The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 31 at Pier 94, slated to be the largest gathering to date of Israeli-Americans in New York.
The laws regarding converts to Judaism are among the most astounding in the Torah. They teach us that any non-Jew who truly and earnestly seeks to join the Jewish people may do so.
Therefore, if a German or an Arab should seek to join the Jewish people, even if he is the son of a fierce anti-Semite, we shall accept him and love him like any other Jew. Moreover, we shall love him even more than other Jews, in keeping with the commandment to “love the convert, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
After a person converts to Judaism he is like any other Jew. In fact, one must be more sensitive to his feelings than to those of other Jews. This is because of the extreme difficulties a convert faces. After all, it is not easy to leave one’s people and one’s home in order to join a nation with an ancient culture and a rich tradition that is not so easily absorbed even after many years of study. This extreme transition calls for great inner strength, and even the slightest insult can undermine a convert’s confidence and cause him great despair.
The attitude of Jewish law to conversion appears, at first glance, to be one of double standards. On the one hand, there is enormous respect and love for the convert who has left his people to join us; on the other hand, there is an attempt to dissuade him from converting.
But the truth of the matter is that Judaism’s view of the convert is completely positive. The only reason we seek to dissuade the convert is to see if he sincerely wishes to join the Jewish people, or if this is just a passing desire that will disappear in a few years.
The Shulchan Aruch therefore rules (Yoreh Deah 268:2) that when a non-Jew comes before a rabbi and requests to convert, the rabbi must say to him: “Why do you want to convert? Don’t you realize how much the Jewish people suffers in this world? Are you not aware that anti-Semites persecute us and try to destroy us?”
In our day one can add: “Why, it was only a few decades ago that the terrible Holocaust took place, and before that there were countless pogroms. Even today there is much anti-Semitism in the world, and many Muslims wish to do away with us. And all of this is because we are Jewish. So why do you want to join our suffering nation? If you desire to attain a higher level of righteousness and morality, you should be aware that a non-Jew too can be righteous and can even reach a level of divine inspiration.”
If at this point the non-Jew changes his mind about converting there is no need to continue with the conversion process.
If, however, he says, “Despite this I desire to join you; my only concern is that I may not be worthy,” he is immediately accepted, and the second stage of the conversion process begins. He is taught the fundamentals of Jewish faith, the prohibition against idolatry, and a number of other laws. Then he is told, “You should know that so long as you are not Jewish it is permissible for you to labor on the Sabbath and to eat pork or other non-kosher animals. When you convert, however, all of these things become forbidden, and if you violate the Torah you will be punished.”
If he agrees and accepts this upon himself, he is converted.
One important question to be asked is just how many laws the convert must be taught before he is asked if he is ready to accept upon himself the commandments of the Torah. Another question is whether he should be told in detail the Torah punishments applying to one who violates the commandments.
It is clear to all that there is no need to teach him the entire Torah. It is sufficient to teach him some of its foundations, and if he accepts them it is already possible to convert him. This is what is written in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 268:2): “He is taught some of the minor commandments and some of the major commandments, and he is taught some of the punishments for violating the commandments” but “we do not overburden him and we are not overly strict with him.”
About the Author: Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a leader of Israel’s religious-Zionist community, is dean of Yeshiva Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law. His books “The Laws of Prayer,” “The Laws of Passover” and “Nation, Land, Army” are being translated into English. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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