Making Jews: Conversion and Mitzvot

March 1, 2011
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Yehiel E. Poupko

I write to pick up where Daniel Gordis leaves off. His description of the dilemma we face and of the various halakhic sources is accurate. He calls for “a conversation with each other — about what Jewishness is at its very essence and about how the changing face of world Jewry should and should not be reflected in conversion policy.” So let’s begin to talk. In the modern world, identity is self-constructed. Conversion is surely an expression of identity construction. According to a recent Pew Center report, Americans switch and adopt new forms of religion with a fair degree of frequency.

My grandfather had no Jewish identity; he was just Jewish. In traditional society, one is as one is born. In the matter of conversion, how can the contemporary reality of identity construction interact with the classic concept of kedushat Yisrael? This is our dilemma. Kedushat Yisrael, the metaphysical distinctiveness of the children of the patriarchs and matriarchs, is a consequence of ancient Israel standing at Sinai, and after hearing the word of God and experiencing revelation, agreeing to accept the responsibilities of being God’s chosen people. This kedusha is given concrete expression in a lifestyle characterized by observing the mitzvot. Kedusha is ever and always defined in proximity to the Holy One. Kedushat Yisrael is transmitted by mother to child because each mother is a child of someone who is of the sacred family of Abraham and Sarah, and thus possesses kedusha. Yisrael is a family that became a faith while remaining a family.

What, then, is gerut, or conversion? Maimonides’ careful and precise formulation reads as follows: “When a non-Jew seeks to enter the covenant and to gain shelter ‘neath the wings of the Shekhina and accept upon themselves the yoke of Torah, they require circumcision, immersion, and animal offering” (in Temple times). We see that the individual has already accepted the belief in the One God and the yoke of Torah. Having accepted the yoke of Torah, the non-Jew must perform certain covenant-making acts in order to become a member of the Jewish nation. In the middle ages, especially among Ashkenazim, differences emerged about the extent of knowledge and what commitments of practice would be required of the convert. However, it is indisputable that conversion means that the candidate has already arrived at a belief in One God and accepted the yoke of the Torah, the mitzvot that God commanded the people Yisrael.

Judaism is constituted of the acceptance and practice of the mitzvot. Thus, it is inconceivable that a non-Jew could enter the nation of Israel and acquire kedushat Yisrael without acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot. There is no Judaism without mitzvot. However, there have been different halakhic positions over the centuries as to whether or not the acceptance of mitzvot requires the complete and perfect knowledge and practice of the mitzvot at the time of conversion, like circumcision and immersion in the mikvah.

The conversation that Daniel Gordis calls for has begun and, in the past, reached a good and useful resolution. I am sad to say that the religious-political temper and activity of our time have muted the conversation. Long ago, the Talmud Bavli took an essentially negative posture toward conversion, whereas the Talmud Yerushalmi’s attitude was essentially positive. Responses from the 1950s and 1960s, by Israel’s late chief rabbis, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, Isser Yehuda Unterman, and Shlomo Goren, provide insight: If a non-Jew made aliyah and thus plighted his or her fate with the fate of the Jewish people, then circumcision and immersion in the mikvah, along with a general acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot, were sufficient to effect a halakhically valid conversion. Goren writes:

There is, in principle, no halakhic dispute or difference between the Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi…If one is speaking about Bavel or any other place outside the Land of Israel in which a majority of the population are non-Jews and in which the convert remains in the bosom of his non-Jewish family, there exists a real concern that the convert will not be able to utterly separate himself/herself from them. Rather, he/she will continue to live as an intimate member of his/her family… But, in Eretz Yisrael, the majority of whose residents are Jewish, even after the destruction of the Beit Ha Mikdash… those who convert in Eretz Yisrael will become assimilated in the midst of the Jewish population and will separate themselves completely from their non-Jewish family. There (Eretz Yisrael), it is much more reliable that the conversion will be trustworthy and secure… (Mishnat Hamdina; Jerusalem 5759; translated by Y. Poupko.)

The general practice of the Orthodox (during the past 100 or so years) requires complete knowledge of and perfect commitment to practice all the mitzvot. This is surely a response to one of the most monumental changes in Jewish life: By the time World War I arrived, a majority of Jewish people were no longer shomrei mitzvot, or commandment observant, as understood for centuries. In addition, 80 percent of the Jewish citizens of Israel do not practice the mitzvot. From an Orthodox perspective, this halakhic response to the change in Jewish social reality is the correct one for the Diaspora communities. However, great halakhic masters, such as those mentioned above, have held otherwise when it comes to non-Jews who want to convert and live in the present-day State of Israel.

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Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is the Judaic scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. (Institutional affiliation is merely for the purpose of identification. The ideas expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

1 Comment

  1. The statement ‘If a non-Jew made aliyah and thus plighted his or her fate with the fate of the Jewish people, then circumcision and immersion in the mikvah, along with a general acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot, were sufficient to effect a halakhically valid conversion.’ is not entirely correct. It should state ‘along with a general acceptance of the yoke of all mitzvot’. At the point of conversion they do not have to practice every mitzvot. They have to truthfully generally accept all mitzvot.

    Posted by
    Kenneth Perlman
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