Book Review: Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Rabbi Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Foundation in Jerusalem, have co-authored Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa (Stanford University Press, 2012). In the following RJ interview, Rabbis Ellenson and Gordis provide insight into the prevailing and sometimes conflicting attitudes about conversion from biblical times to our own day.

Does Judaism look favorably on conversion and converts?

Ellenson and Gordis: On the one hand, Judaism has a very positive view of converts. The Talmud (Yevamot 47a) says that conversion makes a person completely Jewish, and the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 4:10) states that we are not allowed to remind converts of their non-Jewish roots. Today, most Jewish communities welcome converts, and in North America, thousands of non-Jews convert to Judaism each year.

Yet, a careful reading of Jewish texts reveals a degree of ambivalence, if not antagonism, toward conversion and the status of converts. The Mishnah in the first chapter of Bikkurim, for example, states without discussion or controversy that although a convert must bring first-fruit offerings to the Temple, he may not recite the words, “which the Lord has sworn to our fathers to give unto us” as part of his liturgical declaration. While no explicit rationale is put forth for this ruling, it appears that the Mishnah forbids such recitation because the convert’s ancestors were not literally part of that historical experience.Apparently, the convert could become Jewish enough to be obligated to bring offerings, but not Jewish enough to claim fully the same history as other Jews.

Isn’t a convert to be considered as if he or she stood at Sinai when Moses delivered the commandments?

The convert occupies a strange and somewhat conflicted role in Jewish life. The Hebrew word for “convert,” geir, reflects this conflict; it not only means “convert” but “stranger” as well. Even after someone has joined the Jewish people he or she is still referred to as a geir in the Bible. In some sense, therefore, he/she remains a stranger forever. At the same time, it is forbidden to remind a convert of his or her Gentile past.

To what do you attribute this ambivalence toward converts?

Mainly from an understanding of the Jewish people as not only a theological community, but a historical and ethnic one as well. One can adopt a theology, but it is much more difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to fully adopt a history, an ethnicity, or a tribal identity.

How did a person convert in biblical times?

The Torah does not mention any formal institution of conversion or ceremony for such purpose. Some individuals did join the community by virtue of marrying an Israelite; David, for example, wed a Philistine, and his son Solomon married numerous foreign women. Even Ruth, the paradigmatic symbol of conversion in later Jewish tradition, never actually converted. Her pledge to Naomi, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried,” constituted a statement of loyalty to her mother-in-law, not to a religion. Harvard professor Shaye J.D. Cohen explains: “The foreign woman who married an Israelite husband was supposed to leave her gods in her father’s house, but even if she did not, it never occurred to anyone to argue that her children were not Israelites. Since the idea of conversion to Judaism did not yet exist…it never occurred to anyone to demand that the foreign woman undergo some ritual to indicate her acceptance into the religion of Israel.”

When did religious allegiance become a factor in conversion?

It began to take hold after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., when the Israelites were exiled to Babylon. Surrounded by foreign people, living as a small minority, their Temple devastated and tribal structure gone, the people formerly known as Israelites could no longer be defined exclusively by the place where they resided. Gentiles could not become Israelites, but through a ritual ceremony they could become Jews. Essentially, the Israelite religion transformed itself into what we now know as Judaism.

When did the conversion ritual become an accepted rite of passage in Jewish life?

It is probable that a conversion ritual developed some time before 220 C.E., when a rabbinic text on the subject of conversion, tractate Yevamot, established the basic ritual of conversion:

Our Rabbis taught: If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: “What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte? Do you not know that Israel at the present time is persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions?”

If he replies, “I know and yet I am unworthy,” he is accepted immediately and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments….

And as he is informed of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments, so is he informed of the reward granted for their fulfillment….He is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much. If he accepted, he is circumcised forthwith….As soon as he is healed, arrangements are made for his immediate immersion, when two learned men must stand by his side and acquaint him with some of the minor commandments and with some of the major ones. When he comes up after his immersion, he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects.

Notably, while this conversion process demands a commitment to ritual observance, it does not spell out what the convert must do or believe as a Jew.

Did the rabbis take into account the potential convert’s motivations?

Yes, Tractate Gerim 1:3 reads: “Anyone who converts [in order to marry] a woman, for love or out of fear, is not a convert….And anyone who does not convert lesheim shamayim [for the sake of heaven], is not a [legitimate] convert.”

Significantly, however, while the tractate specifies that the conversion must be “for the sake of heaven,” it does not explain what that means. This has led to differing interpretations and much controversy among rabbis in subsequent generations, complicating the ambiguous status the convert may experience in Jewish communal and legal life.

How did the rabbis decide if a prospective convert possessed the proper intention?

In his legal magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes:

The appropriate way to perform the commandment [of conversion] is that when the convert comes to convert, we investigate him lest [he be converting] for money that he will receive, or for some position of authority that will come his way, or whether it is because of fear that he wishes to enter the religion. If he is a man, we investigate whether he has cast his eye on a Jewish woman; and if she is a woman, we investigate whether she has cast her eye on a Jewish man. If no inappropriate motivation is discovered, we inform him of the magnitude of the weight of the yoke of Torah and of the tremendous efforts required from Gentiles to perform [its commandments]. If they accept, and do not change their minds and we see that they have returned out of love, we accept them.

Maimonides thereby introduced the notion that rabbinic courts have an obligation to investigate prospective converts. Once a court had sanctioned a conversion, however, Maimonides indicated that no aspersions may be cast on the validity of its decision. Maimonides’ ruling later became halakhah (Jewish law).

Has the conversion process varied among Orthodox factions?

Yes, Orthodox positions on what constitutes a legitimate conversion have diverged widely. In Pledges of Jewish Allegiance we show that the view of any given Orthodox rabbi reflects, among other things, his conception of what Judaism is (a belief system, a way of life governed by Jewish law, an ethnic experience, or even a national one after the creation of the State of Israel) and the scope of the community for which he issues his ruling. When he is thinking only of his own Orthodox constituency, he can raise the standards; when he tries to reach out to the wider Jewish world, he may show greater flexibility.

When Reform Judaism became a force in Germany by the mid-19th century, did it differ from the Orthodox in its approach to conversion?

Actually, living within a more traditional Jewish society in Germany, mostearly Reform rabbis retained ritual immersion and circumcision for prospective converts. It took until the end of the 19th century in America for these conversion requirements to become optional, if not abandoned altogether. While many Reform rabbis today do not require their performance, an increasing number do urge converts to consider them.

Reform converts who make aliyah to Israel are considered Jewish under the Law of Return, but are denied full religious rights. How has the Israeli government responded to Reform and Conservative Movement insistence that non-Orthodox conversions be recognized?

In 1997, responding to pressure from the North American Reform and Conservative Movements, Israel’s then prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appointed the Ne’eman Commission (named after its chairman, Finance Minister Yaakov Ne’eman) to develop ideas and proposals on the conversion issue. After some 70 sessions and 150 hours of deliberations, the commission called for the creation of panels of rabbis representing the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Movements to prepare candidates for conversion. However, the conversion ritual itself was to remain solidly within the province of the Orthodox rabbinate. The Orthodox rabbinate ultimately rejected the Ne’eman Commission’s recommendations, fearing that a crack in the wall might lead to recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism.

As for the status of non-Orthodox conversions outside the State, Israel recognizes Reform Jews as “Jews” for citizenship purposes under the Law of Return. Some relatively recent Israeli Supreme Court decisions have extended this right of citizenship to persons converted within Israel under non-Orthodox auspices. However, matters of personal status (i.e., marriage, divorce, and burial) remain exclusively within the province and control of the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate, which itself increasingly falls under the sway of its most ultra-Orthodox elements.

Do you believe that this divisive issue can be resolved?

Realistically, we are not going to find a solution to conversion that is acceptable to all parties. These disagreements date back as far as the Mishnah, and if anything, the Jewish world has become more divided since then. Our hope is that even in the midst of our disagreements, we can find ways to promote civil discourse among Jews, if for no other reason than to ensure that the State of Israel does not alienate non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry over the issue of who is a Jew. Whatever divisions might exist in our ranks, we need to safeguard the understanding that we are one people with sacred obligations to each other.