Friday, July 06, 2007

Converting to Judaism

There is a fascinating interview in the Jerusalem Post with Professor Bemjamin Ish-Shalom. Until I read this article I never heard of him. But what he says resonates with me. Professor Ish-Shalom among other things is the head of an institution that educates potential converts to Judaism. He has quite a bit to say about how conversions to Judaism are being handled today. And this is one of the most divisive issues of our day.

The subject of conversions is mentioned in several places in the Gemarah, (e.g. Yevamos 24B). The parameters are outlined and spelled out including various disputes among the sages. The technical aspects of conversions are rather well known: a Bris Milah (circumcision) and immersion in a Mikvah for a man; and for a woman just an immersion. But when it comes to the required commitment to observe Halacha, things get a bit murky.

The procedure is pointed out in the Rambam (Hilchos Isurei Biah 13:14) and Shulchan Aruch (Yorah Deiah 268: 12). Basically we make certain that there is no financial or empowerment motive. We check that they do not do it out of fear or a desire to marry. We then point out the difficulty in observing the Mitzvos and that Jews have been singled out and persecuted throughout history. If they still desire to become a Jew, we accept them lovingly. But even if they are not made aware of the reward of observance of Mitzvos, and punishment for lack thereof, once they are circumcised (for men) and have immersed in a Mikvah, they are Jewish whether they observe the Mitzvos or not. There is no going back.

The conversion process is also discussed in the Gemarah. It struck me when I learned it a couple of weeks ago, as it does now that these requirements are not as I thought they were. The elements as outlined by Professor Ish-Shalom are exactly as the Gemarah said they are. We do not demand maximum observance immediately upon conversion. That would be an impossibility. We only demand a commitment to it. That is what the Gemarah indicates and what the Shuchan Aruch sets forth as Halacha.

The Gemarah tells us that after we warn them of all the difficulties and they still want to convert, we teach them some basics and convert them immediately. Once converted, they are Jewish. The conversion cannot be repealed once done. The only way a convert's Judaism can be denied, is if it is determined that they lied about their commitment to observance. If he or she meant it, then after conversion, it’s final. The convert is Jewish.

That makes me question the incident that generated much of the more recent discussion about religious conversions. About six months ago by Rabbi Avraham Atia annulled the fifteen year old conversion of an unobservant woman and thereby her children’s Judaism as well. His reason was that she was not sincere in her claim that she was willing to observe the Mitzvos as she had not been observant at all over that period. But as the Gemarah and the Shulchan Aruch seem to say, that is not the parameter. Once she was converted she is Jewish forever, no matter whether she observes or not. It is all about her intent at the time of her conversion, not her acts post fact.

Now I am not a Posek. And I’m sure Rabbi Atia had his reasons. But as Professor Ish-Shalom points out the elements of that woman’s conversion were in compliance with Halacha. It would take extra-ordinary circumstances to void a conversion fifteen years after the fact. It would seem from the Gemarah, the Rambam, and the Shulchan Aruch that her non observance is not halachicly valid proof that her statement at the time of conversion was not sincere. And this fact makes Rabbi Atia’s actions very troubling.

Professor Ish-Shalom wants to change things. He is sympathetic to the demands of Charedi Poskim. It is only right and proper to demand maximum Halachic observance, but not as a precondition he says. That would, he says, would make it impossible for the large influx of quasi Jews who have immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union to covert. In fact it would make it impossible for virtually anyone to convert.

The basic Halacha does not require maximum observance from a new convert at the moment of his or her conversion, as far as I know. And this stringency seems to be contributing to a crisis in world Jewry today. Intermarriage is at an all time high. Non Jews from the former Soviet Union who had a non Jewish mother but Jewish father have made Aliyah thinking they were Jews. Non observant through no fault of their own they nevertheless participated fully in the culture as Jews and are indistinguishable from secular Jews. Their children for all intents and purposes are identical in every way to their Jewish counterparts, speaking Hebrew, learning in the same schools, and serving in the army. Professor Ish-Shalom believes it is in the best interests of Klal Yisroel to convert as many of these people as soon as possible because a generation or two from now we will have no way of knowing who is a Jew and who isn’t.

This is one of the most important issues of our time. The repercussions are exactly as Professor Ish-Shalom describes it.

On the other hand I completely understand the position of the Charedi Poskim in not wanting to convert people who will not be observant. Acceptance of Mitzvah observance may in fact be insincere and converts may only be paying lip service to it as part of a ‘procedure’ never really intending to observe. That, in my view seems like a non starter for conversion.

I am not knowledgeable enough on this issue to weigh one concern against the other. I haven't thoroughly learned all the Halachic parameters of conversions.

But it would be nice to see some sort of uniformity and universality of procedure developed on how to handle all conversion situations that develop before, after, and during the conversion process… that are based on solid principles of Halacha and not politics... which seem to be the driving force in much of Judaism these days.