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Conversion According to Halakhah

Question:
What exactly is “conversion according to halakhah”? Does conversion for the sake of marriage invalidate the conversion? Must a potential convert undertake to observe all of the mitzvot? Who is authorized to accept converts?

Responsum:

1. The Motive for Conversion

The Talmud (Yevamot 24b) declares in the name of Rabbi Nehemiah that those who convert in order to marry a Jew (Jewess) or for the sake of some material preferment are not considered bona fide converts. Following this statement, the Talmud adds in the name of Rav (leading Babylonian Amora of the First Generation) that the halakhah is in accordance with he who says that they are indeed bona fide converts.

Inquiry into the motive for a Gentile request to be converted goes unmentioned in the Talmud in its description of two actual cases of conversion (Shabbat 31a; Menahot 44a). While Maimonides writes that such investigation should be made, nevertheless, if it was not made and the Gentile performed the requisite rituals, he (she) is considered a full-fledged convert, even if it becomes known that an ulterior motive was involved (Hilkhot Issurey Biah 13).

Indeed, in one of Maimonides’ responsa, which deals with an actual case in which his legal opinion was solicited, he takes a similar opinion. According to the Mishnah (Yevamot 2:8), he who is suspected of having sexual relations with a slave-woman may not free her and convert her in order to marry her. Nevertheless, Maimonides writes: “Let him liberate her (and convert her) and we help him to do so in a spirit of gentility” (Pe’er HaDor No.211). The overwhelming majority of halakhists through the ages follow the latter opinion of Maimonides, and decide that conversion prompted by the desire to marry a Jew (Jewess) does not invalidate a conversion. Such, for example, is the decision of Rabbenu Yeruham (14th century) in his code Adam Vehava.

In the light of the foregoing, it is therefore halakhically permissible to accept a Gentile for conversion, even if the conversion is motivated by the desire to marry into the Jewish community.

2. Accepting the Yoke of the Commandments

Firstly, one notes, in this context, that the phrase “accepting the yoke of the commandments” does not appear in the Talmudic sources, though, to be sure, there is a statement that might be considered as such. In a Baraita (Yevamot 47 a-b) we read: “We inform the candidate for conversion of some of the easier and some of the more severe commandments, but we do not enlarge on this matter and do not go into detail”. Maimonides (Hilkhot Issurey Biah 13:2) writes in a similar vein and goes on to add: “We do not go into detail”. In the same chapter in his Code (13:7), Maimonides writes that if for any reason this phase of conversion was omitted, the fact does not invalidate the conversion.

The Shulhan Arukh (Yore Deah sec. 268) repeats Maimonides almost verbatim but adds that ab initio “accepting the yoke of the commandments” is indispensable but if the convert nevertheless married a Jewess without doing so, his conversion is not invalidated.

One raises the following very practical question in the light of present day circumstances, and especially in the light of what the Talmud says on the subject. What if the court (Bet Din), that convened to accept a candidate for conversion, is aware that after conversion the person involved will not observe some or most of the commandments, may he (she) be accepted? Does not the Talmud (Bekhorot 30b) declare: “A Gentile who comes to accept the Torah (conversion) except for one item (in the Torah), we do not accept him”? This passage received a telling interpretation by one of the leading halakhists of the early part of this century – Rabbi Haim Ozer Grodzensky (Responsa Ahiezer pt. 3, no. 26). The passage, he writes, means to say that if the candidate for conversion expressly stipulates that his conversion is on condition that he be exempt from fulfilling one or another mitzvah, then he is not accepted. But if he makes no such stipulation, and merely intends not to observe a mitzvah because of its inconvenience, this does not render him invalid for conversion.

The late Sephardic Chief Rabbi Uzziel (Mishpetei Uzziel no. 58) interprets the aforesaid Talmudic passage in a similar vein. He adds: “It may well be that he will have children who will be more positive in fulfilling the commandments”.

In our time, it is the accepted practice for a candidate for conversion to participate in a formal conversion course. In addition, it is recommended that he begin to attend synagogue on Shabbat and festivals and that he attend weddings, circumcisions and other life-cycle events.

3. The Ritual of Conversion

On this score, there is no difference of opinion in the literature of the halakhah. A male convert must undergo circumcision, followed by ritual immersion (Tevilah). A female convert requires ritual immersion.

4. Who is Authorized to Accept Converts?

The Talmud declares (Yevamot 46b) that conversion requires the presence of three people. Whether three are required for every phase of conversion or only for some is a matter of dispute among the halakhists. In any event, it appears undeniable from what Rashi writes (Kiddushin 62a) that any three Jews may validly testify to the convert’s ritual immersion and inform him of the commandments. Mordecai Ben Hillel (noted halakhist of the 13th century) indicates why this is so: “Just as the sages ordained that even non-experts may sit as a court in cases of loans, so as not to shut the door in the face of those in need of a loan, so too they ordained in regard to a convert.” That is to say, three Jews who know the laws of conversion may validly accept converts.

Summary

The foregoing gives rise to three conclusions:
1. Conversion for the purpose of marriage is valid.
2. A candidate for conversion is not invalidated where there is suspicion that he (she) will not observe all the commandments.
3. Even though the halakhah does not require three halakhic scholars to oversee the process of conversion, nevertheless it has been the practice for centuries for rabbis to oversee the process of conversion and accept converts into the fold. This practice should be followed today.

Rabbi Tuvia Friedman
Approved Unanimously 5749

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