In the past year there has been much rancorous debate in the Jewish media regarding standards for Orthodox conversion (Geirut) both in Israel and North America.
Some of the debate was generated by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Beth Din of America issuing its Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS) which accept a conversion only if it is clear to the Beit Din (rabbinic court) that the convert will fully observe the laws of the Torah. In the next two essays we demonstrate that the RCA guidelines represent the mainstream Halachic viewpoint.
A Bizarre Question
Some time ago an acquaintance approached me with a highly unusual question. This young man sadly was dating a non-Jewish woman but she had expressed willingness to convert to Judaism. She was even willing to observe the Mitzvot of the Torah as she found the observant Jewish lifestyle highly appealing. However, a serious impediment was the fact that she, Rachama LeTzlan (heaven forfend), unabashedly denied the existence of a Creator. The acquaintance asked if she would be eligible for conversion.
I responded that such a conversion is patently absurd. The essence of Geirut is expressed by the quintessential convert, the Biblical Rut, who declared her commitment to Torah so magnificently and succinctly, “Ameich Ami VeElokaiyich Elokai,” “Your nation is my nation and your God is my God” (Rut 1:16). Indeed, Boaz (Rut 2:12) so beautifully describes Rut as “having come to seek shelter under the wings” of Hashem the God of Israel.
Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Biah 13:4) employs similar terminology. He describes a convert as one who “wishes to enter the covenant, seek shelter beneath the wings of the Shechinah (the divine presence) and accept the yoke of Torah.” Rambam continues that such as individual requires immersion (Tevilah) in a Mikveh and Berit Milah for a male (and a Korban, sacrifice, when the Mikdash functions).
Accordingly, an individual who harbors no ambition to establish a close bond with Hashem is not a viable candidate for conversion. Certainly, one who is entrenched in their denial of Hashem cannot be admitted by a Beit Din for conversion. Even if such an individual undergoes the process of conversion with all the necessary trappings, including immersion and acceptance of Mitzvot before a Beit Din consisting of Orthodox rabbis, the conversion is invalid.
There is a fundamental distinction between Geirut and other Jewish procedures such as Kiddushin (Jewish marriage) and a Get (Jewish divorce). A Jewish marriage ceremony or divorce proceeding that is conducted in full conformity with Halachic standards is completely valid even if either the man or woman is not committed to Torah observance and belief. Conversion rituals, on the other hand, are processes which must express a deep commitment to Hashem and His people in order for it to be a meaningful act.
An example from another area of Halachah would be helpful in clarifying this matter. One who recites every word of Tefillah (prayer) perfectly and precisely but lacks Kavanah (feeling or intention to connect with Hashem) does not fulfill the Mitzvah of Tefillah (Rambam Hilchot Tefillah 4:1 and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 101:1). Tefillah is the external manifestation of an internal worship of the heart. Similarly, Milah and Tevilah are meaningless unless they are external expressions of a desire “to enter the covenant, seek shelter under the wings of the Shechinah and accept the yoke of Mitzvot.”
A Delicate Balance
A Beit Din that assumes the awesome responsibility to accept Geirim (converts) is charged with the difficult mission of striking a very delicate balance between competing principles. On one hand, the Gemara (Yevamot 109b) makes a remarkable statement that “evil after evil will befall those who accept converts.” 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 them. Indeed, I heard Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik declare that a non-Jew who is sincerely committed to Torah enjoys the right to be converted.
Tosafot support their assertion by citing examples of outstanding Batei Din and converts such as Rut, Yehoshua, who, according to the Midrash, accepted Rachav as a convert, and the colorful Geirim accepted by Hillel (Shabbat 31a). Although the individuals who came to him were hardly viable candidates for conversion at first, Hillel was confident that with patience and wisdom he would be able to shepherd them to full acceptance of Torah, an expectation that was fulfilled. Moreover, Tosafot cite the example of Timnah (Breishit 36:12) who according to Chazal (Sanhedrin 99b) was unjustifiably denied conversion by our Avot (forefathers) and out of bitterness agreed to be a concubine to Eisav’s son Eliphaz and bore Amaleik, who perpetually inflicts great pain upon Israel.
Accordingly, Beit Din must exercise caution and not hastily or indiscriminately convert candidates for Geirut, but must not reject those with genuine commitment to become successful Geirim who will lead fully observant lives.
Hillel’s non-Believing Convert – Rashi and Maharsha
Accepting the yoke of Torah is an essential component of Geirut. The Gemara (Bechorot 30b) in fact states that even if a convert is willing to accept all of the Torah except for one rabbinic precept we do not accept him as a candidate for conversion. A Giyoret Tzedek (righteous female convert) who is a passionate vegan related to me that the Beit Din that converted her inquired as to her willingness to partake of the Korban Pesach (Pesach sacrifice) when the Beit HaMikdash will be rebuilt, in light of her vegan convictions. She responded without hesitation that she would consume a Kezayit (the minimum amount required) of the Korban Pesach. This answer reflected well on her candidacy as she verbalized her recognition that divine commands take priority over one’s ethical intuitions (manifested in Biblical examples such as by Akeidat Yitzchak, Isaac’s binding).
Accordingly, by what right did Hillel have to convert the gentleman who stated that he believed only in the divine authority of the Written Law and not of the Oral Law? After all, by rejecting the Oral Law, this candidate expressed his lack of acceptance of the vast majority of Mitzvot, such as lighting Chanukah lights or the proper placement of Tefillin. Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. Gayarei) explains that since the candidate “did not deny the authority of the Oral Law, he merely did not believe in its divine origin; Hillel was convinced that after he will teach him that he will rely on him” and grow to believe in the authority of the Oral Law as well.
Maharsha (ad. loc. s.v. Amar Lei) clarifies that Hillel did not convert this gentleman at the time that he did not yet believe in the Oral Law. Hillel merely accepted him as a viable candidate for conversion. Had Hillel not accepted him as a feasible candidate it would be forbidden to teach him Torah as it is forbidden to teach Torah to a Nochri (Chagigah 13b) unless he is doing so in contemplation of conversion. Maharsha explains that Hillel converted the gentleman only after he came to believe that even the Oral Law is from Hashem.
Hoda’at Mitzvot and Kabbalat Mitzvot – Rambam and Chemdat Shlomo
Rambam (ad. loc. 14:17) and Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 268:12) rule that if a convert is not informed of the Mitzvot the conversion is nonetheless valid BeDiEved (after the fact). This is based on the Gemara (Shabbat 68a) that discusses one who converted, is unaware of the obligation to observe Shabbat, but is recognized as a full-fledged Jew. Tosafot (ad. loc. s.v. Geir) clarify that this individual certainly converted before a Beit Din since the Gemara (Yevamot 47b) states a conversion is invalid if it is not conducted in the presence of a Beit Din. Tosafot explain that the Beit Din, however, erred and did not inform the convert of the Mitzvot and he therefore did not know about Shabbat.
This ruling of Rambam appears to contradict his aforementioned assertion that acceptance of the yoke of Torah represents the essence of the Geirut. If Hoda’at Mitzvot (informing the convert about the Mitzvot) is not essential, how can Kabbalat Mitzvot constitute the most important component of a conversion?
Teshuvot Chemdat Shlomo (Y.D. 29-30, referenced in the Pitchei Teshuvah 268:9) draws a fundamental distinction between Hoda’at Mitzvot and Kabblat Mitzvot. Chemdat Shlomo argues that although Hoda’at Mitzvot is not essential, Kabbalat Mitzvot is crucial. The convert’s commitment to observe Mitzvot signifies the core of the conversion. If in a peculiar case the Beit Din mistakenly failed to inform the convert of the Torah’s obligations, the Geirut is acceptable BeDiEved. However, if the convert is not committed to accept the Torah’s rules when he finds out what they are, the conversion is invalid.
The Chemdat Shlomo’s distinction has been accepted by the overwhelming majority of Poskim. These authorities include Rav Yitzchak Shmelkes (Teshuvot Beit Yitzchak Y.D. 2:100), Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (Teshuvot Da’at Kohen 147), Teshuvot Devar Avraham (3:28), Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky (Teshuvot Achiezer 3:26 and 28), Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 1:157), Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (citing his father in footnote 22 to Kol Dodi Dofeik), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1:35) and Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (Kovetz Teshuvot 1:104). These authorities rule that if a covert did not commit to observing the Torah, the conversion is invalid. In accordance with the consensus opinion, the RCA’s GPS document (available at www.rabbis.org) sets forth systems and standards in which Batei Din can be reasonably assured that individuals approved for conversion are sincerely committed to Torah observance and belief.
Next week we shall present three lenient approaches to conversion articulated by twentieth century Poskim and show how the consensus opinion of Halachic authorities rejects these leniencies.