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Parashas Yisro – The Righteous Convert

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, particularly: Conversion to Judaism.

Yisro, the namesake of our parashah, 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

A number of passages in the Talmud are quoted in the context  of commitment to mitzvah observance. By way of introduction, we will quote 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 basic 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 that 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) suggests that the necessity 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.[1]

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. At the very least, the anecdote seems to state that a formal acceptance to strictly observe all of the mitzvos, is not a prerequisite.[2]

An additional passage in the Talmud (Bechoros 30a) states that “a non-Jew who wishes to accept upon himself the entire Torah, except one single mitzvah—we do not accept him.” This passage indicates that the agreement to adhere all mitzvos is a required and integral element in a conversion, and it must include all mitzvos of the Torah.

However, 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 post factum, if a convert was accepted without taking upon himself to observe all of the mitzvos, the conversion remains valid.[3]

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 current and recent generations, a conversion cannot be valid without the wholehearted acceptance 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; she is not a proselyte at all… The Torah demands sincere conviction, and she is not converted, even if she is taught to say that she accepts the entire Torah, but she is not sincere about it.

An important aspect of this position is that we do not apply the general principle whereby devarim shebalev einam devarim, in which a person’s thoughts hold no legal relevancy. 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, vol. 1, no. 157) agrees with the abovementioned opinions, however; he presents a somewhat different view as to how the principle should 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 there is room to validate 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, which was taught to her by Conservative ‘rabbis’.

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 to 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.

Although in the case of a Conservative conversion Rav Feinstein only suggests this principle as a post factum possible defense of the conversion (which he in any event invalidates), elsewhere (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, vol. 3, no. 106) he suggests that one may rely on the same reasoning on a lechatchilah level. The lady in question 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 (as even some Torah observant Jews do), 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 by failure to accept the Jewish dress code.

It should be noted that even Achiezer, who adopts the most 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

All the opinions mentioned thus far maintain that a sincere commitment to mitzvah observance is required. However, there is a significant difference between the opinion of Iggros Moshe, and the other opinions mentioned above. Whereas the previous authorities note the necessity for wholeheartedness of the convert’s mitzvah acceptance, Iggros Moshe notes that we may, under certain circumstances, rely on the convert’s verbal declaration, taking his words at face value, unless there are clear signs of the opposite being true. When there is an umdena demuchach (a clear indication) that the convert’s declaration is insincere, we may not accept his words at face value.

This principle, which is closely related to the contemporary controversy over acceptance of converts, was voiced by Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel (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, this 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 if 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.

In light of the fact that the laws of conversion are derived from the giving of the Torah at Sinai, this Midrashic teaching would indicate that the sincerity of the proselyte is not a factor in approving his conversion.

Accepting the Responsibility for Mitzvos

An additional approach sees the acceptance of mitzvos not as a particular pledge to perform mitzvahs, but rather as a general acceptance of responsibility towards mitzvah performance, and the consequences (of reward and punishment) that accompany it. This approach, which is implied by Chasdei David (Michtam Le-David, Yoreh De’ah 46) keeps within the wording of the baraisa cited in the Gemara (Yevamos 47a), which mentions the “punishment of the mitzvos” as opposed to their actual upkeep.

This approach was applied in a practical sense by Rav Moshe Ha-Cohen (among the leading rabbis of Djerba, who came to Israel in the early years of the Jewish State; Veheishiv Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, no. 50). Rav Ha-Cohen addressed a difficult case of a Holocaust survivor, who married a non-Jewess, and moved to Israel with their child. After the child grew up, he wished to marry, yet was informed that he could not marry a Jewish girl, because he was not considered Jewish.

In order to solve this predicament, the young man quickly decided to convert to Judaism, and was prepared to fully accept upon himself the mitzvos of the Torah. The main problem that beis din faced, however, was that the man had become a professional soccer-player, a job that involved inevitable desecration of Shabbos. He was prepared to accept all the mitzvos, yet asserted that he would not refrain from playing soccer on Shabbos.

After explaining the problematic aspects of the case, Rav Ha-Cohen writes that there is room to see his acceptance of mitzvos as valid, in spite of his continuing commitment to soccer at the expense of Shabbos. The reason for this is that the acceptance of mitzvos does not imply a practical acceptance, but rather an acceptance of “Jewish responsibility” —the responsibility to perform the mitzvos, and the punishment for their transgression.

Provided the man accepts upon himself all the mitzvos, including the mitzvah of Shabbos, we are not concerned for his actual performance of the mitzvos.[4]

The Positions of Rambam and Shulchan Aruch

In the analysis above, we have briefly scanned a number of different approaches as 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 determining 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.Therefore  , 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.

Yet, the Rambam‘s position appears to be radically different. In discussing 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. Elsewhere (ibid. 12:7, 13:4), he mentions the necessity to  take upon one’s-self the mitzvos. However, Rambam continues (13:16) to clarify that this is only lechatchilah, the preferable manner in which a proselyte is accepted. Post factum, 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.

Clearly, the “secret” was that the wives had not renounced idol worship when they converted. This upholds the position stated by Bach, in which Rambam does not require, on a bedieved level, the acceptance of mitzvos. It should be noted, however, that according to Chemdas Shlomo, 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, including the above mentioned Bach, 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.
  • Whilst also demanding a practical acceptance of mitzvos, Iggros Moshe states that post factum, an acceptance of mitzvos based on the proselyte’s personal comprehension of the mitzvos is sufficient, even if it is flawed.
  • Whereas Beis Yitzchak and others demand a wholehearted acceptance of mitzvos, placing emphasis on the intention behind the proselyte’s words, Iggros Moshe and others write that unless clearly indicated otherwise, one may rely on the words of the proselyte, and there is no need to investigate his inner intentions.
  • According to some authorities, there is no need for a practical commitment to mitzvos, and it is sufficient to accept the responsibility that comes with mitzvos and the punishment which their transgression causes .

The definition of acceptance of mitzvos offered by Chemdas Shlomo offers a portal into what might explain, the differences between the varios 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, dominating 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?! 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 can be emptied of all meaning, implying national principles rather than religious significance.

The great majority of leading authorities thus adopted the strictest model for acceptance of mitzvos, which is surely the model to which we must adhere.

[1] According to Rashi, Hillel relied on his ability to bring the convert, over the course of time, to an appreciation and follow  the Oral Tradition.

[2] Concerning this source, see especially Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, vol. 3, no. 106, and Beis Yitzchak, vol. 2, no. 100, sec. 9. See also Maharsha (on the Gemara), who is forced into a somewhat strained interpretation.

[3] See, concerning this source, Beis Yitzchak, quoted it note 2; Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, vol. 1, no. 157.

[4] An alternative approach to the matter would be to see the transgression as being lete’avon, and therefore not invalidating the conversion. Under the circumstances, this approach would be somewhat strained.

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