The Issue of Conversion

Recently, public debate concerning the policy of conversion has resurfaced. In the State of Israel there are presently about a quarter of a million people who have roots in the seed of Israel, but in practice are Gentiles, because their mother is not Jewish. Some argue this represents a serious problem from a religious and national perspective, since these people are an integral part of Israeli society, and most likely, secular Jews will end up marrying them in contradiction to halakha (Jewish law), thus producing another generation of Israeli’s who are not Jewish. In their opinion, the rabbis should convert these people without being strict about their acceptance of the mitzvoth. They claim this was position of rabbis who came from Sephardic countries who were moderate, lenient, and willing to convert even without the acceptance of mitzvoth, and consequently, there is no reason why in the serious situation in which we find ourselves to adopt the strict approach of the rabbis from Ashkenazi countries.

Before we tackle the issue of the acceptance of mitzvoth it should be noted that in demographic terms, the problem is less serious than it appears, because specifically women of reproductive age are more inclined to convert and keep the major mitzvoth.

What Does Accepting the Mitzvoth Mean?

It is written in the Shulchan Aruch:

He (the candidate for conversion) is taught some of the minor commandments and some of the major commandments, and he is taught some of the punishments for violating the commandments,nevertheless, “we do not overburden him and we are not overly strict with him” (Y.D. 268:2).

The reason is that even if the convert is sincere, if suddenly confronted with all of the stringencies and fine details, he will recoil and change his mind about converting (Shach 268:4).

A tremendous difficulty stands in the way of a convert who wishes to observe mitzvoth. For a Jew familiar from childhood with prayers and blessings, the prohibitions of Shabbat and keeping kosher, things seem easy and simple. A traditional Jew, or even a secular Jew, knows when Pesach is, knows that on Pesach matzah is eaten, we are careful about chametz, and hold a Seder in the evening; on Yom Kippur we fast, on Chanukah we light candles, and on Shabbat we refrain from work. In contrast, the Gentile who comes to convert must learn everything all at once; if we wish to teach him all the halakhot in turn before converting – even if his intention is pure, he will recoil and not convert because of all the stringencies and details. Therefore, the custom was to convert a candidate after having been taught a few of the minor and major commandments, and after he undertook to keep all the mitzvoth.

Past and Present Practices

This was the custom in the past, seeing as the convert was becoming a member of a religious community. As a result, it was clear that, in principle, he agreed to observe the commandments. Eventually, he would learn to fulfill them all, even though at the time of conversion he was only aware of some of them. This was the custom of Hillel the Elder; he accepted three converts on the strength of an extremely basic acceptance of mitzvoth, assessing that later on they would fulfill all them – and this was exactly what happened (Shabbat 31a). But when the Jewish communities became weak and many people stopped observing mitzvoth, it was no longer possible to assume that a convert who joined a Jewish community would eventually fulfill all the mitzvoth.

Is There a Difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Rulings?

This is the reason for the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic religious courts in recent generations. While Sephardic communities remained traditional in nature, the Ashkenazi communities, failing to discover a way to deal with modernity and its effects, began to disintegrate, eventually reaching the point where a significant majority of Jews no longer observed Torah and mitzvoth. Therefore, at that time, the Ashkenazi rabbinical judges made more detailed and scrupulous inquiry into the intention of the conversion candidate to fulfill mitzvoth, whereas in the Sephardic communities, the judges made fewer inquiries, assuming that the mere act of joining a traditional Jewish community ensured that the convert would observe the mitzvoth on a basic level.

The Current Practice of the State Religious Courts

Consequently, in order to examine the intention of conversion candidates today, they are required to learn the fundamentals of Torah and mitzvoth for almost a year in an ulpan giur (conversion study center), attending two weekly sessions of three hours each, in addition to reviewing their studies at home and being tested. To familiarize themselves with the Jewish way of life, they are coupled with a religious adopted family that hosts them for Shabbat and holidays. If the potential convert has children, the parent is required to send them to religious schools. Only after all this may they come before the religious court. Then, as per the testimony of their teachers and adoptive families, and in accordance with the impression of the members of the court – the court determines its position. If the court is convinced the conversion candidate intends on observing the mitzvoth – he is accepted as a convert; if not, he is refused.

How Private Hareidi Courts Operate

In Bnei Brak, there is a religious Hareidi court headed by one of the eminent Lithuanian poskim (Jewish law arbiters) that also handles conversions, and the Chief Rabbinate relies on its decisions. I asked a particularly serious and responsible religious person who voluntarily accompanies numerous converts through the conversion process – some who converted in regular State religious courts and others in Hareidi courts – what the difference in approach is between the two. According to him, the State religious courts operate formally – requiring the conversion process last for close to a year, include intensive study, a broad knowledge of halakhot (laws) and minhagim (customs), and learning blessings by rote. In contrast, the Hareidi court waives the formal rules, while attempting to discern the conversion candidate’s intention to observe mitzvoth.

Results of the Hareidi Courts Compared with the State Courts

I asked him which system yields better results. He answered that to his regret, among the converts he accompanied to the Hareidi courts who were accepted there, many are not religiously observant. The status of people converted by the State religious courts is not exhilarating either, but nonetheless, a higher percentage of those converted there are observant.

My conclusion is that the Hareidi court indeed operates as was customary for generations, however, in today’s reality where it is difficult for a convert to integrate into Hareidi society, the rules of examining converts must be modified, and it is forbidden to waive comprehensive study in an ulpan giur with all the formal requirements of the State religious courts. In addition to the educational value of such a framework – regular participation in it for a year, with all the accompanying requirements, expresses serious intention.

Army Conversions Compared to Civilian Conversions

It should be noted there is a problem with the conversions performed in the army along the lines of the Ne’eman Committee, compared to conversions performed in a civilian framework in accordance with Chief Rabbinate. In the civilian framework, potential converts devote several hours to Torah study in the ulpan and at home, at the expense of their work or leisure time. In contrast, the soldiers who convert are discharged from training, guard duty and work in order to study towards conversion. In addition to this, there is a serious problem that on the teaching staff of I.D.F. conversions, Reform Jews are also included, in contradiction to the position the Chief Rabbinate.

The Obligation to Convert Even When Religious Observance is Doubtful

Some people argue that in the current situation, in which a significant percentage of converts fail to observe mitzvoth, it is impossible to convert. Or perhaps we need to place extremely difficult obstacles in the way of candidates, so the percentages of those who remain observant will be higher.

In practice, however, it is forbidden to do so, because opening of the gates to converts is a sacred Torah principle for all generations and all places (Yevamot 47a; Krithot 9a). For that reason, although according to the strict law of the Torah a convert must offer a sacrifice and without doing so he cannot convert – after the destruction of the Holy Temple, our Sages learned from the verses that it is necessary to continue converting those interested and accept them, even without a sacrifice.

This also applies to the acceptance of mitzvoth. Since we do not have the ability to determine with certainty whether the convert will observe the mitzvoth, as long as the religious court estimates that he most likely will observe them – he should be accepted, even though due to society’s present situation there is a reasonable chance he will not fulfill them. In actuality, it appears that the majority of converts do basically observe the mitzvoth.

A Court in Which the Majority of Its Converts Do Not Observe Mitzvoth should be Disbanded

However, if we find that a specific tribunal of a religious court acted with excessive naivety, and the majority of its converts do not keep Shabbat, the holidays, and kashrut – even on a basic level, similar to Jews who today are labeled ‘seriously traditional’ – such a tribunal must be dismantled. But even in such a case, the conversion of those already converted by this court remains in force, since at the time of conversion they accepted the yoke of mitzvoth.

Should the State of Israel decide to maintain religious courts that accept converts without proof of serious intent to observe mitzvoth, a safek (a legal doubt) will arise over all of their conversions. On the one hand, if such a convert sanctifies a Jewish woman in marriage and afterwards leaves her, she will not be allowed to re-marry without a get. On the other hand, religious or traditional Jews will not marry him until they are sure he is indeed observant (see, Rambam, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah, Chap. 13, halachot 15-18).

And should these courts decide on a deliberate policy of conversion without the acceptance of mitzvoth, all of their conversions would be disqualified, because they would be functioning on a principle contradictory to halakha, just as all Reform conversions were entirely rejected (Iggrot Moshe, E.H. 3:3).

The Need for a Broad Consensus

Religious courts accept the convert by virtue of the Torah and nation of Israel, and therefore, agreement on determining courts of conversion should come from the majority of rabbis, with the Chief Rabbinate organizing the consensus. However, there are cases in which the Chief Rabbinate acts with unambiguous discrimination, such as favoring the Hareidi courts over the recognized,religious courts of municipal rabbis, and by doing so, loses its status as an accepted and key institution.

Therefore, the Bayit HaYehudi party (Jewish Home) is acting properly by seeking to determine a law agreed upon by the majority of rabbis, as well as the Chief Rabbis.

The Truly Serious Problem

Our serious problem is not the reality of a quarter of a million descendants of Jews who are not halakhically Jewish, rather, the deep and painful fact that the majority of Jews are not religiously observant. This is our most serious national problem. Even in terms of individual halakha, the prohibitions of nidah (intimate relations with a menstruating woman), for example, are not less severe than intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews. And in general terms as well, the chances this will lead to assimilation is not as severe as being married to an absolute non-Jew in chutz la’aretz (abroad).

The real solution is not making the rules of conversion more flexible, but rather for us to make an inner tikkun (repair) by studying Torah sincerely and in-depth, by fulfilling the mitzvoth seriously, and through devotion to tikkun olam (perfecting the world) by revealing the word of God and His instructions in the Torah. Then, all the blessings of the Torah will be fulfilled through us, and as a result, all Jews will want to engage in Torah and observe the mitzvoth, and all lovers of Israel will long to convert and join the true and good life.

People who propose taking on converts without the acceptance of mitzvoth, apparently believe the current reality, in which the majority of Jews are not religiously observant, will continue for generations. But this is a mistake. In the long term, there is no chance for secular Jews to continue surviving as Jews. If only they would all repent! Sadly, though, it can be assumed that Jews who do not return to Torah and mitzvoth will assimilate among the nations. A lenient conversion policy will not change this.

This article appears in the ‘Basheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.