A non-Jew once overheard children chanting the Torah’s description of the High Priest’s dress uniform. He was so attracted by the prospect of wearing it that he went straight to Shammai and asked to convert, on condition that he be made High Priest. Shammai rebuked his presumptuousness and chased him away.
The non-Jew then went to Hillel. Hillel told him: “If you wish to be general, don’t you need to learn the rules of military formations?” So he set him to reading Torah. When the nonJew reached the verse “and the zar (outsider, non-Levite) who approaches shall die” (Bamidbar 1:51), he asked Hillel whether the prohibition applied even to King David. When told it did, he rebuked his own presumptuousness in seeing himself worthy of the High Priesthood.
The ultimate role of the High Priest is to enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. Ironically, the High Priest must remove his fancy uniform to perform this ultimate role, and dress instead in plain linen. The verse “and the zar who approaches shall die” refers not to the kohanim, but rather to the Levites who are charged with disassembling the Holy of Holies for travel. The convert’s transformation is complete when he realizes that the role is not about the uniform but rather about entering the Holy of Holies, and that he is unfit even to disassemble the Holy of Holies, let alone to enter it.
According to the Tosafot, however, Hillel converted the Gentile before this realization, when he still thought of becoming Jewish simply as a way to obtain the beautiful uniform. Why would Hillel convert such a blatantly shallow man? Tosafot answer: Because he was certain the transformation would occur.
Two lessons seem clear. The first is that Shammai’s reaction was not only wrong but ineffective: the Gentile didn’t go away, but rather found another rabbi. The second is that Hillel was both right and effective: he knew the Gentile had the potential for religious depth, and he found a way to activate that potential.
One would expect subsequent halakhists to seek out ways to formalize Hillel’s judgment. Instead, Beit Yosef reads the story as authorizing total halakhic discretion: “Everything is in accordance with the judgement of the judge as he sees it.”
Rabbi Hayyim Dovid HaLevi z”l asked: Why do the Rabbis leave this rule so abstract? He answers that the rabbis wanted to maximize discretion in this area, not only so that individual cases can be treated in all their individuality, but also to enable the development and application of different halakhic standards for conversion in different times and places.
Why is this desirable, asks Rabbi HaLevi? Because conversion is the immigration policy of the Jewish people, and policies must be adapted to circumstances. Ezra forced husbands to divorce their Gentile wives; we might take the same route nowadays, or we might prefer to convert interfaith spouses, at least if we were certain that many or all of them would eventually become sincere Jews. That decision cannot be made on the basis of pristine halakhic argument. Rather, we must decide what is best for the Jewish people.
Contemporary Orthodox discourse often presents policy and halakhah as radically disjoint categories. Something that is “merely” policy cannot be actually forbidden or required, and halakhah is impervious to arguments about communal consequences. Rabbi Halevi offers a very different vision. Sometimes the Torah obligates halakhic scholars to think in terms of policy, and the policy they emerge with has the force of law.
The question is whether this vision can play out successfully in a community that lacks effective structures of authority. Very likely the worst conversion policy of all is to create situations in which converts are recognized by some halakhic communities and yet not by others. Yet does this mean that the position welcoming the fewest converts always wins? Perhaps allowing halakhah to be decided that way is an even worse policy, and indeed, the rest of Orthodoxy has not acceded to the position of those Syrian communities that exclude all converts.
I suggest that in the absence of effective authority, it is a core responsibility of Torah scholars to ensure that policy disagreements are discussed openly and honestly. Moreover, they must enter such discussions with a willingness to defer to others’ strongly held and plausibly defended policy judgements, so long as those others will do the same for them. In areas where halakhah depends on policy, compromise is not a surrender of principle but rather a gesture of humility.
The Talmud concludes that it was precisely Hillel’s humility that enabled him to see through the convert’s arrogance to his true self. This was the same humility that caused Hillel to teach Shammai’s positions before teaching his own. Reviving that humility should be among our community’s priorities as we develop the educational policies and personnel that will shape the next generation of halakhic leadership.