Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
Recently, public debate concerning the policy of conversion has resurfaced. In the State of Israel there are presently about a quarter of a million people who have roots in the "seed of Israel" (meaning one of their antecedents was Jewish), but are halakhically Gentiles because their mother is not Jewish.
Some argue this represents a serious problem from a religious and national aspect, since these people are an integral part of Israeli society, and most likely, secular Jews will marry them in contravention of halakha (Jewish law), thus producing a generation of native-born Israelis who are not Jewish. In their opinion, the rabbis should convert these people without being strict about their acceptance of the mitzvahs. They claim this was position of rabbis who came from Sephardic countries, who were moderate, lenient, and willing to convert even without the acceptance of mitzvahs, and consequently, there is no reason why in the serious situation in which we find ourselves today to adopt the strict approach of the rabbis from Ashkenazi countries.
What Does Accepting the Mitzvahs Mean?
“He (the candidate for conversion) 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," nevertheless, "we do not overburden him and we are not overly strict with him" (Y.D. 268:2).
A tremendous difficulty stands in the way of a convert who wishes to observe mitzvahs. For a Jew familiar from childhood with prayers and blessings, the prohibitions of Shabbat and keeping kosher, things seem easy and simple. A traditional Jew, or even a secular Jew, knows when Passover, Pesach, is, knows that on Pesach matzah is eaten, we are careful about leavening, chametz, and hold a Seder in the evening; on Yom Kippur we fast, on Hannukah we light candles, and on the Sabbath we refrain from work.
In contrast, the Gentile who comes to convert must learn everything all at once; if we wish to teach him all the halakhot in turn before converting – even if his intention is pure, he will recoil and not convert because of all the stringencies and details. Therefore, the custom was to convert a candidate after having been taught a few of the minor and major commandments, and after he undertook to keep all the mitzvahs.
But when the Jewish communities became weak and many people stopped observing mitzvahs, it was no longer possible to assume that a convert who joined a Jewish community would eventually fulfill all the mitzvahs.
This is the reason for the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic religious courts in recent generations: While Sephardic communities remained traditional in nature, the Ashkenazi communities, failing to discover a way to deal with modernity and its effects, began to disintegrate, eventually reaching the point where a significant majority of Jews no longer observed Torah and mitzvahs. Therefore, at that time, the Ashkenazi rabbinical judges made more detailed and scrupulous inquiry into the intention of the conversion candidate to fulfill mitzvahs, whereas in the Sephardic communities, the judges made fewer inquiries, assuming that the mere act of joining a traditional Jewish community ensured that the convert would basically observe the mitzvahs. The Sephardim did not consider accepting mitzvahs non-obligatory for converts.
Consequently, in order to examine the intention of conversion candidates today, they are required to learn the fundamentals of Torah and mitzvahs for almost a year in an ulpan giur (conversion study center), attending two weekly sessions of three hours each, in addition to reviewing their studies at home and being tested. To familiarize themselves with the Jewish way of life, they are paired with a religious adopted family that hosts them for Shabbat and holidays. If the potential convert has children, the parent is required to send them to religious schools.
Only after all this may they come before the religious court. Then, as per the testimony of their teachers and adoptive families, and in accordance with the impression of the members of the court – the court determines its position. If the court is convinced the conversion candidate intends on observing the mitzvahs – he is accepted as a convert; if not, he is refused.
In Bnei Brak, there is a religious Hareidi court headed by one of the eminent Lithuanian poskim (Jewish law arbiters) that also handles conversions, and the Chief Rabbinate relies on its decisions.
I asked a particularly serious and responsible religious person who voluntarily accompanies numerous converts through the conversion process – some who converted in regular State religious courts and others in Hareidi courts – what the difference in approach is between the two. According to him, the State religious courts operate formally – requiring the conversion process last for close to a year, include intensive study, a broad knowledge of halakhot (laws) and minhagim (customs), and learning blessings by rote. In contrast, the Hareidi court waives the formal rules, while attempting to discern the conversion candidate’s intention to observe mitzvahs.
I asked him which system yields better results. He answered that to his regret, among the converts he accompanied to the Hareidi courts who were accepted there, many are not religiously observant. The status of people converted by the State religious courts is not exhilarating either, but nonetheless, a higher percentage of those converted there are observant.
My conclusion is that the Hareidi court indeed operates as was customary for generations, however, in today’s reality where it is difficult for a convert to integrate into Hareidi society, the rules of examining converts must be modified, and it is forbidden to waive comprehensive study in an ulpan giur with all the formal requirements of the State religious courts. In addition to the educational value of such a framework – regular participation in it for a year, with all the accompanying requirements, expresses serious intention.
It should be noted there is a problem with the conversions performed in the army along the lines of the Ne’eman Committee, compared to conversions performed in a civilian framework in accordance with Chief Rabbinate. In the civilian framework, potential converts devote several hours to Torah study in the ulpan and at home, at the expense of their work or leisure time.
In contrast, the soldiers who convert are discharged from training, guard duty and work in order to study towards conversion. In addition to this, there is a serious problem that on the teaching staff of I.D.F. conversions Reform Jews are also included, in contradiction to the position the Chief Rabbinate.
Some people argue that in the current situation, in which a significant percentage of converts fail to observe mitzvahs, it is impossible to convert. Or perhaps we need to place extremely difficult obstacles in the way of candidates, so the percentages of those who remain observant will be higher.
This also applies to the acceptance of mitzvahs. Since we do not have the ability to determine with certainty whether the convert will observe the mitzvahs, as long as the religious court estimates that he most likely will observe them – he should be accepted, even though due to society’s present situation there is a reasonable chance he will not fulfill them. In actuality, it appears that the majority of converts do observe the basic mitzvahs.
If we find that a specific tribunal of a religious court acted with excessive naivete, and the majority of its converts do not keep Sabbath, the holidays, and kashrut – even on a basic level, similar to Jews who today are labelled ‘traditional’ – such a tribunal must be dismantled. But even in such a case, the conversion of those already converted by this court remains in force, since at the time of conversion they accepted the yoke of mitzvahs.
And should these courts decide on a deliberate policy of conversion without the acceptance of mitzvahs, all of their conversions would be disqualified, because they would be functioning on a principle contradictory to halakha, in the same manner as all Reform conversions were entirely rejected (Iggrot Moshe, E.H. 3:3).
Religious courts accept the convert by virtue of the Torah and nation of Israel, and therefore, agreement on determining courts of conversion should come from the majority of rabbis, with the Chief Rabbinate organizing the consensus. However, there are cases in which the Chief Rabbinate acts with unambiguous discrimination, such as favoring the Hareidi courts over the recognized religious courts of municipal rabbis, and by doing so, loses its status as an accepted and key institution.
The Truly Serious Problem
The real solution is not making the rules of conversion more flexible, but rather for us to make an inner tikkun (repair) by studying Torah sincerely and in-depth, by fulfilling the mitzvahs seriously, and through devotion to tikkun olam (perfecting the world) by revealing the word of God and His instructions in the Torah. Then, all the blessings of the Torah will be fulfilled through us, and as a result, all Jews will want to engage in Torah and observe the mitzvahs, and all lovers of Israel will long to convert and join the true and good life.
Sadly, though, it can be assumed that Jews who do not return to Torah and mitzvahs will assimilate among the nations. A lenient conversion policy will not change this.