Laws Relating to Converts By Eliezer Melamed (Israeli Orthodox)
Judaism's Positive Approach to Converts
If a German or Arab seeks to join the Jewish people, even if he is the son of a fierce anti-Semite, we should accept him and love him like any other Jew. Moreover, we shall love him even more than other Jews, by keeping the commandment to "love the convert, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19)."
In addition, the Torah adds two more prohibitions against
grieving the convert: "You shall not wrong a stranger, nor
oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt"
(Exodus 22:20) and, "If a stranger sojourns with you in your
land, you shall not wrong him. But the stranger who dwells with you
shall be to you as one born among you, you shall love him as
yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord
your God." (Leviticus 19:33-34)
In a positive sense as well, we are twice commanded to love the convert (Rambam, Hilchot Deot 6:4). Firstly, we must love the convert like any other Jew, as it is written, "Love your fellow as yourself " (Leviticus 19:18). And again, regarding a convert in particular, it is written, "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:19).
The only reason that Judaism seeks to dissuade the convert is in order to see if he sincerely wishes to join the Jewish people, or if this is just a passing desire which will disappear in a few years. (Also, since Jews do not believe that all non-Jews need to become Jewish in order to be saved or go to heaven, we do not push conversion on those who are not interested.)
Only a few decades ago the terrible Holocaust took place, and
before that there were countless pogroms. Even today there is much
anti-Semitism in the world, and many Muslims wish to do away with us.
And all of this is because we are Jewish. So why do you want to join
our suffering nation?
If you desire to attain a higher level of
righteousness and morality, you should be aware that a non-Jew too
can be righteous and can even reach a level of divine inspiration. If
he says, "Despite this I desire to join you; my only concern is
that I may not be worthy," he is immediately accepted, and the
second stage of the conversion process begins.
He is taught the fundamentals of Jewish faith, the prohibition against idolatry, and a number of other laws. Then he is told, "You should know that so long as you are not Jewish it is permissible for you to labor on the Sabbath and to eat pork or other non-kosher animals. When you convert, however, all of these things become forbidden, and if you violate the Torah you will be punished." If he agrees and accepts this upon himself, he is converted.
One important question is, how many laws must the convert be taught before he is asked if he is ready to accept upon himself the commandments of the Torah? Another question is, should he be told in detail the Torah punishments applying to one who violates the commandments?
is clear to all that there is no need to teach him the entire Torah.
It is sufficient to teach him some of its foundations, and if he
accepts them, it is already possible to convert him. This is what is
written in the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:2):
"He is taught some minor commandments and some major commandments, and he is taught some of the punishments for
violating the commandments," but, "we do not overburden him
and we are not overly strict with him."
The reason for this is that even if he is sincere, if he is suddenly confronted with all of the stringencies and fine details, he will recoil and change his mind about converting.
Rather, he is taught the fundamentals, and if he demonstrates a willingness to accept the Duties of the Torah, he is converted immediately, and then continues to study and to grow as a Jew.
But the same person came to Hillel the Elder, and Hillel
agreed to convert him, saying, "That which is undesirable to
you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah, the rest is
all commentary. Now go study" (Shammai
thought a fixed minimum of study was required for everyone. He would
not do a quick conversion.
Hillel realized that some people need a
lot of time and some very sincere people need only a short time. Most
people need months of dating before knowing they are in love, but for
a few, it is love at first sight.)
second non-Jew came before Shammai the Elder and asked, "How
many Torahs do you have?" "Two," answered Shammai,
"One is written, and another which is oral." The non-Jew
said, "I can accept the written one, but I cannot accept the
oral one. Convert me on the condition that you teach me only the
written Torah." Shammai scolded him and sent him away.
went to Hillel, and Hillel converted him.
Hillel started teaching him and finally convinced him to believe in
the Oral Torah. (Just as Chabad does
not use an all or nothing demand, but works with any Jew for years,
Hillel also did not reject any potential convert with an all or
nothing demand. Hillel converted the non-Jew who afterwards began to
follow the oral Torah more and more.)
third non-Jew came to Shammai the Elder and said, "I would like
you to convert me on the condition that I be able to wear the clothes
of the High Priest." Shammai the Elder immediately
pushed him away, for a convert
cannot become a Priest. (This is obvious. Shammai thought the
potential convert's desire to “wear the clothes of the High Priest”
was an indication of a personality tending toward extreme piety, and
that was undesirable in a convert or any other Jew.)
The same person came to Hillel and said to him, "I would like you to convert me on condition that I be able to wear the clothes of the High Priest," and Hillel accepted him and converted him.
understood that these three different non-Jews had pure and good
intentions, and only lacked the ability to express themselves in a
fitting manner. He
was certain that when it came down to it, they would continue to
learn Torah and fulfill all of the commandments (Tosafot, Yevamot
109b, s.v. "Rah").
From here we learn that it is
unnecessary to learn all of the Torah's laws before converting;
it is sufficient that the rabbinic court reach the conclusion that a
convert earnestly intends to join the Jewish people and accept upon
himself the Yoke of the Torah (Beit Yosef 268, end).
The sages teach (Shabbat 31a) that years later these three converts happen to be together in one place, and they said, "In his strictness, Shammai sought to drive us out of the world; in his humility, Hillel brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence."
However, this is a very difficult decision for the rabbinic court to reach. If the prospective convert is sincere in his intention to keep the commandments but the rabbinic court suspects him of being insincere, the court causes great damage to both the Jewish people and the convert, and is punished for this.
(This was the case, for example, when our forefathers refused to
accept Timna. She eventually distanced herself greatly from the
Jewish people, marrying Elifaz and giving birth to Amalek, who
grieved the Jewish people greatly. Sanhedrin 99b)
a rabbinic court accepts somebody who does not intend to keep the
commandments, they may cause great damage to the Jewish people.
(This is false. Great
harm only occurs to the Jewish people when a rabbinic court doesn't
accept someone. The
Talmud says Jews suffered the great damage of being enslaved in Egypt
because Abraham failed to give some non-Jews an opportunity to
32a) See also Sanhedrin 99b above about Amalek.
The possibility of
some harm from accepting converts was only true after Roman law made
it illegal for someone to convert to Judaism. As late as 1749 a
Polish Count, Valentine Potocki, who had secretly converted to
Judaism, was burned alive in the center of Vilna. Even today in Iran,
Muslims who convert to another religion have been jailed and
But, in democratic countries no such danger
has ever occurred. Modern Anti-Semitism is rooted in political and
racist ideology; and the church today is not what it was in the past.
Making it easier to become Jewish shows that Jews are not
anti-gentile and that we welcome non-Jews into the Jewish community.
Thus, Rabbi Eleazar taught, “The Holy One exiled Israel among the
nations only in
order that proselytes might be multiplied among them.” (Pesachin
87b) It is true that there were many more converts to Judaism in
diaspora Jewish communities than in the land of Israel.
anti-Roman feelings of many Jews in the land of Israel not only
flared into two disastrous revolts, in 66-70 CE and again in 132-135
CE, but also must have expressed itself among some Jews in ongoing
suspicion and hostility toward non-Jews who had converted as well as
those who were interested in becoming Jewish.
teaching that gaining converts was so important that God sacrificed
Jerusalem and the Holy Temple in order to multiply converts is
amazing. Of course, it is possible that Rabbi Eleazar was simply
trying to make the best of a bad thing. But he must also have thought
making converts was of extraordinary importance.
Eleazar thought that if the Jewish people was much more numerous
(like the stars in the sky or the sand on the beach) we would be a
lot less likely to be defeated and oppressed by others. Thus, the
failure to make large numbers of converts in the past led to the
subsequent vulnerability of the Jewish people.
According to Eliezer Malamed the few negative statements in the Talmud about converts are not racist, but refer to people where there is evidence, not just suspicion, that they are insincere.) This is why (two) sages say (Yevamot 109b): "Evil will come upon those who accept [insincere] converts," and "[Insincere] converts are as burdensome to Israel as a sore" (ibid., Tosafot). Thus, all non-Jews who desire to convert should be considered sincere unless there is evidence that their motives are bad.)
When it is clear to the rabbinic court that the answer to these two questions is affirmative, the main part of the conversion process is complete, and the rabbinic court proceeds to carry out the practical aspects of the conversion. Just as the Jewish people entered a covenant with the Almighty via three acts - circumcision, ritual immersion, and sacrifice - so must the non-Jew who seeks to join us enter the covenant of the Jewish people via circumcision, ritual immersion, and sacrifice. Since the Holy Temple no longer exists, Jewish law rules that it is possible to convert without offering a sacrifice.
Therefore, the foremost
condition of conversion is that the convert accept upon himself the
Torah. It is possible to say that the Torah of Israel is essentially
an expression of the national character of the Jewish people. The
spirit of the Torah and the spirit of the nation are one.
Therefore, it is unthinkable that a person convert without embracing the Torah. Just as the Jewish people became a nation by accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai, so must one who wishes to join the Jewish people accept upon himself the Torah as an individual before a rabbinic court.
from a legal point of view, the rabbinic court's main consideration
is whether or not the prospective convert is indeed ready to accept
the Torah and its commandments. And so long as the rabbinic court is
uncertain about the veracity of the convert's intentions, it is
unable to convert him.
However, if after the rabbinic court becomes convinced that the convert's intentions are pure and goes ahead and converts him, then the convert begins to neglect the Torah, he nonetheless continues to be considered Jewish. Just as a Jew who does not yet observe all of the commandments of the Torah is nonetheless considered Jewish, so a convert who subsequently neglects the Torah remains Jewish.
we teach him the essentials, beginning with commandments relating
Jewish faith, and, conversely, the prohibition against of idolatry.
Thereafter, we move on to commandments which tell us how to behave
toward others, and then we teach him the fundamental laws relating to
the Sabbath, family purity, and kosher diet.
if a convert is prepared in principle to accept the Duty of the Torah
and its commandments, but believes that from time to time he will
have to transgress some of the commandments? Strictly speaking, it
is clear that there is no dispensation for desecrating the Sabbath,
even occasionally; neither is it permissible even in difficult
conditions to eat forbidden foods.
Nonetheless, the imminent Rabbi
Chaim Ozer Grodinski, (known as the "Achiezer") holds that
it is possible to convert such a person. This is because we relate to
the acceptance of commandments in principle. In principle, the
convert has agreed to take upon himself observance of the
commandments, and it is only on occasion that he believes he will
transgress. (After all, no human, Jew or non-Jew, is perfect, and as
Solomon advices us, “ Do not be overly righteous, and do not make
yourself to be excessively wise.” Kohellet 7:16)
Although there are important authorities who disagree with the opinion of Rabbi Grodinski in practice, many others follow his ruling. Thus, if it is clear to a rabbinic court that a convert accepts the commandments in principle, it is possible to convert him (or her). (Indeed, it is a Mitsvah.)
with some additional comments in parenthesis by Allen Maller, an American Reform Rabbi who reminds everyone that 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).
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