Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak RudominCourtesy

Conversion to Judaism has always been complex and controversial. It has been a hot topic from ancient to modern times. Conversion is Giyur or Gerut in Hebrew and a convert is a Ger, male, plural is Gerim, and Giyoret, female.

The contemporary commonly understood situation is described in Wikipedia as (points mine):

  • "[1] Conversion to Judaism (Hebrew: גיור, giyur) is the process by which non-Jews adopt the Jewish religion and become members of the Jewish ethnoreligious community.
  • [2] It thus resembles both conversion to other religions and naturalization.
  • [3] The procedure and requirements for conversion depend on the sponsoring denomination.
  • [4] Furthermore, a conversion done in accordance with one Jewish denomination is not a guarantee of recognition by another denomination.
  • [5] Usually, the conversions performed by the more stringent denominations are recognized by the less stringent ones, but not the other way around.
  • [6] A formal conversion is also sometimes undertaken by individuals whose Jewish ancestry is questioned or uncertain, even if they were raised Jewish, but may not actually be considered Jews according to traditional Jewish law.
  • [7] In some cases, a person may forgo a formal conversion to Judaism and adopt some or all beliefs and practices of Judaism. However, without a formal conversion, many observant Jews will reject a convert's Jewish status."

The Biblical Abraham and Sarah are considered the first converts in Jewish History according to Judaism. The Children of Israel are reminded by God in the Torah to remember that they were Gerim, meaning "strangers" or "converts" in Ancient Egypt and consequently to love converts as well.

There have been famous converts such as the Torah commentator Onkelos, a Roman nobleman who converted to Judaism and became a beloved and revered Torah scholar. The famous Jewish sages Shmaya and Avtalyon, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir were reputedly descended from converts. King David is descended from Ruth the Moabitess, a righteous convert to Judaism and King Solomon married Naamah a convert from Ammon according to the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) lovingly accepted the legendary Ger Tzedek (Righteous Convert) of Vilna Count Valentin Pototzki known as Abraham ben Abraham (c. 1700-1749) who was martyred for his beliefs.

So one thing is for sure, Judaism accepts converts, but under what circumstances? In the Torah world of Orthodox Judaism, as in everything else, there are more lenient opinions and strict opinions for the standards required to become a genuine convert to Judaism. This debate has taken on a serious tenor in the current political situation in Israel. The general standard in Israel has the criteria that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate requires for conversion, which include learning about and accepting the mitzvot, mikvah immersion, etc. The standards of the Chief Rabbinate, however, are too lenient according to virtually all the Haredi-Hasidic groups in Israel, who follow up converts to see that they stick to their committment, while according to the members of the current liberal left-leaning ruling government coalition, the standards of the Chief Rabbinate are too strict.

So what is a potential convert to do? How do they meet everyone's standards? One answer is that by following the guidelines of Haredi Batei Din, Courts of Jewish Law, by subscribing to the most stringent requirements of Kabbalat Ol HaMitzvot, Acceptance of the Yoke of the Commandments, agreeing to abide by the highest standards of the Halakha (Jewish Law) and the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). Agreeing to keep Shabbat, Kashrut, and acceptance of all the 13 Principles of Faith (these are also the Chief Rabbinate's demands, the difference being the level of stringency) is the highest standard possible agreeable to everyone.

But how many people applying to be Jewish can live up to such a standard today? Very few! Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 conversion to Judaism has been the domain of the Chief Rabbinate as not too many converts-to-be from the outside world wish to become Haredi or Hasidic Jews. The Chief Rabbis of Israel as the heads of the Chief Rabbinate's Rabbinical Courts of Conversion have adopted somewhat less stringent program than would have been required by Haredi or Hasidic Rebbes or Lithuanian Rosh Yeshivas -- until now, when the Chief Rabbis are being cast as too strict -- in the face of when an even more lenient program of conversion then theirs is being pushed by the current liberal left-wing Israeli government.

It's a tough tug of war between competing standards of conversion to Judaism. Outside of Israel of course, such as in the United States, things are far more decentralized to the extremes. Even chaotic.

We are not talking of Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox conversions that are performed on an impossibly lenient scale. Reform rejects the notion of matrilineal descent, meaning that for Reform just having a Jewish father even if the mother is not Jewish, makes a person Jewish and there is no need for conversion, and both Reform and Conservative are officially widely accepting of mixed faith marriages so that it's basically impossible to trust who is or is not a Jew in Reform and Conservative circles.

In the Orthodox world of United States's Jewry that has no single centralized Beit Din (Jewish Court) system there are conversions done all over the place ranging from very lenient Batei Din of very Modern ("Open") Orthodox rabbis to carefully run Centrist Orthodox Batei Din and all the way to very strict Batei Din run by Haredi and Hasidic groups.

It's a very disorganized and decentralized system that so far has been kept out of Israel. But now with the "conversion reform" sought by the change-minded Israeli government that seeks to take away the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly, it will introduce much more chaos and confusion into Israel as the two-tier "Chief Rabbinate versus pure Haredi" system is turned into a decentralized free-or-all of helter skelter Batei Din popping up all over Israel each with its own watered down standards for conversion that has been typical of the American scene and that Israel has managed to avoid so far.

If every gentile can become "Jewish" then no gentile will ever be truly Jewish.

Years ago, during a similar crisis, Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (1910-2012) the famous Haredi Posek (Legal Decisor) and former Dayan (Judge) of the Chief Rabbinate's Beit Din ruled that a "Sefer Yuchsin" meaning a "registry" should be set up with a record of who is truly Halakhically Jewish according to Jewish Law. A very revolutionary suggestion that was not followed up at the time. Rav Eliashiv also supported the establishment of a Beit Din LeInyanei Giur, a Jewish Court for Matters of Conversions under Haredi auspices that is still in existence.

It remains to be seen what the combined Haredi and Hasidic response will be to the new Israeli government conversion reforms as so far they have allowed the Israeli Chief Rabbis to be the ones defending higher conversion standards. But it is quite possible they will make a public stand as the issues of forcing military service and trying to change the core curriculae of Yeshivot are also brought to a head and showdown. So we are in the midst of a drama of many acts that has yet to play itself out fully.

That brings us to the question of what the Torah itself in its original form regarded as "good conversions"? From the Torah portion of Yitro* and commentaries we learn a lot in this regard. Firstly, Yitro is a Midianite whose daughter Tziporah was married to Moshe Rabbeinu (who did not choose a girl from "Bnai Brak or Boro Park" but rather a non-Jewish girl with good qualities who obviously was privately converted by Moshe himself!) Then later Yitro after hearing all the miracles that God had done for the Children of Israel comes to meet Moshe and the Children of Israel wanting to convert.

The famous commentator Rashi says that one of Yitro's names was originally Yeter, but was changed to Yitro by having an extra letter added to his name after he converted and practiced the Mitzvot (Commandments). Another of Yitro's names says Rashi is Chovav meaning he "cherished" the Torah. From this we see that a convert must love the Torah and practice its Commandments. The problem with watered down conversions making them available as wholesale gifts to those in need of them is that there is not enough love of Torah and little desire to practice its Mitzvot among the would-be converts mostly from families of the former Soviet Union now living in Israel.

The Torah describes how Yitro rejoiced, and the commentators add that Yitro rejoiced not just with the greatness with which God treated the Children of Israel but that he made a celebration in honor of his own circumcision as required of all male converts and ritual immersion as required of all converts male and female. The Midrashim teach that Yitro was unique because even though many nations heard of the miracles God had done for the Children of Israel, only Yitro the Midianite came to join them.

Yitro realized that God was omnipotent and inferred it was his moral duty to serve Him. When Yitro heard about the great miracles that God had performed for the Children of Israel he immediately decided to convert to Judaism, going so far as to circumcise himself. This teaches the true zealous qualities of a genuine convert and that the subject of conversion is something sublime, it's not just another mundane matter of bureaucratic procedural requirement to gain access to the Jewish People.

Besides Yitro there were others who joined the Children of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt, these were the famous Eruv Rav, the Mixed Multitude that joined with the Children of Israel when they left Ancient Egypt. They were made up of all sorts of people who wanted to join with the freed Children of Israel. Moses did not exclude them even though down the line they were the instigators that resulted in the building of the Golden Calf that caused the Children of Israel to sin against God in the wilderness.

They were millions of people and some commentators regard them as converts or quasi converts. So you had at the core the Children of Israel composed of at least 600,000 males and their families plus at least double that number of hangers on from the Eruv Rav. It seems that in today's times we are in a similar situation with many would be Jews, also "Jews by choice", conflicted and confused potential converts, people of mixed or doubtful parentage and imperfect Jewish heritage, sometimes called "Non Halakhic Jews", surrounding the core Jewish People.

In Israel it's estimated that there are over 400,000 non-Halakhic Jews who are in Halakhic limbo, neither here nor there. Although not many of them are at all interested in conversion of any stripe, the reformist current Israeli government wants to fast track those who do into full Judaism by allowing the convening of more lenient conversion courts. But the question then becomes, will this solve the problem of these people's Jewish status or make it worse? Will it be adding to or subtracting from the modern Eruv Rav. To convert or not to convert?!

Conversion to Judaism is a powerful notion and force in the world. The analogy is given of being "water" one day and after conversion becoming "wine"! At conversion after submersion in the Mikvah, the convert is like a newborn Jewish baby, getting a new Jewish Neshama (Soul) and even getting a new name and is then the new "child" of the original Abraham and Sarah who are called "Techila Legeirim" the first [to] convert, or first converts.

The Maharal of Prague asks why Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers ends off the fifth chapter with statements by Ben Bag Bag and Ben Hei Hei who were descendants of converts? The explanation being that Pirkei Avot starts off from Moshe receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai and then describes the continuity of the Torah throughout all the generations until the end of time. At the end of it all come Ben Bag Bag and Ben Hei Hei children of converts to show you the power of the Torah that it has the capacity to enter even into non-Jews and to make them want to convert to being Jews. You know you have won and that your product is superior when your opposition, even your former enemies, agree with you and buy into your side!

What is it that Ben Bag Bag and Ben Hei Hei teach? "Ben Bag-Bag says: Deliberate over it (the study of Torah)...for everything is contained in it...there is nothing more excellent than it" "Ben He-He said: The reward is according to the suffering": (From the Metsudah publication "The Wisdom of the Fathers"): "Rabbeinu haKodesh ended the Mesechet [Tractate] with this Mishnah to teach us that in Torah study, fulfillment of mitzvos, and the achievement of proper character virtues, the reward is proportionate to the effort and distress involved (Tiferes Yisroel)". These then are the "golden rules" straight from the mouths of great Jews who came from converts, that there must be the highest adherence to the best standards of Torah study, practice of the Torah's commandments, good character traits all attained by great self-sacrifice and of course devout belief in God.

At the end of the day there can be no "instant" nor "quicky" conversions that are just wasted exercises in futility. Conversion to Judaism is a serious matter that requires seriousness of purpose, conviction and self-sacrifice to achieve a higher standard of Jewish life and living in this world and in the World to Come.

*Yitro is the name of Moses' father in law, from Exodus 18:1 "And Yitro heard..."