Conversion is not Rocket Science

Recently, I enjoyed visiting the wondrous British Museum in London with my wife. Being her first time in London and at the museum, I was excited to show her my favorite parts. This includes first and foremost the Assyrian Gallery and the relief of the siege of the biblical Judean city of Lachish. Taking the requisite photo to send to our kids, I asked Nomi to smile.  She refused saying that she would not take a picture smiling in front of a Babylonian portrayal of Jews being slaughtered and forced into exile.  In my excitement at viewing the rewards of British looting, I lost my head. Of course she was correct. How can one smile viewing record of the horror the Jewish people suffered  being taken into exile.

This week we read about Jacob and family going to down to rejoin Joseph in Egypt. While the greeting between Jacob and his long lost son and family must have been joyous, I read the Torah in a bitter sweet fashion. Jacob’s family reunion will lead to hundreds of years of slavery and oppression for the Jewish people. This original exile, with its ups and downs, became the literary model for the Jewish experience in “Galut”.  It is hard not to read the Torah with apprehension and sadness.

Yet, the Jewish experience in the Diaspora, with all its sufferings and difficulties (and joys too), also enabled Judaism to grow. One of the ways the Diaspora promoted the Jewish expansion has been through the process of conversion.  Gentiles, for many reasons have been attracted to our ranks. In the process of conversion, when a gentile decides “to enter the covenant, take shelter under the wings of the Divine presence, and accept the yoke of the Torah” (Rambam Issurei Biya 13:4) we remind him or her of the sufferings of Jewish people. If the potential convert is brave enough and still proclaims his or her intent to join us, then we immediately proceed with conversion. While it has never been the Jewish mission to seek out converts, the Halacha demands that we welcome them with open arms.

Ironically, the Talmud refers to converts as being “difficult to the Jewish people as a blemish.” This is quite a devastating passage. Many have interpreted this passage but the explanation that sits the best with me appears in Tosafot.  The authors remark that the Talmud sees converts as a difficulty since, “the Jews have been warned regarding converts and they can’t be cautious about oppressing them.”  Converts are newcomers to our people. The Torah in at least 36 places prohibits oppressing the convert. And since the convert has a limited support system he is vulnerable.  Like the Jewish people in Galut, the newcomer sometimes finds himself in a precarious situation. Too many either through negligence or carelessness  can hurt those who have joined us despite our wounded state.

That is why a decision by the Beit Din of the Rabbinate in Israel recently upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court is so egregious.  In this case, because a particular convert changed her lifestyle sometime after conversion, the Beit Din reversed the conversion and revoked her Jewish status.  Besides being cruel and seemingly violating all the aforementioned prohibitions, it is contrary to Jewish Law.

The Talmud is unequivocal. A braitta states “since [the convert] immersed and came out [of the mikveh] he is like a Jew in all ways.” Questioning the necessity of the later phrase “like a Jew in all ways” the Talmud says “what does this phrase teach us? That if he reverts [to his old gentile practices] and marries a Jewish woman we call him a transgressing Jew and his marriage is valid.”  (Yevamot 47b) The Talmud could not be clearer. If a convert does not keep Jewish law, he or she is treated as a wayward Jew and is not considered a gentile.  Maimonides codifies this saying, “even if he reverts and worships idols, behold he is like a transgressing Jew.” (Hil. Issurei Biah 13:17) So too the most important code of Jewish law, Shulchan Aruch, “since he immersed and came out behold he is like a Jew that if he reverts to his old ways behold he is like a Jew.” (YD 268:2.) Anyone interested in reading this position reiterated over and over again can take a quick look at Rabbi Amselm’s book “Zera Yisrael” or the many Facebook posts of Rabbi Chuck Davidson who has become a crusader for the rights of converts.

In truth, few halachot are as straight forward or simple as this one. Some rabbis will no doubt say “but this, but that, but the other complication” and I even heard of well-known rabbi at a major yeshiva in the U.S. in a class to rabbinical students cast doubt on many conversions done outside the Beit Din of America.  It is hard not to view such a claim as a perversion of Halachik tradition and a transgression of the Torah.  Both here and in the U.S. the Halacha is absolute. Someone who converted is a Jew. That is the position of “Shas and Poskim” and the will of the Torah.  The position of the Beit Din of the Rabbinate and other rabbis against that Halacha is simply incomprehensible.

Jacob arrived in Egypt and embraced Joseph and his Egyptian wife and children. Efraim and Menashe, born in Diaspora of Egypt, became major tribes of Israel.  For all the trials and tribulations the Jewish people suffered throughout the centuries in Galut, it is incumbent on us to embrace those who would join us even if sometimes imperfectly.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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