Reform Judaism’s Positive Approach To Converts – OpEd


If a German or Arab seeks to join the Jewish people, even if he is the son of a fierce anti-Semite, we should accept him and love him like any other Jew. Moreover, we should love him even more than other Jews, by keeping the commandment to “love the convert, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).”

Relating to Converts

This explains why the Torah takes such a firm stand on this issue, ruling that whoever grieves the convert transgresses three prohibitions (Baba Metzia 59b). Firstly, it is written “Do not grieve one another” (Leviticus 25:17), and this applies to all Jews, including the convert.

In addition, the Torah adds two more prohibitions against grieving the convert: “You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20) and, “If a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

In a positive sense as well, we are twice commanded to love the convert (Rambam, Hilchot Deot 6:4). Firstly, we must love the convert like any other Jew, as it is written, “Love your fellow as yourself ” (Leviticus 19:18). And again, regarding a convert in particular, it is written, “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

And what could be more fitting and correct than to show the convert added affection, for of his own volition did he leave his people and his homeland in order to join the nation of Israel. The Almighty Himself loves the convert, as it is written, “He loves the convert to give him food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). May we all merit to love and embrace the convert, to accept him warmly and by doing so to unveil the incredible uniqueness of the Jewish people.

The Conversion

Jewish law’s attitude to conversion appears, at first glance, to be one of double standards. On the one hand, there is enormous respect and love for the convert who has left his people and his country in order to join the Jewish people; on the other hand, there is an attempt to dissuade him from converting. But the truth of the matter is that Jewish law’s attitude to the convert is completely positive.

The only reason that Judaism seeks to dissuade the convert is in order to see if he sincerely wishes to join the Jewish people, or if this is just a passing desire which will disappear in a few years. (Also, since Jews do not believe that all non-Jews need to become Jewish in order to be saved or go to heaven, we do not push conversion on those who are not interested.)

Therefore the Code of Jewish Law (Shuchan Aruch) rules (Yoreh Deah 268:2) that when a non-Jew comes before a rabbi and requests to convert, the rabbi must say to him: Why do you want to convert? Don’t you realize how much the Jewish people suffer in this world? Are you not aware that anti-Semites persecute us and try to destroy us?

Only a few decades ago the terrible Holocaust took place, and before that there were countless pogroms. Even today there is much anti-Semitism in the world. And all of this is because we are Jewish. So why do you want to join our nation?

If you desire to attain a higher level of righteousness and morality, you should be aware that a non-Jew too can be righteous and can even reach a level of divine inspiration. If he or she says, “Despite this I desire to join you; my only concern is that I may not be worthy,” he or she is immediately accepted, and the second stage of the conversion process begins.

He is taught the fundamentals of Jewish faith, the prohibition against idolatry, and a number of other laws. Then he is told, “So long as you are not Jewish it is permissible for you to labor on the Sabbath and to eat pork or other non-kosher animals. When you convert, however, all of these things become forbidden, and if you violate the Torah you will be punished.” If he agrees and accepts this upon himself, he is converted.

How Much Must the Convert Learn Before Conversion?

One important question is, how many laws must the convert be taught before he is asked if he is ready to accept upon himself the commandments of the Torah? Another question is, should he be told in detail the Torah punishments applying to one who violates the commandments?

It is clear to all that there is no need to teach him the entire Torah. It is sufficient to teach him some of its foundations, and if he accepts them, it is already possible to convert him. This is what is written in the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:2): “He is taught some minor commandments and some major commandments, and he is taught some of the punishments for violating the commandments,” but, “we do not overburden him and we are not overly strict with him.” The reason for this is that even if he is sincere, if he is suddenly confronted with all of the stringencies and fine details, he will recoil and change his mind about converting.

The Essence of Conversion

The essence of converting to Judaism is to accept upon oneself the yoke of the Torah and the commandments before a rabbinic court. However, as we have learned, it is not necessary to teach a convert before conversion all of the details of the Torah and its commandments.

Rather, he is taught the fundamentals, and if he demonstrates a willingness to accept the Duties of the Torah, he is converted immediately, and then continues to study and to grow as a Jew.

(This practice has its source in three Talmudic anecdotes in Shabbat 31a: Once, a non-Jew came before Shammai the Elder and said to him, “I wish to convert, but I will only do so on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah on one foot.” Shammai pushed him away, reasoning that it is impossible to teach a person the entire Torah on one foot.

But the same person came to Hillel the Elder, and Hillel agreed to convert him, saying, “That which is undesirable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah, the rest is all commentary. Now go study” (Shammai thought a fixed minimum of study was required for everyone. He would not do a quick conversion.

Hillel realized that some people need a lot of time and some very sincere people need only a short time. Most people need months of dating before knowing they are in love, but for a few, it is love at first sight.)

A second non-Jew came before Shammai the Elder and asked, “How many Torahs do you have?” “Two,” answered Shammai, “One is written, and another which is oral.” The non-Jew said, “I can accept the written one, but I cannot accept the oral one. Convert me on the condition that you teach me only the written Torah.” Shammai scolded him and sent him away.
He went to Hillel, and Hillel converted him. Hillel started teaching him and finally convinced him to believe in the Oral Torah. (Just as Chabad does not use an all or nothing demand, but works with any Jew for years, Hillel also did not reject any potential convert with an all or nothing demand. Hillel converted the non-Jew who afterwards began to follow the oral Torah more and more.)

A third non-Jew came to Shammai the Elder and said, “I would like you to convert me on the condition that I be able to wear the clothes of the High Priest.” Shammai the Elder immediately pushed him away, for a convert cannot become a Priest. (This is obvious. Shammai thought the potential convert’s desire to “wear the clothes of the High Priest” was an indication of a personality tending toward extreme piety, and that was undesirable in a convert or any other Jew.) The same person came to Hillel and said to him, “I would like you to convert me on condition that I be able to wear the clothes of the High Priest,” and Hillel accepted him and converted him.

Yet the law says if a non-Jew is not ready to accept upon himself all of the commandments, it is forbidden to convert him. How, then, did Hillel convert the second non-Jew who only agreed to fulfill the written Torah? How did Hillel accept the third person who wished to convert on condition that he be allowed to wear the clothes of the High Priest? After all, it is forbidden for any non-Kohen Jew, including a convert, to wear the clothes of the High Priest.

Hillel understood that these three different non-Jews had pure and good intentions, and only lacked the ability to express themselves in a fitting manner. He was certain that when it came down to it, they would continue to learn Torah and fulfill all of the commandments (Tosafot, Yevamot 109b, s.v. “Rah”).

From here we learn that it is unnecessary to learn all of the Torah’s laws before converting; it is sufficient that the rabbinic court reach the conclusion that a convert earnestly intends to join the Jewish people and accept upon himself the Yoke of the Torah (Beit Yosef 268, end).

The sages teach (Shabbat 31a) that years later these three converts happen to be together in one place, and they said, “In his strictness, Shammai sought to drive us out of the world; in his humility, Hillel brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.”)

However, this is a very difficult decision for the rabbinic court to reach. If the prospective convert is sincere in his intention to keep the commandments but the rabbinic court suspects him of being insincere, the court causes great damage to both the Jewish people and the convert, and is punished for this.

(This was the case, for example, when our forefathers refused to accept Timna. She eventually distanced herself greatly from the Jewish people, marrying Elifaz and giving birth to Amalek, who grieved the Jewish people greatly. Sanhedrin 99b)

If a rabbinic court accepts somebody who does not intend to keep the commandments, they may cause great damage to the Jewish people. (This is false. Great harm only occurs to the Jewish people when a rabbinic court doesn’t accept someone. The Talmud says Jews suffered the great damage of being enslaved in Egypt because Abraham failed to give some non-Jews an opportunity to convert. (Neddarim 32a) See also Sanhedrin 99b above about Amalek.)

The possibility of some harm from accepting converts was only true after Roman law made it illegal for someone to convert to Judaism. As late as 1749 a Polish Count, Valentine Potocki, who had secretly converted to Judaism, was burned alive in the center of Vilna. Even today in Iran, Muslims who convert to another religion have been jailed and occasionally executed.

But, in democratic countries no such danger has ever occurred. Modern Anti-Semitism is rooted in political and racist ideology; and the church today is not what it was in the past. Making it easier to become Jewish shows that Jews are not anti-gentile and that we welcome non-Jews into the Jewish community.

Thus, Rabbi Eleazar taught, “The Holy One exiled Israel among the nations only in order that proselytes might be multiplied among them.” (Pesachin 87b) It is true that there were many more converts to Judaism in diaspora Jewish communities than in the land of Israel.

The strong anti-Roman feelings of many Jews in the land of Israel not only flared into two disastrous revolts, in 66-70 CE and again in 132-135 CE, but also must have expressed itself among some Jews in ongoing suspicion and hostility toward non-Jews who had converted as well as those who were interested in becoming Jewish.

(Rabbi Eleazar’s teaching that gaining converts was so important that God sacrificed Jerusalem and the Holy Temple in order to multiply converts is amazing. Of course, it is possible that Rabbi Eleazar was simply trying to make the best of a bad thing. But he must also have thought making converts was of extraordinary importance.

Perhaps Rabbi Eleazar thought that if the Jewish people was much more numerous (like the stars in the sky or the sand on the beach) we would be a lot less likely to be defeated and oppressed by others. Thus, the failure to make large numbers of converts in the past led to the subsequent vulnerability of the Jewish people.)

(According to Eliezer Malamed the few negative statements in the Talmud about converts are not racist, but refer to people where there is evidence, not just suspicion, that they are insincere.) This is why (two) sages say (Yevamot 109b): “Evil will come upon those who accept [insincere] converts,” and “[Insincere] converts are as burdensome to Israel as a sore” (ibid., Tosafot). Thus, all non-Jews who desire to convert should be considered sincere unless there is evidence that their motives are bad.)

Conversion in Practice

Two matters must be clarified by the rabbinic court before it can accept a convert: 1) Does the convert earnestly intend to join the Jewish people, or (is there evidence that) he harbors ulterior motives? 2) Is the convert indeed ready to accept upon himself the Yoke of the Torah and its commandments?

When it is clear to the rabbinic court that the answer to these two questions is affirmative, the main part of the conversion process is complete, and the rabbinic court proceeds to carry out the practical aspects of the conversion. Just as the Jewish people entered a covenant with the Almighty via three acts – circumcision, ritual immersion, and sacrifice – so must the non-Jew who seeks to join us enter the covenant of the Jewish people via circumcision, ritual immersion, and sacrifice. Since the Holy Temple no longer exists, Jewish law rules that it is possible to convert without offering a sacrifice.

Accepting the CommandmentsNo other people in the world possess an institution resembling Jewish conversion. Some countries give the right of citizenship to foreign immigrants, and this parallels the concept of a “ger toshav” in Jewish law. A ger toshav is a non-Jew who is permitted to live in the land of Israel on the condition that he keep the Seven Noachide Laws. He must also recognize our exclusive right to the Land of Israel together with all of the authority derived from this right.
Therefore, the foremost condition of conversion is that the convert accept upon himself the Torah. It is possible to say that the Torah of Israel is essentially an expression of the national character of the Jewish people. The spirit of the Torah and the spirit of the nation are one.

Therefore, it is unthinkable that a person converts without embracing the Torah. Just as the Jewish people became a nation by accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai, so must one who wishes to join the Jewish people accept upon himself the Torah as an individual before a rabbinic court.

Therefore, from a legal point of view, the rabbinic court’s main consideration is whether or not the prospective convert is indeed ready to accept the Torah and its commandments. And so long as the rabbinic court is uncertain about the veracity of the convert’s intentions, it is unable to convert him.

However, if after the rabbinic court becomes convinced that the convert’s intentions are pure and goes ahead and converts him, then the convert begins to neglect the Torah, he nonetheless continues to be considered Jewish. Just as a Jew who does not yet observe all of the commandments of the Torah is nonetheless considered Jewish, so a convert who subsequently neglects the Torah remains Jewish.

Defining the Acceptance of the Commandments.

We have learned that it is impossible to accept a convert so long as he is unwilling to accept the Duty of the Torah and its commandments. However, there is no need to teach him all of the complexities of the law, because even a convert whose intentions are pure is liable to recoil and reverse his intentions if he hears at once all of the details of the Torah and its commandments.

Rather, we teach him the essentials, beginning with commandments relating Jewish faith, and, conversely, the prohibition against idolatry. Thereafter, we move on to commandments which tell us how to behave toward others, and then we teach him the fundamental laws relating to the Sabbath, family purity, and kosher diet.

What if a convert is prepared in principle to accept the Duties of the Torah and its commandments, but believes that from time to time he will have to transgress some of the commandments? Strictly speaking, it is clear that there is no dispensation for desecrating the Sabbath, even occasionally; neither is it permissible even in difficult conditions to eat forbidden foods.

Nonetheless, the imminent Rabbi Chaim Grodinski, (known as the “Achiezer”) holds that it is possible to convert such a person. This is because we relate to the acceptance of commandments in principle. In principle, the convert has agreed to take upon himself observance of the commandments, and it is only on occasion that he believes he will transgress. (After all, no human, Jew or non-Jew, is perfect, and as the Biblical Book of  Ecclesiasticus 7:16) advices us, “Do not be overly righteous, and do not make yourself to be excessively wise.”)

Although there are important authorities who disagree with the opinion of Rabbi Grodinski in practice, many others follow his ruling. Thus, if it is clear to a rabbinic court that a convert accepts the commandments in principle, it is possible to convert him or her. (Indeed, it is a Mitsvah.)

This article was translated from the first chapter in a book Laws Relating to Converts by Eliezer Melamed, that is one book in a popular Israeli Orthodox Judaism series “Pininei Halacha” with additional comments in parenthesis by Allen Maller, an American Reform Rabbi who reminds everyone that the Midrash teaches, “When a person wants to become part of the Jewish people, we must receive him or her with open hands so as to bring that person under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Leviticus Rabbah 2:9).

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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