Here is what nearly every Orthodox Jew is told about conversion:
a. We must turn away potential converts at least three times.
b. The Beit Din religious court must be convinced that a convert intends to keep the commandments in the Orthodox way, known as ‘Kabbalat Mitzvot’.
c. Converts must go through an arduous study program, followed by immersion in a mikveh (and brit if he is male).
And yet, none of these is accurate. Not in theory and not in practice.
Let’s take a quick look at conversion as it was done throughout Jewish history. The first formal converts we encounter are Bnei Yisrael themselves, in the desert, beneath the mountain that, according to the midrash, was held above their heads by God who threatened to destroy them if they did not accept the Torah. The people famously say, Na’aseh Vanishma — We will do and we will hear. The midrash on Exodus makes it clear that they did not mean it when they said ‘Na’aseh Vanishma.’ (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Masechta de-Nezikin, parsha 13.)
In fact, the Midrash Tanhuma says they intended to continue idol worship. And yet, they were accepted. All of them. The paradigmatic convert is, of course, Ruth. In her famous and beautiful speech to her mother-in-law, who was in the midst of leaving to return to Eretz Yisrael after her sons and husband died, Ruth begs Naomi to stop turning her away. She says:
Where you go, I will go. Where you sleep, I will sleep. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.
And the next verse states. ‘When she (Naomi) saw that she (Ruth) was determined, she stopped trying to dissuade her.’ Like Bnei Yisrael, Ruth pledges her agreement to the rules.
She states that she is prepared to enter the Jewish religion with all of its parameters and to join the Jewish people in its destiny. She is willing to carry the responsibility and to suffer the consequences.
THAT is what Kabbalat Mitzvot means.
It means that a potential convert accepts and agrees that, once he or she steps out of the mikveh waters, they are obligated to Jewish law — the same as a born Jew. It does not mean that they promise to keep every law, every holiday, and every minhag. It means that they understand the obligations and the rewards and punishments that go with them.
In other words, they agree to be held to the rules of the game, not that they won’t bend or break them.
Ruth is accepted.* Not only is she accepted, but she marries an honorable and righteous man and, as we all know, her great- grandson is King David.
After the Purim events in Persia, the megilla states that “rabim me’amei ha’aretz mityahadim,” that many converted to Judaism. Did they sign up for the local rabbinate course, promise to uphold the 613 commandments? No. They agreed to live as Jews and be part of the Jewish nation and all that meant — for better or for worse.
You might say that all of this occurred before rabbinic Judaism, before Jewish law was codified — and you would be right. Does rabbinic Judaism allow for acceptance of a convert who may not be religious?
A non-Jew came to Hillel the Righteous and said, “I believe in the Written Torah, but not in the Oral Torah. Convert me.” And Hillel converted him. And he was accepted. (Shabbat 31a) We have discussed Kabbalat Mitzvot, as well as the conversion ‘process’. What about pushing people away? Are we not meant to discourage converts?
According to the Talmud (Gemara Yevamot), discouragement means explaining to the convert the punishments that are given for transgressing the Torah as well as the social difficulties of living as a Jew: from keeping the mitzvot to dealing with the very real phenomenon of anti-Semitism.
And the Rambam says we shouldn’t push too hard.
This is especially true with “Zera Yisrael.” Zera Yisrael are those non-Jews who are descended from Jews. There are many Halachic sources that discuss being more lenient with Zera Yisrael (see Halakha Be-yameinu, by Rabbi Yaakov Ariel).
And now, we get to the crux of the issue that we face here in Israel in 5774. There are more than 300,000 olim from the Former Soviet Union who have at least one Jewish grandparent. These olim are descended from Jews who lived in the USSR during the nightmare of communism — the communism that took hold of the Soviet Union and strangled Judaism out of the flourishing and ancient Jewish communities there.
Soviet Jews tried to maintain their identity. Many lost. It is the descendants of these same Jews who were persecuted for their Judaism that we are rejecting today. By making it so difficult to convert and refusing to assist the Russian olim, we are literally helping the czars and communists complete the decimation of Russian Jewry.
The vast majority of these olim are sociologically, culturally, and nationally Jewish. They live here. They serve here. They want to be part of the Jewish nation. The majority wish to be Jews halachically as well. Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel states:
A convert that accepts upon himself the mitzvot and their consequences – even if we know he will not fulfill them – we accept him as a convert once we have informed him about the hard (heavy) mitzvot and easy (light) mitzvot, their punishments, and their rewards.
Shu”t Mishpetei Uziel, volume 2, Yoreh Deah, responsum 58
The rabbinate knows this. They know that most of the people they convert will not be religious. If so, why do they put them through such a long, difficult process that includes the minutiae of Halakha (like how to eat fish on Shabbat), and forces them to make declarations they do not intend to keep?
Ironically, it is due to its duplicity that the current process actually dissuades the most ethically minded! Acceptance of the rules and consequences is there. They do not need to make false promises. Let them be a full part of their people. And if the humane aspect is not enough for you, ask yourself this: How long before their children marry your children?
In 1989, before the fall of the Soviet Union, the intermarriage rate in Israel was 0.5%. Today it is 5%, 10 times what it was. This means that one out of 20 Jews in Israel will intermarry. Yes, this has infiltrated into the religious community, and yes, it will happen in your family. In this generation or the next, if something isn’t done now.
For moral, social, demographic and JEWISH reasons we must ease the process of conversion for Russian olim. The rules as we were taught them are not really the rules. The rules as they are practiced must change.
*Ruth was not accepted by all in her own day as a convert. This was not due to her conversion, but rather to her nationality, as the Torah prohibits Moabites from converting. There was a question as to whether the prohibition was for all Moabites or just males. It was later accepted that the prohibition was only on male Moabites and thus Ruth was accepted by all.
A tremendous thank you and Yashar Koach to Chuck Davidson whose passion and determination to help these Zera Yisrael return to their people is inspiring and whose knowledge and study is the basis for this article. Olim wishing to covert or anyone wishing to help can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shoshanna is a founding member of Chochmat Nashim. Chochmat Nashim works to increase awareness of issues facing the Jewish people to improve our society.