Conversion and Rabbinic incompetence – a response to Rabbi Chaim Navon

In a Times of Israel blog posted last week, Rabbi Chaim Navon writes:

“Mention should be made of a sole dissenting opinion of Rav Uziel, who went as far as to say that acceptance of the mitzvot is not required even lekhatchila …”

This statement is egregiously inaccurate on two levels.

1) Rabbi Uziel does, in fact, maintain that acceptance of the mitzvot is required of a convert. He simply does not define this concept as a commitment to observe the mitzvot in practice. This is what Rabbi Uziel writes:

“We accept a convert who has accepted the commandments and their punishment (i.e., for not observing them) even when it is known that he will not observe them … even ab initio, conversion is not conditioned on the proselyte observing the commandments”.

2) Rabbi Uziel is far from alone in opining that acceptance of the mitzvot does not mean a commitment to observe them in practice. Those who agree with this point include:

a) Rabbi Moshe HaCohen Driham who writes: “The matter of kabbalat mitzvot (acceptance of the mitzvot) is not that the proselyte must accept upon himself to observe all of the commandments, but that he should accept upon himself the commandments of the Torah and that if he transgresses any of them he will be punished accordingly … If it seems that he is sincere about converting but we know clearly that afterwards he will transgress Torah prohibitions such as desecrating Shabbat and the like, this does not constitute a deficiency in his acceptance of the commandments.”

b) Rabbi Yisrael Be’eri who writes: “Kabbalat mitzvot does not mean that the proselyte must accept upon himself to observe the mitzvot, rather it is the entry of the convert into Judaism, which has commandments, and he (the convert) agrees to be a Jew like other Jews who are obliged to observe these commandments, even if they (i.e., many Jews) don’t observe them … But it (kabbalat mitzvot) does not mean that the convert commits to observe the commandments. Therefore even if he himself (the convert) knows that he will not be observant, and it is also clear to us (the rabbinic court) that he will not be observant and has no intention of being observant … this too is considered kabbalat mitzvot.”

c) Rabbi Yosef Rozin (the Rogatchover): “The meaning of accepting the mitzvot is that the convert must accept upon himself the conversion … that is, he must agree to the conversion; it must not be against his will.”

d) Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach who writes: “Regarding the act of conversion, the desire of the proselyte to convert is absolutely necessary. Consequently … the conversion court asks him if he wants to convert, as that (the desire to convert) is (the definition of) kabbalat mitzvot.” An extensive discussion of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman’s position by Rabbi Yoel Amital can be found (in Hebrew) here.

It would behoove leading rabbis to know of what they speak before they speak on a subject of such great importance to the Jewish people as conversion. Anything less is, at best, egregious rabbinic incompetence.

About the Author
Rabbi Chuck Davidson is an Orthodox rabbi working to promote freedom of religion in Israel. Among his activities toward that end, Rabbi Davidson has led efforts to create alternatives to Israel's Chief Rabbinate in the fields of marriage and conversion to Judaism.
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