Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed PR photo

Recently I have written a number of articles to establish the possibility of be-di’avad (less than ideal) conversion of immigrants who intend to lead only a traditional lifestyle rather than an observant one. Following this, I was asked various questions. I will answer a few of them.

Spiritual and National Pikuach Nefesh

Q: Even if be-di’avad the conversion of someone who does not keep the mitzvot remains in effect, how can one in the first place encourage the conversion of gerim (converts) who do not intend to keep all the mitzvot?! How can we let the religious courts, who guard and keep the mitzvot, be weakened?

A: This is a state of sha’at dachak (hour of distress) and spiritual pikuach nefesh (saving of lives) of individuals, and of the nation. There is no intention to search for non-Jews and convert them in this way, instead the proposal is to convert family members of Jews who have already taken root in Jewish society in the State of Israel, and are interested in preserving tradition. Without their conversion, there is no way to prevent marriage between Jews and non-Jews, because they are all members of Jewish families, and they all study together in educational institutions and work together in all sectors of the economy, and all have the same Jewish-Israeli identity. Out of this same identity, they all enlist in the army, and contribute greatly to the prosperity of the Jewish state.

Moreover, this large public is connected to Jewish tradition. Their children receive Jewish and national values ​​in the state education system as part of Bible study, holidays, Hebrew, and Jewish history. Shabbat and the holidays are present in their lives, because as a rule, in the State of Israel work is not permitted on Shabbat, and society as a whole celebrates the holidays. The pursuit of the values of justice and helping others, respect for parents and loyalty to the family stem largely from Jewish sources.

They have no other identity; in their own eyes, and in the eyes of their neighbors and friends, they are members of the Jewish people. If they do not convert, hundreds of thousands will not marry according to halakha, and will feel alienated and hate for the heritage of Judaism. Their Jewish spouses will also move away from tradition, and together with them, other relatives. Their descendants will grow up in an awareness of insult and discrimination, and the blame will be laid on the rabbis, and all of the observant. As a result, hatred may develop that will tear Jewish society to shreds, and such a situation would certainly be a matter of national and spiritual pikuach nefesh. I will detail further:

Spiritual Pikuach Nefesh of Individuals

Many families are torn between loyalty to the Torah, and sons and daughters who have chosen to marry good people, who according to halakha are not Jews. They want to marry according to ‘ke’dat Moshe ve’Yisrael (according to the Laws of Moses and Israel) and cannot, and when they find different ways to institutionalize their relationship, a dilemma arises – to rejoice with them at the wedding, or to mourn? To recognize their relationship and invite them to family parties and then the observant members will not come, or refrain from inviting them and create a rift in the family? To celebrate Seder night together, or omit a family member? To avoid insults, there are mixed couples who make sure to vacation abroad every Passover, thus preventing arguments and tensions. However, they and their children are being distanced from tradition – from Seder night and Yom Kippur, from kashrut, Shabbat and holidays, and in their path, more brothers and nephews are distanced.

Instead of this, the non-Jewish spouse could have been converted [with only a committment to follow tradition] and the family would have remained united around the Jewish tradition.

National Pikuach Nefesh

We are dealing with a public of more than a million people who have built their lives here, and have no other place in the world. The majority of them are Jews, and some are not Jews according to halakha, but their only identity is Jewish-Israeli, and Hebrew is their language. They are partners in building the country; their contribution to society is enormous. Among them are the best scientists, entrepreneurs, doctors, economists, musicians, and athletes. They are catapulting the State of Israel into the forefront of other states. They feel they do not need favors, because they are here as Israeli Jews. They cannot be offered to live here as respected citizens with equal rights, without being part of the Jewish people, because they have no other identity, nor are they interested in a different identity. On the contrary, the majority of them are interested in fully integrating into all of Clal Yisrael, and incorporating into their lives the Jewish tradition as accepted in Israeli society, including belief in God, observing Shabbat and holidays, circumcision and Bar Mitzvah, wedding canopy and funeral, mitzvot between man and his neighbor and between man and his nation, and the inclusion of Bible and subjects of Judaism in schools. If they are shown favor, they will request more of it.

However, when they understand that even if they keep Jewish tradition as the majority of Jews do, and perhaps even more, the Rabbinate is unwilling to accept them as equals – they are offended. In order to get married, they are forced to undergo unpleasant tests regarding their lineage, and when they fail to prove their Jewishness, even when it is certain to them, they are required to undergo conversion. Many of them are willing to accept that halakha has requirements and therefore they must convert, but even if they agreed to convert and commit to observance like most Jews, they are still required to commit to a religious lifestyle – a terrible feeling of insult develops among them, which turns into deep resentment and distancing from Torah and mitzvot, and of all that is precious and holy to the people of Israel in all generations. Indeed, a not so small group is already claiming: If you do not want us as loyal Jews – you will receive us as the hardest enemies of Shabbat, kashrut, Passover, circumcision and everything in the Jewish tradition.

This is a determined public that recognizes the magnitude of its contribution to the State of Israel, and the more it feels harmed by the rabbinical establishment, the more it develops resentment against the Hareidi public, claiming it is destroying the state, its sons do not serve in the army, do not study science, and do not contribute and pay taxes, but only burden the state budget. And not only the Hareidim, but also the religious and traditional ones do not escape the accusations, which stem from insult and resentment for their support of the rabbinical establishment that is hostile to them. They claim that religious Zionism is messianic and dangerous, and the traditional ones are ignorant and pull the country backwards.

Even today, one can feel the flames of hatred that begin to lick Jewish-Israeli society, and is liable to create a dangerous rift within it. This is a national pikuach nefesh, which compels us to act in the opinion of the great poskim (Jewish law arbitrators), who in such conditions, were very lenient in accepting gerim.

Acceptance of Mitzvot

Q: Rabbi, how can you try to promote “traditional conversion” in your articles when various rabbis claim that according to halakha, it is impossible to convert without accepting mitzvot?

A: It is agreed that conversion should include accepting mitzvot, the question is what is the definition of accepting mitzvot: is it an obligation to keep all the mitzvot, or a general agreement that the mitzvot are binding on the people of Israel, and the convert also undertakes this, in such a way that he will be rewarded for their fulfillment, and punished for violating them? Thus, not all the citations that conversion involves accepting mitzvot contribute to the discussion, because only sources that will prove that it is a commitment to keep all the mitzvot, that can serve as proof.

As an opinion that it is possible to convert on the basis of a general acceptance of the mitzvot, approximately twenty poskim explicitly wrote, headed by Rabbi Uziel. And so it appears from the words of dozens of other poskim. And in practice, hundreds of rabbis in all the communities of Israel acted accordingly, accepting gerim even when it was clear that the vast majority of them would not lead a religious lifestyle. This is how the Chief Rabbinate behaved in previous generations, as well.

In the Past, Did All Gerim Keep Mitzvot

Q: True, in the past, rabbis converted people who did not undertake to practice all the mitzvot, but this is because the ger joined a religious community, and consequently, it was clear that in time he would keep all the mitzvot. Today, however, when the gerim remain in secular society, how can one convert those who have not studied the mitzvot well and have sincerely committed to their observance? For that reason, the religious courts must be machmir (rule stringently) in examining those who wish to convert.

A: “Don’t say, “How has it happened that former times were better than these?” For it is not wise of you to ask that question” (Ecclesiastes 7:10). Even in the days of the Mishnah and the Talmud, many gerim did not keep the mitzvot, and consequently, our Sages said in four different places in the Shas: “Converts are as difficult for the Jewish people as a scab” (Yevamot 47b; 109b; Kiddushin 70b; Nidah 13b). The accepted meaning among the majority of Rishonim is that many gerim did not keep Torah and mitzvot, and some of them even practiced Avodah Zara (idolatry), causing many Jews to follow in their footsteps, and thus Rambam wrote (Isurei Bi’a 13:18). Rashi also interpreted: “Who are not careful in the mitzvot, and their friends and those drawn to them, and learn from their deeds” (Kiddushin 70b); “Who continue to follow their old ways, and other Jews learn from them, or rely on them in questions of isur ve’heter (dietary and medical laws) (Yevamot 47b) (Today, this fear also does not exist, as written in the responsa of Rabbi Eliyahu Gutmacher, Y.D. 85).

Despite this, the rabbis did not refrain from converting. Take for instance Yosef the Ger, who was an am ha’aretz (ignorant in Torah), and apparently did not take it upon himself to keep the mitzvot properly, to the point where he raised his son as an am ha’aretz, who hated Talmedei Chachamim so much, to the point where he testified about himself that he would say: “Who will give me a Torah scholar so that I will bite him like a donkey?” (Pesachim 49b), and in the end, thanks to Rachel, he repented and became the greatest Sage of the Oral Torah – Rabbi Akiva.

The Chief Rabbinate

Q: Conversion is a Clal-Yisraeli matter, and how can every rabbi be given the authority to establish his own tribunal for conversion?

A: The act of conversion depends on a court of three (Yevamot 46b; 47a). However, unlike the other courts, it is not necessary for the three to be qualified judges, but rather three kosher Jews are sufficient, one of whom knows how to carry out the act of conversion properly (S.A., Y.D. 268:2). Kosher Jews, in other words, observant Jews who were not known to have maliciously committed one of the Torah transgressions. This is the general rule: Anyone who is disqualified from being a witness in one of the official testimonies of the Torah, such as marriage or divorce testimony, is disqualified from being a judge for conversion. Thus, there is no reason for the Chief Rabbinate to be involved in the decision of the tribunals in any place, and it is sufficient that it be machmir to require that the Dayanim (judges) be rabbis or educators, who bear the burden of Torah education.

Therefore, yes, this great socio-national challenge before us has a correct solution in halakha, and if we succeed in doing so, we will elevate the whole of society to a deeper identification with the Torah and the mitzvot.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated