The Conversion Controversy

Bereishit By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 5, 2002 / 5763 | Main Commentary | Conservative Judaism

Conversion is back in the news. During the High-Holy-Day period just ended, a Conservative rabbinic court in Eastern Europe completed the conversion process of eighteen Czech and nineteen Polish converts to Judaism. Some 80 per cent had Jewish roots. All studied formally for at least a full year (many more) and were obliged to be active in their respective Jewish communities. Prior to conversion, the men underwent either a full or symbolic ritual circumcision (if already circumcised), while both men and women went through ritual immersion. Another half-dozen in Prague are on their way to completing the conversion process.

The Orthodox rabbinate, as is its wont, condemned the conversions as invalid and obstructed the process. It denied access to the ritual baths under its control and in Prague ordered the organized community to withhold kosher meat from the converts. A few years ago when I visited Prague I was appalled to learn that to join the organized community one had practically to endure an inquisition in order to be certified as halakhically Jewish. As a result the community numbers a scant 1600 members, although the city is host to a population of 15-20,000 people with vestigial ties to Judaism, many of whom would welcome the chance to return. Instead of outreach, the Orthodox rabbi in Prague, a convert himself who was ordained in Israel and embodies the insularity of his patrimony, has circled the wagons. Across Europe an ensconced Israeli-trained rabbinate throws up endless barriers to deter prospective converts to Judaism. In miniature, the unaddressed tragedy of the Russian tidal wave of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel without recourse to a reasonable conversion is replayed in many a city in Europe, to the lasting detriment of the Jewish people.

What compounds this national tragedy is that the hard-liners have gone far beyond the dictates of normative halakhah on conversion. The governing principle of halakhic balance is enunciated by a brilliant and bracing midrash on our parashah which picks up a slight discrepancy in the narrative that we are likely to gloss over. When God first placed Adam in the Garden of Eden “to till and tend it,” God commanded him not to eat of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” (2:17). Yet when queried about that prohibition by the snake, Eve quoted God to the effect that “You shall not eat of it or touch it lest you die” (3:3). The embellishment, according to the midrash, gave the snake the chance to ensnare her. As Eve passed by the tree one day, he pushed her into it without ill effect and then proceeded to argue that just as touching the tree proved not to be fatal, neither would eating of its fruit.

The midrash understood the source of that embellishment to be Adam, to whom the order was issued before Eve’s creation. Hence, when Adam conveyed it to her, he must have expanded its scope to ensure her compliance. The injunction not to touch would keep her at a safe remove from the tree, diminishing the temptation to eat its fruit. However, the fence turned out to be her downfall, from which the midrash drew its lesson that “We ought not to make the fence more essential than the principle injunction, lest it give way and destroy the sprouts” (B’reishit Rabbah 19:3). The author of the midrash thus offers a cautionary note to a legal system prone to promote observance of its statutes by the erection of protective fences. A loss of balance between what is peripheral and central can lead unintentionally to the very opposite result.

It is this spirit of moderation that informs the second-century beraita (text) in the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 47a-b), which first formulates the four stages of the process that culminates in conversion to Judaism (see Shaye J.D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness, 1999, Chap. 7). Initially, candidates are to be disabused that there is any material advantage to joining the Jewish people. “Do you not know that Israelites at this time are pained, oppressed, harassed and torn and that afflictions come upon them? If he says, ‘I know and am unworthy,’ they accept him immediately” (trans. Cohen).

Stage two consists of some preliminary and partial instruction in Judaism: “And they make known to him a few of the light commandments and a few of the severe commandments” (trans. Cohen). More specifically, members of the court are to inform prospective converts about their obligations to support the poor, punishments for violating such commandments as eating forbidden fat or desecrating Shabbat and rewards for adhering to the commandments, especially in the world-to-come. Stages three and four include circumcision for males and ritual immersions for all, followed again by some brief instruction, to wit: “a few of the light commandments and a few of the severe commandments” (the same language as before) (trans. Cohen).

My point in citing this text is to highlight the fact that the conversion process as originally conceived was neither protracted nor exhaustive. Once the court determined the sincerity of the candidate, admission was granted forthwith. Equally important in a legal system that privileges the opinions of later rather than earlier authorities, the talmudic text is repeated verbatim by the twelfth-century code of Maimonides, the fourteenth century code of Asher ben Jaakov and the sixteenth-century code of Joseph Karo. In short, the prospective convert is not to be subjected to the full range of Jewish law, but only to “a few of the light commandments and a few of the severe commandments.” Conversion is the beginning of a lifelong journey to master Judaism, as indeed is being born Jewish.

There is, however, a conflicting talmudic source, that seems to raise the bar. It declares unequivocally that “A gentile who is prepared to accept the words of the Torah except for one thing is to be rejected. R. Yosi the son of R. Yehuda, says even a single rabbinic injunction (is enough for him to be rejected)” (BT Bekhorot 30b). The spirit of this pronouncement is clearly all or nothing. But what makes it less than normative is its context. It appears as part of a passage that deals with admission to a fellowship of Jews devoted to strict observance of the rules of tithing and the consumption of ordinary food in a state of ritual purity. Thus, R. Meir held that “An unobservant Jew admitted to membership in a fellowship, who becomes suspect regarding a single law of the Torah becomes suspect of violating the whole Torah.” Though the Rabbis disagreed with R. Meir (suspicion was not to run amok), the exclusiveness of the fellowship tended to set the bar for admission very high. By analogy, admission to Judaism was made equally rigorous.

But the analogy proved far too restrictive (such fellowships in ancient Palestine were far from common), and the medieval codes made little use of the passage. The ceremony admitting one formally and publicly into Judaism may, in fact, have had its roots in this world of holy fellowships, but then Judaism had long deemed itself to be a religion of universal import, even after the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kochba debacle.

In short, if ever there was a contemporary crisis in Jewish life susceptible to halakhic solution, it is the challenge of conversion. The sources do not require the adoption of a hard-line. The deviation on the right is as egregious as on the left. Piety is no better at impeding the abuse of power than other virtues. What suffers in the end when balance is lost is the public weal.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’reishit are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.