concerning this Mitzvah the Torah twice states 'I am the Lord your God' -- 'I am the one who will seek retribution, and I am the one who will reward.' Now the four Tzitzit appeared to me as four witnesses, testifying to this truth. "I still will not leave you," the prostitute said, "until you provide me with your name, the names of your city, rabbi and the school in which you study Torah. "He wrote down all the information and handed it to her. The woman sold all her possessions. A third of the money she gave to the government (as a payoff so that they would allow her to convert to Judaism), a third she handed out to the poor, and the remaining third she took with her -- along with the silver and gold beds -- and she proceeded to the school which the man had named, the study hall of Rabi Chiya. "Rabbi," she said to Rabi Chiya, "I would like to convert to Judaism." "Perhaps," Rabi Chiya responded, "you desire to convert because you have taken a liking to a Jewish man?" The woman pulled out the piece of paper with the information [and apparently related to Rabi Chiya all that transpired with the Jew she had encountered]. "You may go and claim that which is rightfully yours [apparently[2], the right to convert]," Rabi Chiya proclaimed. She ended up marrying the man.”

The fact that Rabi Chiya refers to the woman’s conversion as something rightfully hers demonstrates Rav Soloveitchik’s assertion. The woman’s abandonment of powerful third century Rome in favor of the then downtrodden Eretz Yisrael and her willingness to part with so much of her wealth to facilitate her moving to Eretz Yisrael constituted ample proof that this woman deserved to enter Am Yisrael.

Although we most often wait a considerable amount of time until a Beit Din converts a candidate for conversion, in this case it was most appropriate to convert her immediately even though she was interested in marrying a Jewish man. Ordinarily, time is needed to demonstrate a conversion candidate’s sincerity. In the Gemara’s case, however, the woman’s extraordinary sacrifice proved her to be more than worthy of the great honor of becoming a child of Avraham Avinu (who also left so much behind to begin anew in Eretz Yisrael). 

The Gemara’s case is similar to the following situation described in Teshuvot Igrot Moshe (volume nine Even HaEzer 14). Rav Moshe Feinstein responded to an inquiry from Brazil regarding the daughter of a non-Jewish woman (and a Jewish father) who was raised Jewish, attended Jewish schools, and was observant of Halachah. This girl discovered that she was not Halachically Jewish only upon becoming engaged to marry a Jew. The question posed was whether the Beit Din should be wary of converting such an individual. Rav Moshe answered that the Beit Din should not hesitate to convert her. Even though one might have argued that such a conversion should be deemed a conversion for ulterior motives (i.e. to be able to marry the man to whom she was engaged), that was not the case, as the reason she was interested in marrying a Jewish man was because of her Jewish upbringing and commitment to a Jewish life. Rav Moshe suggests that this was precisely the criticism of the Avot’s handling of Timna (Sanhedrin 99b, as we shall soon discuss). They viewed Timna’s interest in conversion as being motivated by her interest in marrying a member of the families of the Avot, and they therefore rejected her. While it was true that she was interested in marrying into the family, her primary motivation was altruistic, and her interest in marrying into the family was solely because those were the people who shared her belief system

In the case recorded in Menachot 44a, the woman’s incredible sacrifice clearly demonstrated that her interest in marrying the Jewish man was motivated by her desire to marry a man with a similar belief system.

We should note that this Gemara is further explained in light of the Beit Yosef (Yoreh Dei’ah 268) which argues that “all depends on the judgment of the Beit Din.” Beit Din may perform a conversion where the candidate has a Jewish partner if it is convinced that the candidate’s conviction is sincere and resolute.[3] 

 Proof #4 – The Mitzvah to Administer a Conversion: Shabbat 137b and Yevamot 47b

The Gemara (Shabbat 137b) rules that one who circumcises a convert recites a Berachah that includes the phrase “Asher Kideshanu BeMitzvotav VeTzivanu Lamul Et HaGeirim.” The word “VeTzivanu” (and you have commanded us) strongly implies that there is a Mitzvah to perform an appropriate conversion. Similarly, the Gemara (Yevamot 47b) states that we should conduct a conversion ceremony as soon as the Beit Din determines that the candidate is ready, since “we do not delay the performance of a Mitzvah.” Thus, we are obligated to accept a worthy conversion candidate exactly as Rav Soloveitchik taught. 

Tosafot HaRosh (to Shabbat 137b) wonders what Mitzvah is fulfilled when circumcising a convert that would justify the text of the Berachah when circumcising a convert. He answers “For we are commanded to love converts and it is impossible to be a [male] convert without Milah.” This response implies that the act of accepting Geirim is included in the Mitzvah of Ahavat HaGeir (an idea expressed no less than thirty six times in the Torah; no other Mitzvah is emphasized to this degree).

Rav Yerucham Fishel Perlow (commentary to Sefer HaMitzvot of Rabbeinu Se’adyah Gaon end of Aseih 19) suggests that the Mitzvah to accept the convert is included in the Mitzvah of Ahavat Hashem (loving Hashem). The following Sifrei (VaEtchanan Piska 32) supports this approach:

“You shall love God your Lord, project love of Him onto other people as your father Avraham [did], as it states (BeReishit 12:5) “And the souls that they made in Charan.” If the whole world attempted to create one small mosquito and give it life, they would not be able. [How then did Avraham “make” people?] Rather, this teaches that Avraham Avinu converted them and took them under the wings of the Shechinah.”

We may suggest a third explanation as to the identity of the Mitzvah to accept converts based on a powerful insight presented by Rav Hershel Schachter (Ginat Egoz 35:5). He poses the following questions, based on a comment of Rav Yisrael Yehoshua of Kutna in his Yeshuot Yisrael (Choshen Mishpat 3), which connects the conversion process to Ma’amad Har Sinai. First, the Gemara (Yevamot 46a) establishes that Geirut must take place in the presence of a Beit Din. If conversion is modeled after Sinai, why is there a necessity for a Beit Din, as there was no Beit Din overseeing the giving of the Torah? Second, at Har Sinai we received the Torah in the presence of the Shechinah (Hashem’s intense presence). Why do we not require the Shechinah to be present in order to perform a conversion? The answer is that at Har Sinai, precisely because of the presence of the Shechinah, there was no need for a Beit Din. However, for Geirut throughout the generations, the Beit Din serves as the representative of the Shechinah in accepting new members of the Jewish people. 

Based on Rav Schachter’s incredible insight, we may suggest that when accepting Geirim, Beit Din performs the Mitzvah of imitating Hashem’s practice (Sotah 14a). Chazal here interpret the Torah’s command “to follow in the ways of Hashem” (Devarim 13:5) as teaching that just as Hashem visited the sick (Avraham Avinu after the Berit Milah), we should visit the sick; just as Hashem buried the dead (Moshe Rabbeinu), we should bury the dead, and just as Hashem clothed those in need (Adam and Chavah), we should provide clothing to those who lack. One may argue similarly that just as Hashem accepted worthy candidates for conversion at Sinai, we should accept deserving non-Jews in all generations.

Although we have presented four sources in Chazal that seem to conclusively prove that a devoted non-Jew enjoys the right to convert (or that we have the obligation to convert them), we now present five sources that seem to contradict Rav Soloveitchik’s assertion. 

 Question #1 on Rav Soloveitchik – Kiddushin 62b

The Gemara discusses the following situation:

“A man who tells a woman ‘Behold you are betrothed to me after I convert or after you convert’, the betrothal is invalid since the conversion is not in the control of the potential convert. Explains the Gemara regarding the Beit Din required for conversion “Who says these three [rabbinical judges] will agree to convert him.” 

If Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis is correct, the Beit Din does not have the option to reject a worthy candidate. This Gemara, however, seems to give the Beit Din the option to reject the candidate. The answer could be that the Gemara simply reflects the reality that the Beit Din may improperly (as the Avot did with Timna) reject the candidate. Despite the fact that such an approach would be unjustified, it nonetheless reflects the reality that a conversion is not in the hands of the convert.” 

Question #2 on Rav Soloveitchik – Yevamot 109b

The Gemara (Yevamot 109b) makes a remarkable statement that “evil after evil will befall those who accept converts.” This seems to entirely reject Rav Soloveitchik’s assertion of a worthy non-Jew’s right to convert. However, Tosafot (ad. loc. s.v. Ra’ah) limit the Gemara’s declaration to a Beit Din that either seeks to convince Nochrim to convert or converts individuals indiscriminately or impulsively. If, Tosafot continue, the candidate is persistent in his desire to convert (Tosafot allude to Rut 1:18) we should accept him. Tosafot cite the aforementioned case of Timna as part of their evidence to their assertion. 

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

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

Meta-Halachah and Meta-Values – Rambam’s View on Korbanot and His Perspective on Halachic Ideals by Isaac Shulman