Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard a lot of chatter about conversion to Judaism.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard “But conversion has always been a long, difficult process” or “A convert is supposed to be turned down three times”, I’d have…well, at least a handful of nickels.
While I’m not necessarily knocking the idea of being stringent with prospective converts these days (you’ll see why later), I definitely take issue with the rewriting of Jewish history and halachic sources.
If one examines the primary sources of Jewish law, he will not find a long, complicated process designed to test the fortitude and seriousness of the candidate. Quite the contrary, the Talmudh Bavli in Yevamoth 47 describes the conversion process as follows:
If one comes to convert nowadays, we ask, ‘Why do you want to convert? Don’t you know that Yisrael is depressed, pushed , humbled and afflicted?!’
If he says, ‘I know and I am not worthy’, we accept him immediately, inform him of some light commandments, some severe commandments, the sin of not giving agricultural gifts to the poor, and the punishments for breaking the commandments.
We tell him ‘before converting, you did not get kareth for eating helev or stoned for hillul Shabbath. Now, you are hayyav kareth for eating helev and stoned for hillul Shabbath.’
Just like we inform him of the punishments for breaking commandments, we also tell him of their reward. ‘The world to come is only for the righteous; Yisrael at this time cannot receive too much good, nor too many punishments’. We do not go on at length, nor are we so exacting with him.
If he still wants to convert, we circumcise him immediately…When he heals, we immerse him immediately. Two (Three – according to the correct text taught by R’ Yohanan) learned men stand over him and inform him of some light and severe commandments. After immersing, he is like a Yisrael in all respects.
That’s pretty much it. That’s conversion as our sages knew it.
The Rishonim and Shulhan Arukh simply restate these laws with little more than minor clarifications, such as explaining that the witnesses for a female convert step in momentarily to see that she has immersed and then turn away. We also see a few additional strictures, such as checking up on a prospective convert to see if there may be an ulterior motive (love, financial gain, etc). But for the most part, the talmudic law is left intact.
If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that the process described above bears little resemblance to the system we have today. Claiming otherwise is intellectually dishonest and dulls the crown of the Torah.
While we can’t go around claiming “This is how it’s always been done!”, I’m also not advocating that we go back to how it “was” done. I’m not so sure we should be conducting conversions in the manner described by the Talmudh. You see, these rules were formulated in a time of terrible persecution for the Jewish people, especially in the land of Israel, when the risk of insincerity and ulterior motive was negligble.
Today our situation is vastly different. Today, the Jewish people are squarely in the midst of redemption. We have a beautiful country with a vibrant economy, a free society and a strong military. This new reality provides a motive for insencere conversions, especially when dealing with prospective converts from economically depressed and/or war-ravaged countries.
For the first time since antiquity, the Jewish people have something of value to nations of the world. Conversion is the key to Israel and for many, Israel is the key to a better life.
This was recognized by our sages and is mentioned in several sources (among them TB Yevamoth 24b) where we see that “Converts will not be accepted in the days of Mashiah. Likewise, converts were not accepted in the days of David, nor in the days of Shlomo.”
When looking at the sources together with historical and current realities, the picture becomes clear. In times of persecution, the conversion process can be much more relaxed. In Messianic times, the process will be stopped completely. In our day, which is neither the former nor the latter, but is in the midst of the redemptive process, there is ample justification for stricter testing of potential converts to determine motive (within the bounds of reason and common sense).
This position may sound callous (especially coming from a convert like myself), but it is a natural byproduct of the Jewish people becoming more than a mere faith or ethnicity. We are a nation again and we are on our way up. That’s a good thing.