Israel is making a new attempt to make the official conversion process fairer and less forbidding. But it will not work until the majority of Orthodox Rabbis themselves stop being so negative, suspicious and hostile to almost every non-Jew who expresses any desire to become Jewish. It was not always this bad.
The Talmud relates that three non-Jews once discussed their conversion process; and how a key role was a rabbi’s willingness to take a chance and welcome a problematic non-Jew.
The importance of the rabbi’s willingness to take a chance with potential Gerim becomes clear when you examine the vast difference in openness to non-Jews between Hillel and Shammai.
Some rabbis today are like Shammai. They see themselves as guardians, keeping problematic potential Jews outside the Jewish community.
Others are like Hillel and see themselves as facilitators, who should help problematic people enter into the Jewish community.
Hillel and Shammai offer us two very different approaches to potential converts. Should we reject people who wish to convert quickly, or on their own terms, or for reasons that are not idealistic?
Or should we accept them warmly and invest out time and energy to encourage them to become good Jews?
Three such cases are related in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a). The different responses of Hillel and Shammai still provide examples that influence rabbis 2,000 years later.
The Talmud informs us about three converts to Judaism who met one day and exchange accounts of their conversion experience. Each of them, it turns out, had first approached Shammai with their 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 unkosher 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 gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shechinah”. (Shabbat 31a)
A man once came to Shammai and asked him, “How many Torahs do you have?” Shammai replied, ‘Two; one written and one oral.” “I will believe you about the written Torah but not about the oral Torah. Convert me on condition that you teach me only the written Torah.” Shammai rebuked the man and ordered him to get out.
When the man went to Hillel, Hillel converted him. One day Hillel taught him the alefbet in order; the next day he reversed the order of the letters. “But yesterday you taught me the letters in a different order” he protested. Hillel replied, “See, you have to rely on a teacher to teach you the order of the written letters, in the same way you have to rely on a teacher to teach you the interpretations of the oral Torah.”
Shammai strongly rejects the first potential convert because he sets preconditions about what he will believe. This man has already learned something about the oral Torah and how it differs from the written Torah.
Shammai’s reaction is not that different from what an Orthodox Ashkenazy rabbi would do today to a potential convert who honestly says that he or she will observe Shabbat, and Pesach food laws, but according to Conservative or Sephardic law; not Orthodox Ashkenazy law.
Hillel takes a very different path. He respects the man’s honesty, accepts him as a student, and teaches him for conversion. Then, as he teaches him, Hillel shows the man why an oral interpretation from a living teacher is necessary. Acceptance and conversion come first, orthodoxy comes later.
Since the Talmud requires that a modest and eager potential convert should be received at once; and need only be taught a few of the major principles and a few of the minor ones (Yevamot 47a-b); it is not necessary for a rabbi (or a convert) to have an all or nothing rule (as the Orthodox imposed in later centuries).
The Talmud relates that on another occasion a man came to Shammai and said, “Convert me, but on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai drove him away with the yardstick that he happened to have in his hand.
When the man came to Hillel, Hillel said to him, “What you hate, do not do to your fellow human. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Go and study.”
Once again we see the great difference between Shammai and Hillel. Shammai believes that Torah and Judaism must be taught slowly, over a long time. Hillel is a romantic. In today’s terms Hillel knows that while most couples take months, or even years, to make a commitment to marry; some couples fall in love right away, and have no doubts.
In Talmudic terms; most people only earn a place in paradise with decades of righteous living, but some people earn it in one day, with one major act.
Thus, some people need years of Jewish living to become fully merged into the Jewish community; others fit in right away, because they are not converting, their souls are simply returning home.
Hillel sees that this man has his heart and soul in the right place and only needs to feel a warm welcome to call him home. Hillel accepted this potential convert and sent him forth to learn all the details that flow from his desire to be Jewish.
The case of the third potential convert is the most startling, A non-Jew overhears a school teacher describing to his class the High Priest’s fancy vestments. He decides to convert, so he too, can become a Jewish Priest.
He went to Shammai and said, “Convert me on condition that you appoint me as a High Priest.” Shammai drove him away.
He went to Hillel, and Hillel did not reject him. Hillel started the man on the path to conversion in spite of his absurd demand, by telling him to study the Torah’s laws relating to the priesthood so he could prepare himself.
The new convert did study, and when he realized that even King David could not become a Priest, he returned to Shammai and said that he now knew there was no way that he could become a High Priest. Then he went and blessed Hillel for converting him, even when he had made such an absurd demand. (Shabbat 31a)
This is the most amazing of the three accounts. The first man wanted to convert to a Sadducee view of Judaism i.e. a non Pharisee denomination. This is like asking an Orthodox Rabbi to convert someone to Conservative Judaism.
Shammai refuses to do it, but Hillel does convert him and later influences him to accept the Pharisee view.
In the second case, Shammai rejects a rapid conversion process. apparently without knowing much about the man and his circumstances. Hillel is more flexible and the outcome justifies his trust in the man.
But in the third case the man has a totally childish and inappropriate motivation for becoming Jewish. How does Hillel justify his decision? We do not know, but he turns out to be right.
Maybe this case serves to warn rabbis not to be too quick, or too narrow minded, in judging the 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)
The Talmud introduced this whole section with the following statement: “A man should always be as flexible as Hillel, and not as inflexible as Shammai.”
This lesson should still be applied by rabbis today whenever they encounter a potential convert, especially a problematic one.
I think the Rabbis of today (especially in Israel) should not forget these three examples of Hillel-Shammai attitudes.
Let us positivly welcome most people who are potential converts; even if sometimes we have some doubts; even if a few of them fail to work out; and even if a few of them turn out to be annoying irritants that itch (Kiddushin 70b) like a scab; either because they become overly pious Jews, or because they remain blemished, like some Jews born into the Jewish community, who still remain blemished after joining a congregation.
Their descendants can still be a blessing for future generations. As 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).