Last week we presented classic sources that discuss Geirut (conversion) and concluded that the consensus Halachic opinion views a convert’s sincere commitment to Torah observance and belief (Kabbalat Mitzvot) as an absolutely indispensable component of the conversion process. We noted that the consensus approach forms the basis of the Rabbinical Council of America and Beth Din of America’s Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS) document (available at www.rabbis.org).
This week we shall present three lenient approaches to the issue of Kabbalat Mitzvot that have been articulated in the twentieth century and demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of Halachic authorities have rejected these very lenient rulings.
Rav Uzziel vs. Rav Auerbach
The primary advocate for leniency in regard to Kabbalat Mitzvot is Rav Ben Tzion Uzziel, the highly respected Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel during the early to middle twentieth century. A summary of his approach is presented in Piskei Uzziel number 65: "A non-Jew who has been circumcised and has immersed in a Mikvah for the purpose of conversion...we do not require that he observe the Mitzvot, and the Beit Din does not even need to know that he will observe Mitzvot, for otherwise converts will not be accepted in Israel, because who can guarantee that the Nochri will be loyal to all of the Mitzvot of the Torah…the requirement to fulfill Mitzvot is not an indispensable component of the conversion even LeChatchilah (ideally)…it is permissible to accept male and female converts, even if it is known to us that they will not fulfill all of the Mitzvot, because eventually they will come to fulfill Mitzvot, and we are obligated to open this door for them. And if they do not fulfill Mitzvot, they will bear their sins and we are free from responsibility for this.”
Rav Uzziel bases himself on Hillel’s accepting converts that were not yet committed to all of the Torah’s Mitzvot and beliefs (as we discussed last week). Rav Uzziel understands that Hillel actually converted the gentlemen who came to him before they fully embraced Torah life (recall from last week that Maharsha to Shabbat 31a clearly disagrees but Rashi might agree). Rav Uzziel felt compelled to adopt such a lenient stance due to the specter of intermarriage which would occur had lenient standards for conversion not been offered.
We noted last week, though, that the overwhelming majority of other great Poskim of the twentieth century view Kabbalat Mitzvot as the essence of Geirut whose absence invalidates a conversion. These authorities include Rav Yitzchak Schmelkes, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the “Devar Avraham,” Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv.
Rav Auerbach’s words (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1:35) contrast sharply with those of Rav Uzziel: "The class of converts…regarding whom we are almost certain that they are not committed at all to fulfill and observe the Mitzvot of Hashem, in such a situation in my humble opinion anyone who facilitates such a conversion, even if they mistakenly think that they are full fledged converts, nonetheless even according to their approach those who convert them violate the prohibition of Lifnei Iveir (the prohibition to cause another to sin), since now the convert will violate prohibitions such as Shabbat and Kashrut which before the conversion did not constitute a violation of God’s word."
Rav David Zvi Hoffman vs. Rav Herzog, Rav Feinstein and Rav Yosef
Rav David Zvi Hoffman (Teshuvot Melamed Leho’il 3:8), the leading Rav in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany, was faced with the following difficult issue. A Kohen married a non-Jewish woman in a civil ceremony and they had a son who received a Brit Milah. The son subsequently died and the wife was distraught over what she perceived was the fact that she was not of the same religion as her deceased child. In addition to the concern over the intermarriage, there was fear that the wife would be driven to insanity if she was not allowed to convert and that a Chillul Hashem would be created as people would say that Jews had no concern for the wellbeing of the wife.
However, among the Halachic impediments to sanctioning such a conversion was the fact that the wife expected to remain married to her husband, but a Giyoret is forbidden to a Kohen (Yechezkeil 44:22). Accordingly, the conversion is cast in grave doubt in light of the Gemara (Bechorot 30b, cited last week) that forbids admitting a convert who accepts all of the Torah except for even one rabbinic precept. In this situation the wife implicitly does not accept the prohibition for a convert to a Kohen.
Rav Hoffman writes that the conversion should be discouraged by informing the wife that her son was not Jewish since he was not converted. If she persisted in her desire to convert and believed in the God of Israel, though, he permitted the Geirut. Rav Hoffman suggests two approaches to overcome the obstacle of her lack of acceptance of her prohibition to a Kohen. First, he argues that the Gemara forbids accepting a Ger only if he explicitly states his rejection of a particular Mitzvah and in this instance she is not making such a declaration.
Second, he argues that only when one is conducting the conversion only for the sake of the convert does the Gemara apply. In such an instance it is better that the convert not become Jewish than become Jewish and violate any part of Jewish law. However, if the Geirut is performed for the sake of the Jewish mate, to avoid the severe sin for him to be with a Nochrit, then the Gemara’s concern is not relevant since the Beit Din acts in the interest of the convert’s partner. Rav Hoffman concludes that his permission applies only if the couple will observe Niddah laws because otherwise, the conversion does not serve the spiritual interest of the husband.
Most Poskim, however, do not accept Rav Hoffman’s ruling. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe E.H. 2:4) writes “in my humble opinion I do not see any room to permit” such a conversion due to her unwillingness to accept her prohibition to a Kohen. Rav Yitzchak Herzog (Teshuvot Heichal Yitzchak E.H. 1:19) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabia Omer Y.D. 2:3) also do not accept Rav Hoffman’s ruling. Among their concerns are that an impression would be created that rabbis have permitted a Kohen to marry a convert. When Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Rav Shlomo Goren of Israel relied upon Rav Hoffman’s ruling in a widely publicized case in 1970 (Techumin 23:180-184), Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik sharply criticized Rav Goren (see Nora’ot HaRav 5:56-58).
Rav Moshe Feinstein’s “Bit of Limmud Zechut”
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 1:157) clearly states that if a convert did not intend to observe Mitzvot his conversion is invalid. Rav Moshe, however, offers “a bit of a Limmud Zechut” (defense) for those Orthodox rabbis who convert individuals who clearly have no intention of observing Mitzvot. Rav Moshe suggests that in today’s circumstances when regrettably a majority of Jews do not observe the Torah (a situation that is changing in the decades after Rav Feinstein made this observation), many converts perceive non-observance of Halacha to constitute mainstream Jewish practice. They perceive observance of Mitzvot as a preferred manner of living as a Jew, but think that non-observance is also an acceptable Jewish lifestyle.
In such a situation, the convert may be compared to the Gemara’s case (Shabbat 68a, mentioned in last week’s essay) where one converted amongst non-Jews and was not informed about the Mitzvot and yet is considered to be a full-fledged Jew. In today’s environment it is as if the convert was not informed of the Mitzvot, since many converts do not accept the rabbis teaching about the obligation of Mitzvot based on their observation of the behavior of most Jews.
Rav Moshe Feinstein does not endorse such conversions. Rather he presents this “bit of a Limmud Zechut” “so that they (the rabbis involved in such conversions) should not be considered worse than Hedyodot” (uneducated individuals). Interestingly, Rav Moshe Feinstein does not disqualify these rabbis from serving as Dayanim (rabbinic judges) due to their lenient approach to conversion. On the other hand, he does not endorse or recognize such lenient conversions. Similarly, I recall Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik present (in a Shiur at Yeshiva University) a bit of a Limmud Zechut for those who adopt the lenient approach to Geirut, based on the aforementioned Rashi to Shabbat 31a. Rav Soloveitchik, however, did not validate such conversions, as we noted last week.
This contrasts sharply with the approach of Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Teshuvot Vehanhagot 4:230) who classifies rabbis who adopt the lenient approach to conversion as disqualified from Dayanut. Rav Shternbuch goes as far to suggest that even if such rabbis conduct a conversion where the convert sincerely commits to Torah observance and belief, the conversion is invalid due to the disqualification of the rabbis to serve as Dayyanim. This approach, though, seems difficult since those who follow the lenient approach do have a few authorities to rely upon for their actions.
The consensus opinion amongst Poskim is that Kabbalat Mitzvot is an indispensable component of Geirut. Hence, the GPS document introduced by the RCA should not be considered as a “new stringency” but rather reflecting the mainstream Halachic approach endorsed by the consensus of Poskim of the past hundred years. GPS simply creates a system which supports converts who are sincerely committed to Torah life in their quest to have their conversions recognized by mainstream Orthodox rabbis throughout the world. Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik do not recognize the conversions of those rabbis who convert individuals who clearly will not observe Torah, on the one hand. However, on the other hand they do not condemn these rabbis as flagrant sinners since they have some basis in Halachah for their actions.