Becoming Jewish‎ > ‎

Interested in Judaism?

                      Interested in Judaism? Choose the Hillel Rabbi.            Rabbi Allen S. Maller


My wife and I lived for almost two months in Warsaw in the fall of 2010, helping out in the Reform Progressive synagogue: Beit Warshawa. Very few of those who come there were born or raised as Jews. Almost all have amazing stories of recent discoveries that they had Jewish (or maybe Jewish) ancestors.

The Orthodox Beit Din in Poland does not accept oral testimonies: it demands written evidence of maternal Jewish decent. They also do not encourage conversion. For every person they do convert, there are several more that they push away. I heard testimonies to this effect from many sources. Most of those they push away come to Beit Warshawa, but many are discouraged and disappear.

Even the Reform Progressive Beit Din in Europe sometimes acts more like a gatekeeper than a welcomer. As a result of that experience I studied again the sources of Jewish thinking about converts, especially problematic converts. I was amazed to find that the famous narrative about Hillel, Shammai and some potential converts was much more powerful than I had remembered.


The Talmud informs us about three converts to Judaism who met one day and exchange accounts of their conversion experience. Each of them, it turns out, had first approached Shammai and told him of their own special conditions for conversion. Shammai scolded, repulsed, and pushed away all of them (two of them physically).

Then they went to Hillel who accepted them, with their own special conditions; and converted them. Some time later when the three converts met and exchanged accounts of their experience they concluded that “Shammai's irascibility sought to drive us away from the (Jewish) world, but Hillel's gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shechinah”. (Shabbat 31a)


Hillel and Shammai exemplify two very different approaches to problematic potential converts. Should we as rabbis reject people who wish to convert quickly on their own terms, or to convert to a type of Judaism different from what the rabbi who is asked to process the conversion practices, or for reasons that are clearly not idealistic? The details of the three individuals cases referred to above are related in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) as follows.


A man once came to Shammai and asked him, “How many Torahs do you have?” Shammai replied, ‘Two; one written and one oral.” “I will believe you about the written Torah but not about the oral Torah. Convert me on condition that you teach me only the written Torah.” Shammai rebuked the man and ordered him to get out.


When the man went to Hillel, Hillel converted him. One day Hillel taught him the alefbet in order; the next day he reversed the order of the letters. “But yesterday you taught me the letters in a different order” he protested. Hillel replied, “See, you have to rely on a teacher to teach you the order of the written letters, in the same way you have to rely on a teacher to teach you the interpretations of the oral Torah.”


Shammai strongly rejects the first potential convert because he sets preconditions about what he will believe. This man has already learned something about the oral Torah and how it differs from the written Torah, and prefers a Sadducee form of Judaism.

Shammai's reaction is not that different from how an Orthodox Ashkenazy rabbi would react today to a potential convert who is honest and says that he or she will observe Shabbat and Pesach food laws, according to Conservative or Sephardic law; not Orthodox Ashkenazy law.

I think many Reform Rabbis would expect and understand why he would do this, although we might say that if a rabbi is the only one in a wide area he or she should be extra flexible.


Hillel takes a very different path. He respects the man’s honesty, accepts him as a student, and teaches him for conversion. Then, as he teaches him, Hillel shows the man why an oral interpretation from a living teacher is necessary. Acceptance and conversion come first, orthodoxy comes later.

Since the Talmud requires that a modest and eager potential convert should be received at once; and need only be taught a few of the major principles and a few of the minor ones (Yevamot 47a-b); it is not necessary for a rabbi (or a convert) to have an all or nothing rule.


The Talmud relates that on another occasion a man came to Shammai and said, “Convert me, but on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai drove him away with the yardstick that he happened to have in his hand. When the man came to Hillel, Hillel said to him, “What you hate, do not do to your fellow human. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Go and study.”


Once again we see the great difference between Shammai and Hillel. Shammai believes that Torah and Judaism must be taught slowly, over a long time. Hillel is a romantic. In today’s terms Hillel knows that while most couples take months, or even years, to make a commitment to marry; some couples fall in love right away, and have no doubts.

In Talmudic terms; most people only earn a place in paradise with decades of righteous living, but some people earn it in one day, with one major act.

Thus, some people need years of Jewish living to become fully merged into the Jewish community; others fit in right away, because they are not converting, their souls are simply returning home. Hillel sees that this man has his heart and soul in the right place and only needs to feel a warm welcome to call him home. Hillel accepted this potential convert and sent him forth to learn all the details that flow from his desire to be Jewish.


Two decades ago I met a recent Russian immigrant who had started an introduction to Judaism class in Boston. She had to leave the class to move to L.A. with her husband for his new job. She was six months pregnant and wanted to be Jewish before the baby was born, because she was the child of a mixed marriage in the Soviet Union, and she did not want her child to have a similar experience. She told me that at age18 everyone in the USSR had to get an identity card.

Since her father was Jewish, and her mother was Russian, the government official told her she could pick either one for her identity card, but she could not change it once it was issued. She said she wanted her identity card to read: Jewish. The official, and then his boss, spent over a half an hour arguing with her that this was a very bad decision. She insisted and it was done.

When I heard that story, I told her that in my eyes she had already become Jewish by that act alone. I was ready to convert her next month. I did. And I was at the circumcision of her son two months later. The family joined my congregation, and were members for several years, until they moved to another part of town.


The case of the third potential convert is the most startling, A non-Jew overhears a school teacher describing to his class the High Priest’s fancy vestments. He decides to convert, so he too, can become a Jewish High Priest. He went to Shammai and said, “Convert me on condition that you appoint me as a High Priest.” Shammai drove him away. (I think most Reform Rabbis would do the same.) He went to Hillel, and Hillel did not reject him.

Hillel started the man on the path to conversion in spite of his absurd demand, by telling him to study the Torah’s laws relating to the priesthood so he could prepare himself. The new convert did study, and when he realized that even King David could not become a Priest, he returned to Shammai and said that he now knew there was no way that he could become a High Priest. Then he went and blessed Hillel for converting him, even when he had made such an absurd demand. (Shabbat 31a)


This is the most amazing of the three accounts. The first man wanted to convert to a Sadducee view of Judaism i.e. a non Pharisee denomination. This is like asking an Orthodox Rabbi to convert someone to Conservative or Reform Judaism. Shammai refuses to do it, but Hillel does convert him and later influences him to accept the Pharisee view. In the second case, Shammai rejects a rapid conversion process, apparently without knowing much about the man and his circumstances.

Hillel is more flexible and the outcome justifies his trust in the man. But in the third case the man has a totally childish and inappropriate motivation for becoming Jewish. How does Hillel justify his decision? We do not know, but he turns out to be right. Maybe this case serves to warn rabbis not to be too quick, or too denominationally narrow minded, in judging the standards of other rabbis. Maybe we should be guided by the Bible’s statement, “Do not be too righteous; or too smart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:17)


The Talmud introduced this whole section with the following statement: “A man should always be as flexible as Hillel, and not as inflexible as Shammai.” This lesson should still be applied by rabbis today whenever they encounter a potential convert, especially a problematic one. An example of a Talmudic sage, who like Hillel, was very accepting of a problematic potential convert is Rabbi Hiya, a disciple of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi; who decided to convert a well known harlot who wanted to marry one of his students.


This student of Rabbi Hiya had heard about a harlot in a faraway city who charged four hundred gold coins for her services. He sent her the exorbitant fee and set an appointed time to meet her. When, after many days of difficult travel, the lust filled student arrived at the appointed time ...the prostitute unclothed herself and sat on a king size bed. The student of Rabbi Hiya joined her on the bed.

As he was undressing himself, his talit tzitzit slapped his face. He fell off the bed on to the floor, where he was joined by the woman. "I swear by the Roman Caesar," the harlot exclaimed, "I will not let you go until you reveal to me what flaw you have found in me!"

"I swear," the student replied, "that I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. However, there is a mitzvah commanded by our God, called tzitzit. Concerning this mitzvah it says, ‘Look at them and remember all the Mitsvot’”. (When I saw the tzitzit I knew I should not do this. Keep the money and let me go.)

"I will not let you go," the prostitute said, "until you provide me with your name, the names of your city, rabbi and the school in which you study Torah." He wrote down all she asked for; handed it to her, and left.

The woman sold all her possessions. A third of the money she gave to the government (to pay her taxes, or so they would allow her to convert to Judaism), a third she handed out to the poor, and the remaining third she took with her -- and she proceeded to the school the rabbinical student had named; the Yeshivah of Rabbi Hiya.

"Rabbi," she said to Rabbi Hiya, "I would like to convert to Judaism."

"Perhaps," Rabbi Hiya responded, "you desire to convert because you want a Jewish man?" The woman took out the piece of paper with the information and told the rabbi what happened. "Go and claim that which is rightfully yours.” Rabbi Hiya proclaimed. (Talmud Menahot 44a)


Some Rabbis would push away a woman who wanted to convert because she was interested in a Jewish man. But Rabbi Hiya did not push her away. Many Rabbis would push away a woman who had gone astray as a prostitute, but Rabbi Hiya did not push her away. Rabbi Hiya knew the Biblical narrative relating that when the two spies that Joshua sent to Jericho were in danger of arrest, a prostitute named Rahav hid them from the police, and then helped them escape.

According to rabbinic tradition (Pesikta Rabbati 40, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 22, 37), Joshua later married Rahav, and among her descendants was the prophet Jeremiah. So Rabbi Hiya welcomed a seemingly reformed harlot for herself, and perhaps for her future righteous descendants.


The examples of Hillel and Rabbi Hiya should guide us today in deciding how to accept people with a blemished past and/or with mixed motives for conversion. When Rabbi Hiya proclaims, "Go and claim that which is rightfully yours.” he asserts that just as every Jew who sins has the right to repent; every non-Jew, even a blemished non-Jew, has the right to convert, and to marry any Jew he or she loves.

The account in the Talmud thus concludes, “She ended up marrying the man. The bed which she originally prepared for him illicitly, she now prepared for him lawfully.” (Menahot 44a)


I think Rabbis of today should not forget these four examples of Hillel/Hiya practice. Let us welcome most people who are potential converts; even if sometimes we have some doubts; even if a few of them fail to work out; and even if a few of them turn out to be annoying irritants that itch (Kiddushin 70b) like a scab; either because they become overly pious Jews, or because they remain blemished, like some Jews born into the Jewish community, still remain blemished after joining a congregation. Their descendants still can be a blessing.

As the Midrash teaches, “When a person wants to become part of the Jewish people, we must receive him or her with open hands so as to bring that person under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Leviticus Rabbah 2:9).
Comments