הרב דוד ברופסקי, ר"מ מדרשת לינדנבאום, מחבר ספרי הלכה, מנהל קהילת הרבנים של 'גיור כלהכה'
Over 3100 years ago, Ruth, the Moabite, left her land and her people to accompany her Jewish mother-in-law to the Eretz Yisrael, with the intention of joining the Jewish people. The Talmud (Yevamot 47b) understands that although Naomi attempted to dissuade her, once she saw Ruth’s resolve to convert, as she declared "your people will be my people, and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16), Naomi desisted, and Ruth formally entered the Jewish people.
For thousands of years, batei din have converted individuals who wished to join the Jewish people on an ad hoc basis; there simply weren’t many people who wished to convert. Nowadays, Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora face an unprecedented crisis. Decades of religious persecution behind the Iron Curtain and unfathomable rates of assimilation and Western countries have created a new nation of “Zera Yisrael,” children and grandchildren of Jews who are not halakhically Jewish.
While there is neither a will, nor a method of mass conversion, in Israel or the Diaspora, the current state of the Jewish people challenges us to grapple with aspects of conversion. Aside from the crucial question regarding the definition and extent of kabalas hamitzvos, the current situation raises the following question: Should non-Jews who identify as Jewish, and who live in Jewish communities, be discouraged from converting, as was customary for thousands of years, or encouraged to formally join the Jewish people, in order to alleviate other social, religious and demographic issues.
Conversion for Marriage
The Rambam (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 12:14) describes the ideal conversion, i.e., one who “desires to enter into the covenant, take shelter under the wings of the Divine presence and accept the yoke of the Torah,” which parallels the covenant made with the Jewish people at Har Sinai. In contrast to this ideal convert, the Talmud (Yevamot 24b) discusses whether a conversion performed for “impure” motives is even valid! Although the gemara concludes that “the halakha is in accordance with the statement of the one who says that they are all [valid] converts,” it appears that this is only after the fact, i.e., be-di’avad, that these conversions recognized.
The Talmud not only questions the integrity of such conversions, it even expresses concern that these converts may cause harm to the Jewish people. One well-known gemara (Yevamot 47b) states that “converts are as harmful to the Jewish People as a leprous scab [sappachat] on the skin.” Rashi (ad loc.) explains that converts hold on to their prior ways, and the Jewish People learn from them or rely upon them for religious matters.
Despite the Talmud’s concern regarding conversions performed for less than pure motives, historically this proscription was not strictly followed. For example, Rabbeinu Tam (Yoma 82b, s.v. mah) permits a woman who converted out of Judaism and married a non-Jew, and then repented, to remain married to the non-Jewish husband after he converts to Judaism. Similarly, the Rambam (Teshuvot, Blau 2:211) permits a Jewish man to continue his relationship a slave with whom he was intimate, after she converts, as “it is better to eat gravy [i.e. violate the minor prohibition of marrying this slave after she has been freed and converted] than to eat forbidden fat itself [violate the more severe prohibition of having relations with a maidservant]; and we relied on the principle of “it is a time to do for God by abrogating his law.”
More recently, R. Shlomo Kluger (Tuv Ta’am Ve-Da’at 230) relates how a Jewish soldier returned home from war with a non-Jewish partner. R. Kluger ruled that it is permitted to convert this woman, as we are concerned that if we do not allow the women to convert, he will “go off to evil ways” (tarbut ra’ah). Furthermore, R. Kluger makes an important assertion: Since there is no external impediment to their union, and given that the non-Jewish woman desires to convert, that is considered to be a conversion “for the sake of Heaven.”
Similarly, R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, despite his overall apprehension regarding conversion and the sincerity of kabbalat mitzvot, attests that he had been asked numerous times regarding a non-Jewish woman who is civilly married to a Jew and who wishes to convert and to be married with a chuppa and kiddushin. R. Grodzinski (Achiezer 3:26, 28) concludes that indeed customary to perform conversions in these circumstances.
Conversions Performed for Marriage in the 20th Century
During the 20th century, we find three noteworthy approaches to conversion for the sake of marriage, all in response to the increasing intermarriage rate.
The first approach, adopted by the Syrian community, banned all conversions, even those not performed for the sake of marriage. This ban was first implemented by R. Shaul Setton Dabah in the Syrian community of Argentina in 1922, in order to counter the increasing numbers of intermarriages. In 1935, R. Jacob Kassin issued a similar ban on the Syrian community in New York, extending to prohibition to those who had already converted. This ban was reaffirmed after World War II, when Jewish soldiers returned with non-Jewish partners, and again in 1972, 1984, and 2006.
Although this ban undoubtedly preserved the Syrian Jewish community, it also caused and continues to cause much pain and harm to converts. Numerous poskim, including R. Herzog (Pesakim U’Ktavim), and more recently, R. Osher Weiss (Darchei Hora’ah, Gerut 12:17) criticized the enactment, noting that there may be a mitzva to accept worthy converts, that banning a convert from the Jewish community appears to violate Biblical prohibition of ona’at hager, i.e., afflicting the convert, and that even if it was an appropriate ruling for a specific time, after 70 years it is time to repeal this enactment.
The second approach, adopted by numerous rabbis in Sephardic lands (and in some Ashkenazic communities) permitted conversion for the sake of marriage, even with minimal religious commitment. For example, R. Eliyahu Chazan, as well the Nehar Mitzrayim (Hilkhot Gerim, p. 111) wrote that the policy in Egypt was to allow non-Jewish women to convert for the sake of marriage.
- Bentzion Meir Chai Uziel, in an early responsa (Mishpetei Uziel, YD 1:14), relates how when a non-Jewish woman is already married to a Jew, and by bringing her into the Jewish covenant, she will become closer to her husband’s family and his Torah, “it is therefore permitted – or better, obligated – to bring them close and have then enter into the covenant of Israel’s Torah and remove the affliction of assimilation, which is an inflammatory affliction in the vineyard of the House of Israel.” Elsewhere, R. Uziel (ibid. EA 20) expresses great concern for the non-Jewish children of intermarried couples, and encourages the conversion of non-Jewish spouses in order to counter intermarriage, and their children out of concern for “zera Yisrael.”
- Ovadia Yosef, in a Knesset committee hearing (November 16, 1976), supports this tradition, and writes: “[While] some Ashkenazic rabbi are stringent in this matter … there are many who are lenient. At the head of them is R. Shlomo Kluger from Galicia … and so write the rabbis of Egypt R. Eliyahu Chazan and R. Yosef Mesas, and others. R. Uziel in his book, Mishpetei Uziel, also permitted … In practice, most of the rabbinic judges of Israel today accept this change, and therefore even when they know the woman comes to convert for marriage, they accept her.” R. Yosef recounted that he personally decided on tens of conversion cases each year.
The third approach, best represented by the rulings of R. Moshe Feinstein, expresses deep ambivalence and apprehension regarding conversion performed for the sake of marriage, while acknowledging that this was the widespread practice of American Orthodox rabbis throughout the twentieth-century. In numerous places, R. Moshe criticizes those batei din that regularly accept converts for the sake of marriage. He says that although he withholds judgement, “I am not comfortable with this, and neither was my father, the gaon” (YD 3:106). He rules that only when the beit din is convinced that the convert wholeheartedly accepts upon himself the mitzvot, even if he is not aware of all of the mitzvot or if we estimate that he will be unable to fulfill all of the mitzvot, we will accept him to the Jewish People (ibid. YD 1:159).
These three approaches were prevalent in different areas, each facing their own communal and religious challenges, further highlighting the need for each community to determine the policy which best fits its needs.
Conversion in Israel – Nowadays
As mentioned above, the Jewish world faces a mounting crisis regarding personal status in both Diaspora communities and in Israel. In the wake of the mass emigration from the former Soviet Union, there are currently over 400,000 Israelis who are officially categorized as “without religion.” They attend Jewish schools, even religious schools, serve in the army, and live and work alongside other Israelis. Many were born and raised in Israel, observe Shabbtat, Chagim, and the laws of kashrus. They are fully integrated into Israeli society, they have absorbed its values, internalized its culture, and are coming closer to Judaism.
Traditionally, the Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel, including R. Herzog, R. Uziel, R. Unterman. R. Nissim, R. Goren, R. Ovadia Yosef, and R. Bakshi Doron, encouraged the conversion of non-Jews who chose to cast their lot with the Jewish nation in Israel, whether it be non-Jewish spouses of Jewish refugees who fled to Israel, non-Jewish volunteers on kibbutzim who decided to stay in Israel, or the more recent emigrants, and children of emigrants from the former Soviet Union.
In recent years, numerous rabbis have called to encourage converting these Israelis and their children. Refraining from converting them, they argue, doesn’t discourage intermarriage, but rather increases it.
For example, R. Asher Weiss (Kuntras Shevu’i, Bamidbar, 5773) argues that our generation may be different than previous generations regarding this question. He writes:
In my opinion, our generation is not like previous generations, as from eternity we have refrained from initiating conversions and only [accepted] one who came with the intention of converting after being pushed away numerous times, if his intentions appear to be genuine. And this is the proper way according to the Torah. However, in our time period, when so many of those who immigrated from the [former] Soviet Union are non-Jews according to the law and they are mixing-in with the residents of the land, there is a great stumbling block for generations, and we should not discourage them from converting. Rather, we should make efforts to convert them, and while we should not be lenient, God forbid, regarding the requirement of accepting upon themselves the yoke of Heaven and the yoke of mitzvot… we should not discourage them from converting.
In a similar fashion, R. Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch z”l, who just recently passed away, argued that immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and especially their children, should be encouraged to convert, in accordance with the halacha. He even established the independent conversion courts known as “Giyur K’Halacha.”
Each generation’s rabbinic leadership are entrusted with the authority to decide the best policy for the conversion candidate, the community and the Jewish people, or in the words of the Beit Yosef, “according to the perception of the beit din.” As we celebrate receiving the Torah this Shavuot, we should also consider whether and how to enable others to join the covenant of Torah as well.
Printed in The Jewish Press, 28.5.2020.