Acceptance of Mitzvos as Part of the Conversion Procedure
Two aspects of this week’s parashah connect the weekly reading with an issue that has recently made headlines in Jewish society worldwide—and in Israel in particular: Conversion to Judaism. Yisro was the first person to convert to the nascent nation of Israel. Additionally, the giving of the Torah at Sinai is the source for the Talmudic laws of conversion (Krisos 9a; Yevamos 46b).
We therefore take the opportunity to discuss the procedure of conversion, and in particular the question of mitzvah acceptance on the part of the would-be convert. How extensive is the need for the future convert’s commitment to mitzvah observance? When does this become a factor capable of totally invalidating the conversion?
Mitzvah Observance in Chazal
Several passages in the Talmud are quoted in the context of commitment to mitzvah observance. By way of introduction, we will cite a number of them.
The principle passage in the Talmud that deals with the procedure of welcoming converts into Israel(Yevamos 46a-b) makes no mention of the requirement of mitzvah observance. Rather, the Talmud discusses the question of whether the main element of the conversion procedure is milah, circumcision, or tevilah,immersion in a body of water. The conclusion of the Gemara follows the opinion of Chachamim, who state that both elements—circumcision and immersion—are essential.
A third component of the conversion procedure, namely, acceptance of mitzvos, is mentioned after the conclusion of the passage. The Talmud (Yevamos 47a) quotes a baraisa which states as follows:
A convert who wishes to convert to Judaism in our times must be asked, “What brings you to convert?”… And he is told some of the mitzvos, including some of the more severe commandments and some of the lesser… but we do not expound on this matter and do not go into detail. If he accepts, we circumcise him immediately.
The wording of the baraisa implies that the convert must accept upon himself the mitzvos of the Torah. Moreover, the ensuing Gemara makes further mention of “acceptance of the yoke of mitzvos,” implying that this is an integral part of the conversion procedure.
On the other hand a story cited by the Gemara (Shabbos 31b) seems at first glance to indicate that immediate total acceptance of mitzvah observance is not absolute. One of the anecdotes mentioned by the Talmud tells of a particular non-Jew who wished to convert to Judaism, yet refused to accept upon himself the precepts of the Oral Tradition. Whereas Shammai refused to convert him, Hillel accepted him, and converted him.
This does not indicate that one can convert without a commitment to future mitzvah observance, since Rashi comments that Hillel was certain that the convert would later commit himself to total mitzvah observance. However this source appears to indicate that the acceptance of mitzvos is not integral to the conversion procedure. Had it been such, Hillel would surely not have been able to accept the convert, for without the Oral Tradition our ability to perform mitzvos is extremely limited.
An additional passage in the Talmud (Bechoros 30a), however, states that “we do not accept a non-Jew who wishes to accept upon himself the entire Torah except one single mitzvah.” This passage indicates that the agreement to adhere to all mitzvos is a required and integral element in a conversion, and it must include all the mitzvos of the Torah.
Nonetheless, there is room to argue that the Gemara only means to state that we do not accept converts, on a lechatchilah level, unless they accept all of the mitzvos. It remains possible that after the fact, if a convert was received without having committed himself to total observance of all the mitzvos, the conversion remains valid. ((See, concerning this source, Beis Yitzchak, quoted it note 2; Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, vol. 1, no. 157.))
Later rabbinic authorities have expounded on the Talmudic passages above, seeking to extract the halachic ruling for cases in which a convert’s mitzvah acceptance was incomplete, insincere, or entirely absent. In the coming sections we will briefly note the main halachic opinions on this matter.
Acceptance Of All Mitzvos and their Correct Performance
According to a number of prominent authorities, and in particular poskim of the recent generations, a conversion cannot be valid without total commitment to properly perform all of the mitzvos.
The first to clearly articulate this opinion is Beis Yitzchak (Rav Yitzchak Schmelkes, vol. 2, no. 100). His stance, with minor variations, has been adopted by such luminaries as Achiezer (Rav. Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, vol. 3, no. 26), Chelkas Yaakov (Rav Yaakov Breisch, vol. 1, no. 13), and Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah 306, s.v. Eino Yehudi), among others. The following is a brief extract from Beis Yitzchak:
If she only converts superficially, and has no intention to perform mitzvos, and we know of her intention to later disregard the laws of ritual purity, Shabbos, and non-kosher foods, then she is not a proselyte at all… The Torah demands sincere conviction, and she is not considered to be a convert if she is insincere, even if she is taught to say that she accepts the entire Torah.
An important aspect of this position is that we do not apply the general principle whereby devarim shebalev einam devarim, meaning that a person’s thoughts have no legal relevance. In the process of conversion, a person’s thoughts are relevant, for conversion implies a deep, inner process, and a conversion that is not sincere cannot be valid.
Acceptance of Mitzvos Based on the Convert’s Understanding
Iggros Moshe (Rav Moshe Feinstein, Yoreh Deah vol. 1, no. 157) totally agrees with the above-mentioned opinions. Nontheless, in a different responsum (no. 160) he presents a somewhat different view of how the principle could be applied.
He addresses the question of a woman who was converted in a Conservative beis din, with the intention of marrying a Jewish man who did not keep Shabbos. Can such a conversion be valid?
Although Iggros Moshe answers this question in the negative, he writes that the (principle) reason for this is that a court made up of Conservative ‘rabbis’ is by definition void, and their conversions are therefore invalid. However, he states that although he personally disagrees, one can understand those who validated the woman’s mitzvah acceptance. Although the lady in question certainly didn’t accept the precise upkeep of all the mitzvos, she did accept upon herself to uphold the laws of the Torah to the best of her understanding—since her view of what is called keeping Shabbos was based on observing her future husband’s actions.
Based on a Gemara in Shabbos (68b), Iggros Moshe shows that it is possible for a non-Jew to convert to Judaism even if he is unaware of the mitzvah of Shabbos, or even if he is ignorant of the prohibition of idolatry—the most fundamental aspect of Jewish law! This leads Iggros Moshe to the conclusion that mitzvah acceptance does not have to be a precise reflection of Torah law, but rather a sincere commitment to keeping mitzvos according to the proselyte’s personal understanding. If he believes that various desecrations of Shabbos are permitted, this does not flaw his acceptance of mitzvos, and the conversion would remain valid.
Rabbi Feinstein uses the same argument (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, vol. 3, no. 106) in the case of a lady who wished to convert to Judaism, yet refused to adopt a modest code of dress. Rav Moshe explains that she believed it was permitted to dress immodestly and that the rabbis who prohibited the practice were stating stringencies and not the law itself. Under such circumstances, the conversion is not rendered invalid, after the fact, by failure to accept the Jewish dress code.
It should be noted that even Achiezer, who adopts the more stringent approach towards mitzvah acceptance, concedes that the proselyte need not be the most righteous Jew in the world. If he accepts upon himself the mitzvos, yet fails to perform some of them because of te’avon (lust; human weakness), his conversion remains valid. According to Iggros Moshe, the principle extends not only to failure in mitzvah fulfillment but even to a relative acceptance of mitzvos, based on the proselyte’s personal grasp of them.
The Proselyte’s Sincerity
We mentioned above that Beis Yitzchak, and a number of authorities that follow his position, state that the principle whereby a person’s thoughts have no legal bearing does not apply to conversion. In conversion, we desire the inner change of the proselyte, and his inner thoughts are therefore significant.
This position is challenged by Rav Kook, who maintains that even with regard to conversion, we may rely on the verbal declaration of the convert, without investigating his inner thoughts. This principle, which is highly relevant for the contemporary controversy over acceptance of converts, is stated in Daas Kohen (no. 153):
Provided that proper mitzvah acceptance was articulated verbally, we can state that the thoughts of his heart (devarim shebalev) are of no interest to us, because they have no legal bearing. Even if Elijah the Prophet were to inform us that the proselyte is insincere, that would be of no relevance… and it is obvious that as soon as he is circumcised and immerses, and verbally accepts the mitzvos, we assume that he is a true convert, and we are not responsible for his thoughts.
Rav Kook presents a novel proof to this approach from a well-known statement of the Midrash (Mechilta, Mishpatim 13): “When Israel stood at Sinai, they attempted to deceive G-d (lignov daas ha-Elyona). They said, ‘everything which Hashem stated, we shall do and hear,’ as it were (kevayachol).” According to Mechilta, there was ‘deceit’ on Israel’s part in their very acceptance of the commandments at Sinai. Later Midrashim mention that the idol of Michah was among them, and even as they accepted the Torah their heart strayed after idolatry.
It should be noted that Rav Kook did not use this rule in order to be lenient. Rather he refused to invalidate the marriage of a husband who was converted.
The Position of the Shulchan Aruch
In the analysis above, we have briefly surveyed a number of different approaches to the part of mitzvah acceptance in the conversion procedure. We have not, however, addressed the fundamental question of whether or not the acceptance of mitzvos is an absolute requisite for the validity of the conversion.
According to the opinion of Tosafos (Yevamos 45b, s.v. mi lo tavlah), the principle part of the conversion procedure is the acceptance of mitzvos.There, whereas the other parts of the conversion procedure do not need to be performed in front of a beis din, the declaration of mitzvah acceptance must be made specifically in front of a valid Jewish court of law.
This position is ruled by Tur (Yoreh De’ah 268), and codified by Shulchan Aruch.
We have dealt with one who converts but does not wish to fulfill the mitzvos. One must not confuse this with the issues of a convert’s motivation for joining the Jewish People, such as one who converts in order to marry someone. The Gemara (Yevamos 24b) states that such a conversion is valid after the fact, Tosefos explaining that the reference is to somebody fully committed to mitzvah observance. Since his motives are not pure, we are instructed lechatchilah not to convert him; after the fact, his conversion is valid.
This is also the Rambam‘s position, as stated in his discussion of the marriages of Shlomo Hamelech and Shimshon to apparently non-Jewish women (Shlomo to the daughter of Pharaoh, and Shimshon to Delilah). Rambam (Issurei Biah 13:14) writes that we should not mistakenly think that these great leaders of Israel married wives that were actually not Jewish. Rather, the wives were converted to Judaism before their marriage.
Having said this, Rambam is compelled to state that ideally, only those proselytes who have pure motives, and who wish to convert out of true love of G-d, the Torah and its mitzvos, are accepted. Yet Rambam continues (13:16) to clarify that this is only lechatchilah, the preferable manner in which a proselyte is accepted. After the fact, a conversion is valid even when the proselyte was not investigated, and even when his motives were impure.
Rambam thus concludes (13:17):
A proselyte who was not investigated, or to whom the mitzvos and their punishments were not made known, and who was circumcised and immersed in front of three ordinary Jews (hedyotos), is a [genuine] convert, even if it is known that he converted because of an ulterior motive…. Even if he returns to his idolatry, he is as a yisrael mumar, and it remains a mitzvah to return his lost property, because he has immersed and become a Jew. Therefore, Simshon and Shlomo retained their wives, even after their secret was revealed.
Chemdas Shlomo, explains that Rambam validates a conversion without the notification of mitzvos, yet does not validate a conversion without the acceptance of mitzvos.
Shulchan Aruch, as noted, upholds the need for acceptance of mitzvos. In the wake of Shulchan Aruch, all poskim rule that acceptance of mitzvos is essential in the conversion procedure. As we have seen, there are several models that might be adopted:
- The straightforward model adopted by many authorities is that the practical and absolute acceptance of all mitzvos is required. Most present and late authorities, such as Beis Yitzchak, Achiezer, Chelkas Yaakov, Mishnah Berurah, and others, accept this model.
- While also demanding a practical acceptance of mitzvos, Iggros Moshe states that after the fact, an acceptance of mitzvos based on the proselyte’s personal comprehension of the mitzvos is sufficient, even if it is flawed.
A further definition of acceptance of mitzvos, which is offered by Chemdas Shlomo, offers a portal into what might explain the differences between the various opinions in this matter. In the words of Chemdas Shlomo, a proselyte must accept upon himself das Yehudis—(the Jewish religion). This acceptance, he writes, implies an acceptance of all mitzvos.
In the time when Rav Shlomo Lifschitz wrote his classic work, (sometime in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century) this was surely true. In the world of times gone by, religion had deep, practical significance. It dominated a person’s outlooks, beliefs, and deeds. Today, in the secular, post-Enlightenment world, a great many people have virtually no religious identity. Affiliation with one religion or another is not the central issue as it used to be.
Moreover, with regard to Judaism, the religion is seen by many, in light of the nationalist ideal: the “nation of Israel” rather than the “religion of Israel.” If a person serves in the Israeli army, speaks the Hebrew language, and participates in Israeli culture—is he not a good Jew? So they argue. Today, the statement of Chemdas Shlomo whereby “becoming Jewish” implies the honest acceptance of mitzvos, is simply untrue.
Therefore, it stands to reason that late authorities, who were finely tuned to the currents of modern society, understood that the demand for a literal and wholehearted commitment to mitzvos was essential. Without this commitment, the entire procedure of conversion is emptied of all meaning, implying national principles rather than religious significance.
The great majority of leading authorities thus adopted the strict model for acceptance of mitzvos, which is surely the model to which we must adhere.