A recent Jewish Press editorial commented on an article I wrote for the Jerusalem Post calling for a reevaluation of the role of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. The editorial provided an excerpt of my article, including my critique of the Chief Rabbinate’s extreme position on conversion to Judaism. It then raised an important question: why didn’t I entertain the need for a uniform standard? “We need to hear his [Rabbi Angel’s] views regarding the consequences of an absence of universal acceptance of halachic legitimacy…”
I thank The Jewish Press for raising the question, and for granting me the opportunity to respond to it. I will limit myself to the thorniest of the issues: conversion.
On the topic of conversion, halachic literature itself does not present a uniform standard. In describing the procedure of receiving converts, the Talmud (Yevamot 47a-b) teaches the need to inform candidates of the dangers of being Jewish. If they still want to proceed, we are to instruct them in some of the minor and some of the major commandments and tell them about punishment and rewards. “[The candidate for conversion] is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much. If he accepted, he is circumcised forthwith.”
The Talmud does not spell out in detail how much the convert needs to know; but it clearly does not require the candidate to spend years of study or be ready to fulfill all the mitzvot before conversion takes place. Interestingly, the Talmud (Shabbat 68a) speaks of “a convert who was converted among gentiles,” who did not even know about Shabbat, who is nevertheless considered a valid convert.
Neither the Rambam nor the Shulchan Aruch provides a specific regimen for preparing a would-be convert, and neither invalidates a halachic conversion if afterward the convert was lax in religious observance.
The requirement of kabbalat hamitzvot (accepting the commandments) is subject to a range of interpretations. (For a discussion of the halachic, historical and sociological aspects of conversion, please see my book Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion.) Indeed, throughout the generations, each rabbi decided how to deal with each particular potential convert. There was no uniform, universal standard other than following the basic guidelines of the Talmud, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch – all of which gave latitude to the rabbi to use his own judgment.
In their important studies on conversion, Dr. Zvi Zohar and Dr. Avi Sagi have found that the first significant posek to equate conversion with 100% fulfillment of mitzvot was Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes (Beit Yitzchak, 2:100) – and that was not until 1876! He went so far as to invalidate a conversion if the convert did not scrupulously observe the mitzvot after conversion. Although this was a dramatic break from halachic tradition, a number of subsequent poskim have adopted this view, and this seems to be the view accepted by the current Chief Rabbinate in Israel.
Many significant poskim have rejected this extreme view, relying instead on the classic halachic sources – Talmud, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. For example, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, late Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, was outspoken in his demand that rabbis convert non-Jews wishing to marry Jews, even when the expected level of mitzvah observance is not high. He was concerned with maintaining Jewish families, having children raised in Jewish homes, strengthening the Jewish people – even in non-ideal cases of conversion.
He wrote: “I admit without embarrassment that my heart is filled with trembling for every Jewish soul that is assimilated among the non-Jews. I feel in myself a duty and mitzvah to open a door to repentance to save [Jews] from assimilation by [invoking] arguments for leniency. This is the way of Torah, in my humble opinion, and this is what I saw and received from my parents and teachers” (Mishpetei Uziel, 5698, no. 26).
Rabbi Uziel viewed himself not so much as being lenient in matters of conversion as being stringent in opposing the sin of intermarriage. Decisions relating to conversion entail a balancing of values. If one is overly restrictive, this may result in the candidate opting for non-Orthodox conversion, or giving up entirely on Judaism. This approach can only contribute to an increase in intermarriage, and children from such marriages are, of course, lost to the Jewish people.