Converting to Judaism – Never Easy

Judaism’s Acceptance of Converts

 Is it possible to reconcile the following Rabbinic sources?

The Only Reason G-d exiled the Jews among the nations was so that converts could be added. (Pesachim 87b)

Continuous evil comes to those who accept converts (Yevamot 109b)

Converts are hard for Israel like a nasty soar. (Yevamot 109b)

‘The Souls they made in Charan’ These are the converts which Avraham and Sarah converted. This teaches us that whoever brings a gentile close and converts him it is as if he created that person (Bereshit Rabah 39)

The names of Gerim are dear to me like idolatrous wine poured on the alter. (Vayikra Rabah 1)

Even a gentile who converted and busies himself with Torah is considered like the Cohen Gadol. (Bamidbar Rabah 8)

Come and see how beloved converts are to G-d… (Ruth Rabah 2)

Although most of the laws of conversion to Judaism are straightforward, the reality of the matter can be as difficult as reconciling the above.

Yitro was Moshe Rabienu’s Father in-law. According to many he was one of the first Gerey Tzedek – True Convert. However, the familial relation between him and Moshe was probably not the smoothest since Yitro was a Median idolatrous priest before his conversion.

And Moshe said to Chovav Ben Reuel the Midyanite, Moshe’s Father In-Law, We are traveling to the place which G-d said he would give us, come with us and we will be good to you because G-d has spoken well of Israel. (Bamidbar 10-29)

Moshe and Yitro - I'm sure you've seen it!
Moshe and Yitro – I’m sure you’ve seen it!

The Midrash informs us that Moshe’s father In-Law had many names. He was called Chovav because of his love for doing Mitzvot. His more popular name was Yitro. He was called Yitro because his suggestion added an extra paragraph to the Torah. (יתר means extra) The Pasuk and the Midrash demonstrate how accepting Judaism can be of converts. The Perasha containing the Ten Commandments is called Yitro.

However, Moshe Rabienu’s relationship with his father in-law who is so beloved to the Jewish people did not necessarily start out in the most kosher way. Another Midrash which seems in opposition to the one above says that Yitro only agreed to give Moshe his daughter to marry if their first born was to be dedicated to Idolatry. Some say that this is the reason why Moshe did not circumcise his first born son until Moshe’s life was endangered. (Torah Shelemah ?)

Building on this particular Midrash is Avot of Rabbi Natan and Baba Batra 109b which says that Yehonatan Ben Gershom Ben Menasheh who served as an Idolatrous priest (Shoftim 18-30) was really Moshe Rabienu’s Grandson. Since the king Menasheh was terribly evil the Tanach made a play on words but “in reality” this Idol Worshipping Levite was really Moshe’s Grandson.

These three Midrashic sources are not necessarily historic. However, they do accurately portray Jewish attitudes towards the assimilation of converts into the Jewish people.

They refer to Moshe Rabbienu who was the greatest man in Jewish history. They discuss his father In-Law who, as a convert, had a tremendous positive impact on the Torah’s Judicial system and Judaism as a whole.

The Midrash is actually saying that Moshe in some way agreed to have his child dedicated to sick idolatrous practices. In saying that Moshe Rabbienu agreed our Rabbis of Blessed Memory touch on the negative side of relations between a Jew and his spouse’s relatives. While trying to keep family relations Jews are often  flexible towards “that” part of the family.

The Statement in Avot of Rabbi Natan is saying that Yehonatan’s great grandfather, Yitro, had an effect on him which “opened his mind” up to pagan customs. Is it possible that a convert as great and devout as Yitro could have a negative effect on his progeny?

What we have discussed until now refers to very devout converts to Judaism. However, not all converts to Judaism are whole hearted. Towards converts like Yitro we must be accepting. What should we do about those with ulterior motives? Throughout the ages accepting people with ulterior motives also seems to be an argument, although there does appear to be a lenient attitude.

In Bamidbar (11-4) we meet the Asafsuf. “The Asafsuf lusted for meat.” These troublemakers riled up the whole nation to complain about the lack of meat. According to our Rabbis these  people were trouble maker Gerim. They were the Erev Rav – a group of Egyptians who were impressed by the miraculous defeat of Egypt. They decided to follow the Jewish people. Their complaints about the Epicurean situation in the desert caused very many people to die.

Many converts and their offspring have done tremendous good for the Jewish people. Onklus the Convert comes to mind first. He translated the Torah into Aramaic so that the masses could understand it. Rabbi Akivah’s grandparents were converts. Although he started out having great hatred for Rabbis he subsequently became one of the greatest leaders in Jewish History and was punished for this with a slow death at the hands of the Romans.

Our Rabbis of Blessed Memory have said that the prophet Ovadiah was an Edomite convert to Judaism. (Sanhedrin 39b) His prophesy predicts the downfall of Edom whose spiritual forebearers are the Christians.

However, Encyclopedia Judaica points out that according to Josephus during the time that the Bet Hamikdash was being destroyed many converts turned Jews into the Roman Authorities. I met several converts who when they converted were very honest about Judaism and Torah. However, after a while they got fed up with it and now hate most things which smell of Judaism.

The last two chapters of The Book of Ezra discusses the annals of the Jews who returned from the Persian exile. The last two chapters discuss how Ezra forced all of the returned exiles to divorce their gentile spouses and to disown their children. Ezra did not give the spouse’s any option to convert.

Our Rabbis of Blessed Memory have said that no two prophets prophesy in the same way even if they are discussing the same issue. This seems true when we view some of Ezra’s early contemporaries.

And many nations and great societies will come to look for the G-d of Hosts in Jerusalem and to seek G-d’s favor. This is what the  G-d of Hosts says, during those days 10 people of all of the foreign tongue will grab onto the corner of a Jew’s garment and say let us come with you because we have heard that G-d is with you. (Zechariah 8-22,23)

From the East all the way to the West my name is great among the nations…. (Malachi 1-11)

The attitude discussed by these prophets seems to be welcoming of Gentiles who are seeking G-d and Torah. It seems difficult that these prophets spoke of universalism just a few years prior to many people being forced to divorce their loved ones. However, it must be noted that Ezra viewed the gentile spouses as ordinary idolaters. They continued to practice idolatry and were still filled with the filth of the gentiles. (Ezra 9-1 using the word “To’eva”)

In the beginning of this century a decree was made in the spirit of Ezra Hasofer. Chacham Shaul David Sutton of Blessed Memory was a rabbi in Argentina for the small Syrian Jewish community.

….It is forbidden to accept converts in Argentina forever… If they desire they can go to Jerusalem, perhaps they will accept him. (Diber Shaul – Yoreh Deah Siman 3)

Additionally, it was decreed that it is forbidden to circumcise the children of such marriages. It is also forbidden to teach Torah to these children.  The children of mixed marriages consecrated with the onset of the Spanish Inquisition were known to turn in their Jewish parents in to the authorities who tortured the Jewish spouse and then burned them to death. (Diber Shaul – Yoreh Deah Siman 2)

This decree was also enacted in the Syrian Jewish Community of Brooklyn, without even allowing them to go to Jerusalem to convert. Indeed, I have been told that my grandfather Chacham Moshe Gindi was active in enacting the decree. He was also a signatory of this decree.

Today, most communities are accepting of those who convert for marital purposes. However, Let us try to see it through Chacham Shaul David Sutton’s eyes. Buenos Ares was a free Westernized city. In Syria Rabbis and the Bet Din were respected. In Western cities rabbis and community councils did not have any legal power or implied power. Only a strong community wide decree could aid situation which Rabbu Sutton found. A Cherem precludes doing business with those who have been ex-communicated.

Rabbi Sutton felt that those who had married “Converts” were trying to canard him. He asked them how the spouse was converted. The answer was that it was “none of his business” how things were done. Rabbi Sutton saw that such people desecrate the Shabbat and continue to eat treif. He did not write that he did not believe that the spouse converted. Rather he felt that it was impossible to keep “the community” together under such circumstances. Therefore, he made a decree against accepting converts. He additionally ruled that it is forbidden to teach Torah to the children of such a relationship. He viewed these children as worse than gentiles.

Rabbi Sutton believed that these converts must have immersed in a mikveh without kosher witnesses or Baki Bet Din. A Baki Bet Din is one which is known to be very knowledgeable in Halacha. A Baki Bet Din could not have ordinary Shabbat observant people.

The decree is certainly accepted in the given communities and has a lot of strong backing. It seems that although Rabbi Sutton’s view of reality is true the halachot upon which it is based is a Mochloket (Argument). Indeed, the Rishon Letzion Rabbi Ben-Tzion Chai Uziel of Blessed Memory discussed the issue in depth, His attitude, unknown to Rabbi Sutton, was to let those who came to Jerusalem be converted without making it too difficult.

Rishon Letzion Rabbi Ben-Tzion Chai Uziel
Rishon Letzion Rabbi Ben-Tzion Chai Uziel

The Rambam is very central to this discussion of accepting Converts. (Isurie Biah ch. 13)

14. Do not entertain the thought that Shimshon the Savior of Israel or Shlomo the King of Israel who was called “friend of G-d” married foreign women while they were still gentiles. Instead the real reason is as follows: The correct mitzvah is that when a potential convert, whether man or woman, comes to convert he needs to be checked after. Perhaps he wants to convert for money that he will get,  or an authoritative position or out of some fear he would like to convert. If he is a man it should be checked whether he is converting in order to marry a Jew. And if she is a woman then it should be checked whether her eyes have been put on a Jewish boy. If no motive is found then they should be informed about the yoke of following the Torah and how difficult it is for the ignorant to follow the torah. This is done in order to convince them not to convert. If they accept this and are not turned off and we see that they are returning out of love [for G-d] as it says [in The Book of Ruth] “Because she was stubborn to go with her and she stopped trying to convenience her.”

15. Therefore, The Bet Din did not accept any converts during the days of David and Shlomo. During the days of David because they might have returned out of fear. During the days of Shlomo because they might be converting to participate in the majesty, the goodness and greatness which Israel had in those day. Because whoever returns from being a gentile due to the vanities of the world is not part of those considered righteous converts. However, during the days of David and Shlomo there were still many converts in front of Hedyotot. (ordinary people) Then  the Great Bet Din would be concerned and would not turn them away after they immersed. However we do not come close to these converts until we see their lot.

16. Since we see that Shlomo converted many women and married them. Also Shimshon converted them and married them.  And we know that these [converts] returned out of ulterior motives. They were not converted through a Bet Din therefore the Tanach considers them gentiles and that they are still forbidden. Additionally, their end demonstrates what they really believed when they converted since they worshiped idols and built for themselves alters. The Tanach considers it that he (Shlomo) built them as it says “then Shlomo built an alter.”

17. A convert who was not checked after or was not informed of the mitzvot and their associated punishments yet he circumcised and immersed  in front of three ordinary people. He is still considered a convert. Even if it is subsequently clarified that he converted out of ulterior motives since he was circumcised and immersed he is no longer considered a gentile, however we still suspect him until his righteousness is proven. Even if he went back and worshipped idols he is considered as a rebellious Jew who performs idolatry whose marriage is considered a marriage. And it is a Mitzvah to return his lost articles since he immersed and is now part of Israel. Therefore Shimshon and Shlomo kept their wives even though their true [idolatrous] attitude was uncovered.

18. Therefore Our Rabbis of Blessed memory have said  “converts are worse for Israel than soars” since most of them return for a reason and then they cause Israel to stray. It is difficult to get rid of them once they have immersed. Just look what happened in the desert with the Golden Calf and in the “tombs of lust”  and so it is with most of the trials that the Asafsuf were a part of them.

Ch. 14 Hal 1.  How do we accept converts? When someone who is a gentile comes to convert then he is checked after and no ulterior motive was found. They should say to him “what have you seen that caused you to come and convert? Do you not know that during these days Jews are lowly and pushed around, wanderers and trampled on? And that tribulations are brought on them? If he says “I know and it does not matter” he is immediately accepted.

In addition to discussing the decree in the Syrian Jewish Community against accepting converts we can discuss related yet opposing issues:

  • Should any Bet Din set an official policy to convert a gentile who is married or living with a Jew?
  • How should we deal with a person whose conversion seems questionable?
  • Is a convert considered Jewish if they converted to marry someone from a community whose policy is not to accept converts?
  • Is it permissible to reject the children of such relationships from Jewish schools?

These questions are addressed by Rabbi Ben-Zion Chai Uziel of blessed Memory in several responsa. Additionally Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has a significant discussion on these subjects.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Z
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Z”L

In the first volume of Mishpetey Uziel (Mishpetey Uziel – Yo”d Siman 14)  Rabbi Uziel discusses whether we should accept gentile converts who are married to a Jew. His answer is that we can accept these people as converts. Their conversion is considered the best kind of conversion. Rabbi Uziel believes that these converts are returning to G-d out of love.

Rabbi Uziel’s main source for this is the Rambam (Peer Hador – Siman 132) who discusses a Mishna. The Mishna states:

If it was claimed against someone [that he was cohabiting with] his slave, if he frees her or if it is claimed against him [that he was cohabiting with] a gentile who then converted he should not then marry her, If he married her he does not need to divorce her.

The Rambam is asked about Binyamin who owns a very beautiful maidservant. Word got around that he was doing with her as he pleased. The Rambam first suggests that the slave be set free and thrown out. However, if Binyamin refuses then he should free her and marry her. Even though the Mishna says “he should not then marry her” ... this we will permit as an amendation for those who want to make Tshuva. (Takanat Hashavim)

Depiction of Rambam Maimonides teaching students about the 'measure of man' in an
Depiction of Rambam Maimonides teaching students about the ‘measure of man’ in an

Before concluding with this source from the Rambam Rabbi Uziel quotes many Acharonim who permit converting a gentile spouse or girlfriend.

Rabbi Uziel himself concludes by saying:

These precious words [of the Rambam] are like eyes for us in any instance which is not actually forbidden [to marry] like a claim [that he was cohabiting with a gentile] or he was married to her as a gentile. If we do not permit them to marry after she converts they will remain married for their whole lives while she is still a gentile. And their children will be mixed and totally removed from Israel….

We see that the Chief Rabbi of Israel – Rishon Letzion – Rabbi Uziel believed that it is absolutely best to convert the gentile partner of an intermarried couple. Rabbi Uziel has several other responsa on the subject which are quoted by the Rishon Letzion Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef Shlita”h – Who should be healthy.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef additionally quotes many more Acharonim in this discussion. They say that if a couple is living together or married through a secular court  when the  gentile partner desires conversion it is considered Leshem Shamayim – for the sake of heaven.  Since the couple is already married this conversion is not for the sake of marriage.

Additionally, The Mishna states that although it is forbidden Lechatechilah – from  the beginning – to marry a gentile with whom it was rumored that the two were having an amorous relationship. However, if they married they need not divorce. Since this couple is already married or living together when the gentile comes to convert they are allowed to stay married because of the pre-existing situation.

Subsequently Rabbi Uziel was asked specifically to address the situation of the Syrian Jews of Argentina. (Piskey Uziel 61 – Project Hashut) Several rabbis had transgressed Rabbi Sutton’s decree. He was asked whether the converts are still considered gentiles.

Rabbi Uziel answers that such converts are certainly considered Jewish. However, he also says that the decree should certainly be left in place forbidding the acceptance of converts unless they converted in Jerusalem.

In the body of his answer he questions whether such a decree is considered a fence protecting a Mitzvah. It might actually be a fence to encourage people to continue the grave sin of living with a Gentile. (Isur NASHGA”Z) Additionally, it distances their children from Judaism. Although these children are not considered “a Jew’s children”  they still have some Jewishness from their father. It may actually cause people to become more distanced from Torah and Judaism. Since they can not find a way of doing what they like in a permissible way they will possibly do it in the way which is forbidden.

The Gemarah in Yevamot concludes that a person who converts for the sake of marriage is considered Jewish. However everyone totally agrees that we do not accept this situation “at first” (“Lechatechila”)

The Tosafot Yevamot 24 say:

Itai Hagiti and the Daughter of Paroh [were allowed to convert] a reason why accepting converts was forbidden was because they convert in order to dine with majesty. However, these two already had such privileges so they were accepted as converts. [Although the policy was to not accept converts,] during the days of David and Shlomo 150,000 people converted. One can say that they converted by themselves. This is similar to what happened in the days of Mordechai and Esther, “And many of the nations of the land became Jewish etc.” Additionally, what we have seen in the second chapter of Shabat about the man who came to Hillel to convert on condition that he becomes High Priest. [Hillel converted him] because he was sure that the in the end the convert would serve in the name of G-d. Also from the chapter Hatechelet ….(Menachot 44a)

Rabbi Uziel says that from this Tosafot we have learned three lessons about converts with ulterior motives:

  1. One may convert with ulterior motives if they already have access to whatever it is that is causing them to convert. In other words while a gentile the potential convert has access to the Jew. Or, as discussed by the Gemarah and in the above Tosafot that the convert (Daughter of Paroh) will have access to dine with majesty after converting while she already possessed such a privilege.
  2. The Dayanim who are accepting the convert are certain that the convert will in the end do Mitzvot in the name of Heaven. That is to say that while converting the convert actually desires being Jewish although the reason which brought them to convert was for some ulterior motive.
  3. The warning not to accept a convert with ulterior motives is to the Bet Din. However, if they convert by themselves they are considered Jewish.

The Tosafot continues to say:

What has been stated that we do not accept converts with ulterior motives refers only to those who have been encouraged by others to convert and to those converts who were accepted the first time they asked for information about converting. However, if they demonstrate a real desire to convert then we accept them.

From the above discussion Rabbi Uziel concludes that even if a potential convert has clear ulterior motive, if the Dayan believes that in the end the convert will perform in the name of heaven we accept them without a problem. (Lechatechila).

A very important question which Rabbi Uziel touches on is that of the “Bet Din” that does the conversion. As we have seen the Rambam said that during the days of David and Shlomo they did not accept converts, However, very many did “convert in front of Hedyotot.” Some have said that these “Hedyotot” must be recognized as learned people. Therefore any conversion done by three simple Jews would be worthless and the “convert” would still be a gentile. (Kesef Mishneh) This is clearly how Rabbi Sutton believed.

Rabbi Uziel says that these Hedyotot could certainly be three ordinary Jews who combined into a “Bet Din” to convert certain individuals. Why else would the Rambam have written that the “Great Bet Din” would be concerned about them. Since the conversion was done under questionable circumstances the Great Bet Din would watch them to see if they are the type of people we would like to join our midst.

Even though these people are closely watched to see if they really continue to keep Mitzvot they are still considered Jews. That is to say that any marriage which they enter into is considered a marriage. Even if they stopped keeping the Mitzvot they are still considered Jewish.

Since they were converted under questionable circumstances we can assume that they were not even taught how to follow mitzvot. When they eat Clam Chowder for dinner they are no different from some Jews who are so distant that they do not know or care that such rules exist. Not only that but Rabbi Uziel claims that according to the Rambam a convert who resumes his church going idolatry after converting is considered a sinner who sinned out of lust for something.

When ordinary Jews resort to idolatry it is far more severe. They are considered sinners who sinned against G-d out of spite. A convert is only considered a lustful sinner because he grew up believing such stuff.

In saying that a Bet Din need not be great rabbis Rabbi Uziel relies on the Tosafot (Yevamot 47) who say that our accepting of converts is because we have been given emissarial responsibilities for accepting converts. These emissarial responsibilities can be performed by any Kosher Jew.

Therefore, it is considered a good conversion when three “kosher” Jews, who have not been fortunate to learn much Torah or who thirst for money from the conversion process, accept a gentile and convert him with Brit Milah then immerse him in a  Mikveh. This applies even if they did not tell the convert about any laws like Shabat, Niddah or Kashrut. It also applies if the convert is more psyched about being Jewish and coming closer to G-d then the “three Kosher Jews” or their Jewish spouse.

Such people whose conversions were under questionable circumstances are those whom the Rambam tells us that the Great Bet Din must be concerned with. If they keep mitzvot which they have learned then they are considered kosher converts.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef finishes off his discussion by saying that a convert must be accepting of what little Torah and Mitzvot he does know about. If a convert intends to scoff at Mitzvot and to eat Shrimp cocktails and the like then he is certainly considered an ordinary gentile or worse. Maybe he could be considered an anti-semite because of his hatred for Jewish customs.

Even in a place like Argentina (or Brooklyn) a person who is converted in front of a Hedyotot Bet Din which did not know or listen to the Decree is still considered a convert. Rabbi Uziel adds to this that it would be forbidden to turn the children away from Torah Studies.

Rabbi Uziel writes that he did not see the book Diber Shaul where Rabbi Sutton discussed his decree. As part of that discussion it was expressly stated that it is forbidden to teach Torah to the children of converts. Rabbi Uziel also said that the Takanah should be left in place and that, indeed, any honest converts should be sent to Jerusalem where their case will be heard.

Rambam – Halachot Isurie Biah Ch. 13 hal. 14, 15, 17, 18

Rambam – Ch. 14 Hal 1

Yebamot 21b – Nitenet Al Hashifcha

Yabiah Omer – Vol.8 Yo”d, Siman 24

Diber Shaul – Yo”d Siman 2

Mishpetey Uziel – Yo”d Siman 14

Piskey Uziel 61

Ramba”m Peer Hador -Siman 132

Encyclopedia Judaica – Proselyte

Malachi 1

Zechariah 8

Tarbiz – Likutey Tarbiz 1