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The Talmud (Yebamot 47a) discusses the halachic approach to conversion. We have to ask the prospective Ger (proselyte): ‘What have you seen that you want to become converted [to Judaism]? Are you not aware that Jews at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?’ If he replies, ‘I know and I am truly unworthy’ (to join in their trouble – Rashi ad loc.), we readily accept him and he is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments … and some of the punishments. Furthermore, he is addressed thus: Until now (as a ben Noach), if you ate cheilev (forbidden fat) you would not have been punishable with karet (death by Heavenly decree), but now that you are converting to Judaism, you will be liable to the punishment of karet for that sin … He is also told of the difference between a Jew and a Gentile in reference to the punishment for non-fulfillment of the Noachide Laws.
Thus we see that there is an effort made to dissuade the prospective Ger, due to the enormous liabilities that he will now assume.
To the Talmudic passage cited above, which is the main source for rules about conversion to Judaism (geirut), we can juxta-pose another Talmudic passage (Ketubbot 11a) which deals with the case in question, that of a minor child who was converted without his informed [mature] consent: R. Huna said, A minor proselyte (ger katan) is immersed (in the ritual bath for conversion) with the consent of the Beit Din. Rashi (ad loc.) explains that this court consists of ‘the three people who are present at the immersion, as is the rule in all immersions for conversion, and they become his ‘father’.’ The Talmud refers to a case where the child had no father and the mother brought him to be converted. That beit din, in addition to converting him, also assumes the position of the consenting party to this conversion. See also Tosafot Rid ad loc., who discusses the case where there is no mother either, and concludes that conversion can nevertheless take place in such a case too. Note also the opinion of the Gaon R. Chayim Ozer Grodzensky (Achiezer siman 47) who quotes a Mordechai (not found in our Shas) cited by the Darchei Moshe on Yoreh De’ah 268. He would question the validity of such a conversion. However, Rabbenu Nissim does allow such a geirut (i.e., he agrees with R. Huna).
The Talmud asks: What does R. Huna let us know? Is it that the conversion represents an advantage for the proselyte (namely, to be received into the Jewish faith), and (that there is a ruling) that one may act for a person even in his absence – since the minor is, legally speaking, not present – if it is for his benefit? The Talmud answers that we have already learned (Erubin 81b; Yebamot 118b) that we can act in behalf of a person even in his absence if it is to his advantage, a zechut, but we cannot act in his behalf at all if it is not to his advantage (namely, if it causes him any harm). By quoting that rule we assume that a heathen prefers a life without restraint (and therefore conversion would be a disadvantage for the proselyte). Indeed, it has been established for us (Gittin 13a) that a [Canaanite] slave prefers a dissolute life. R. Huna teaches us that this assumption applies only to an adult who has experienced the taste of that which is forbidden, but as regards a minor who has not tasted sin, conversion is considered a benefit for him.
Nevertheless, the Talmud adds in the name of R. Joseph: When the minor proselytes come of age they can protest (and declare that they do not want to remain within the Jewish faith – this applies even if the father was present at the conversion, as in the case when a non-Jew converts along with his minor children). Also, the renunciation is accepted (without penalty from the Beit Din) only if declared within a strictly limited time period as soon as majority is attained. (For further elaboration, see the full text of the passage referred to in Ketubbot 11a, Rambam – Hilchot Melachim 10:3 and the Kesef Mishnes ad loc., as well as the Aruch HaShulchan, Hilchot Gerim.)
These Talmudic references make it clear that conversion, immersion (tevila in a mikveh) and, in the case of a male, milah (circumcision) must be accompanied by an acceptance of mitzvot, namely, the fulfillment of the commandments.
The Gaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah chelek I) discusses at length the matter of adopting a non-Jewish child and converting him/her to Judaism. Talking of the adoption of a baby boy he even goes into the details of the circumcision ceremony as described in the Talmud (Shabbos 137b) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 268). He also mentions the permissibility of formally naming the child as ‘the son of’ the adopting father (see Shemot Rabbah 46:6).
But he also cautions that the child has to be informed before reaching maturity of his/her status of convert so that the conversion may achieve permanence. Rabbi Feinstein assumes that the child has had a [halachic] Jewish upbringing and advises to undertake this step so that the adopted child will not renounce the life he has been living – and his conversion – because he was not aware of his status.
In the case you refer to there is no practice of Torah and mitzvot in the adoptive home, and the only ‘Jewish’ identity this child will have is one that is essentially superficial – even though the conversion of the infant might very possibly have been performed under 100% halachic auspices. However, if all the accompanying requisites, i.e., the practice of mitzvot, have not been met, the end result is that we must question the validity of this geirut.
Rabbi Herschel Schachter, rosh kollel of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan (R.I.E.T.S.-Y.U.) discussed this very situation at the recent convention of the Histadrus Horabonim (R.C.A.). He quoted the late Gaon Harav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l, who admonished all rabbis and mohalim not to involve themselves in such a bris milah either in the case of a Gentile child being adopted and converted by a non-practicing Jewish couple or a child born of a mixed marriage – with a Gentile mother, as this is surely not a zechut – an advantage – for the child; who will henceforth be liable for all Torah commands even though it is unlikely that he will perform any (and obviously he will be unaware of his possibility of renunciation, albeit in that very limited time frame, when he reaches maturity as well).
Unfortunately, this situation illustrates another one of our contemporary problems, if not a plague, from which we suffer when there are any Jews who lack a full Jewish education and thus remain ignorant of our rich heritage and Torah laws. Surely, if we could transmit, unimpeded, the laws of our Torah and Talmud we would not be faced with such complex problems. Therefore we must, each and every one of us, resolve to strengthen Torah education in every way possible, until we reach the level where ignorance of our eternal heritage is eradicated.
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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