Conversion To Judaism In Today’s World – OpEd


Reporter Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes in the November 22, 2023 issue of the Forward that, “When LaDerryl Hart went to Israel as a dancer touring with rapper Missy Elliot, he had no inkling that 13 years later he would become an Orthodox Jew and take the name Akiva Nachman. Or that with his wife he would create the “House of Lev,” a multi-platform online presence detailing the story of their family’s conversion to Judaism.

Their teenagers — 14-year-old Betzalel and 15-year-old Leah — came to Judaism on their own as they watched their parents explore and begin to observe Jewish law, Rabbi Chava said. Had Betzalel and Leah not been on board, Rabbi Yisroel Ciner, the family’s sponsoring rabbi, said he would not have agreed to the conversion of their parents Akiva and Chava. “Conversion is not meant to divide families,” said Rabbi Ciner.

Dearer to God are the converts to Judaism who have come of their own accord than all the crowds of Israel who stood at Mt Sinai. The Israelites witnessed special effects; thunder, lightning, quaking mountains and the sound of trumpets. But the converts to Judaism, who saw not one of these things, come to God and take on the yoke of heaven. Can anyone be dearer to God than these people? (Midrash Tankhuma Lekh Lekha 6)

This is a very powerful attack on those Jews who are generally suspicious of the motives of most converts to Judaism; and who never encourage non-Jews who seem to be interested to join the Jewish People. These Jews have the same negative attitude as Rabbi Helbo, who said, “Converts are as painful to the Jewish people as sappahat[ [a leprous scab].” (Yevamot 47a-b)

Tosafot gives three interpretations of this statement: 

1.Converts are not so knowledgeable regarding [details of] Jewish law, and other Jews may learn [wrongly] from them. 2. All Jews are responsible for one another and converts may err more easily [so their sins will be on us] 3.We are commanded to be especially sensitive to the needs of the convert, and it is difficult to fulfill that mitzva properly [do we say this about any other mitzva].

The Rambam also suggests that we are afraid a convert will revert to his original set of beliefs, and then influence others to join him.

In spite of Tosafot’s later attempts to soften Rabbi Helbo’s harsh judgement, the rabbinic statement ‘Proselytes are as hard on Israel as a scab’ played a significant role in the development of a very negative approach towards converts starting with the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud systematically used that harsh phrase to support negative legislation and statements extending its scope to genealogical contexts and discouragement of marriage with converts.

Rabbi Helbo’s pessimistic negativity reflects the attitude of Shammai. Midrash Tankhuma’s optimistic positivity reflects the attitude of Hillel. In the generation prior to the birth of Jesus, Hillel the great sage from Babylonia, overcame the ‘unenthusiastic for converts’ attitude of Shammai and his supporters. 

The Talmud informs us about three converts to Judaism who met one day and exchanged accounts of their conversion experience. Each of them it turns out had first approached Shammai with their own special conditions. Shammai scolded, repulsed, and pushed away all of them (two of them physically). 

Then they went to Hillel who accepted them with their special conditions; and converted them. The three converts concluded that “Shammai’s irascibility sought to drive us away from the (Jewish) world, but Hillel’s gentle warmth brought us under the wings of the Shechinah”. (Shabbat 31a)

Three decades ago I met a recent Russian immigrant who had started an introduction to Judaism class in Boston. She had to leave the class to move to L.A. with her husband for his new job. She was six months pregnant and wanted to be Jewish before the baby was born, because she was the child of a mixed marriage in the Soviet Union, and she did not want her child to have a similar experience. 

She told me that at age18 everyone in the USSR had to get an identity card. Since her father was Jewish, and her mother was Russian, the government official told her she could pick either one for her identity card, but she could not change it once it was issued. She said she wanted her identity card to read: Jewish. 

The official, and then his boss, spent over a half an hour arguing with her that this was a very bad decision. She insisted and it was done. When I heard that story, I told her that in my eyes she had already become Jewish by that act alone. I was ready to convert her next month. I did. And I was at the circumcision of her son two months later. The family joined my congregation, and were members for several years, until they moved to another part of town.

Maybe this case serves to warn rabbis not to be too quick or too denominationally narrow minded, in judging the more liberal standards of other rabbis. Maybe we should be guided by the Bible’s statement, “Do not be too righteous; or too smart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:17)

This lesson should still be applied by rabbis today whenever they encounter a potential convert, especially a problematic one.  An example of a Talmudic sage who followed Hillel’s guideline concerning problematic potential converts is Rabbi Hiya; who decided to convert a well known harlot who wanted to marry one of his students.

This student of Rabbi Hiya had heard about a harlot in a faraway city who charged four hundred gold coins  for her services. He sent her the exorbitant fee and set an appointed time to meet her. When, after many days of difficult travel, the lust filled student arrived at the appointed time … the prostitute unclothed herself and sat on a king size bed. 

The student of Rabbi Hiya joined her on the bed. As he was undressing himself, his talit slapped his face. He fell off the bed onto the floor, where he was joined by the woman. “I swear by the Roman Caesar,” the harlot exclaimed, “I will not let you go until you reveal to me what flaw you have found in me!”

“I swear,” the student replied, “that I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. However, there is a mitzvah commanded by our God, called tzitzit. Concerning this mitzvah it says, ‘Look at them and remember all the Mitsvot'”. (When I saw the tzitzit I knew I should not do this. Keep the money and let me go.) “I will not let you go,” 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 she asked for; handed it to her and left.

The woman sold all her possessions. A third of the money she gave to the government (to pay her taxes, or so they would allow her to convert to Judaism), a third she handed out to the poor, and the remaining third she took with her — and she proceeded to the school the rabbinical student had named; the Yeshivah of Rabbi Hiya. “Rabbi,” she said to Rabbi Hiya, “I would like to convert to Judaism.”

 “Perhaps,” Rabbi Hiya responded, “you desire to convert because you want a Jewish man?” The woman took out the piece of paper with the information and told the rabbi what happened. “Go and claim that which is rightfully yours.” Rabbi Hiya proclaimed. (Talmud Menahot 44a)

Most Rabbis would push away a woman who wanted to convert because she was interested in a Jewish man. But Rabbi Hiya did not push her away. Most Rabbis would push away a woman who had gone astray as a prostitute, but Rabbi Hiya did not push her away.

Rabbi Hiya knew that when the two spies that Joshua sent to Jericho were in danger of arrest, a prostitute named Rahav hid them from the police, and then helped them escape. According to the rabbis (Pesikta Rabbati 40, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 22, 37), Joshua later married Rahav, and among her descendants was the prophet Jeremiah. So Rabbi Hiya welcomed a reformed harlot for herself, and for her future righteous descendants.

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