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Clarification of the Strict Opinion on Conversion

The first mention of the cancellation in case of non-observance of the mitzvot appears in the ‘Beit Yitzchak’ responsa about a hundred years ago * Commitment to complete and constant observance of all details of the mitzvot is not realistic, and therefore, it must be interpreted that the intention of the Rabbis who rule strictly is to commit to a religious lifestyle in general * The strict opinion made a lot of sense in periods when religious strictness also defined national identity

In previous columns, I did not go into the strict and lenient opinions on conversion, I just refuted the common mistake as if “all the rabbis” think that without a commitment to keep all the mitzvot, conversion is null and void. I also brought evidence from the de facto practice of eminent rabbis, who encouraged the conversion of members of Jewish families who intended to lead a traditional, rather than religious, lifestyle.

Since the issue is important and crucial, and all those who study it have an influence on its decision, I will continue to delve deeper into the opinions. I will start with the strict opinions.

The strict (machmir) opinion was first clarified by Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes (1827- 1905) in the ‘Beit Yitzchak’ responsa (Vol.2, 100). Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes was one of the great poskim of his generation. He served as a rabbi in a number of congregations, and in 1894 was appointed Rabbi of Lvov, the capital of Galicia. In his responses, he also referred to new problems, such as electricity on Shabbat, and his position that electricity without a filament is forbidden de’Rababanan (rabbinical) due to shvut (rabbinic prohibition) was accepted by many. He supported the Chovavei Tzion and objected to the Zionist movement, although his students and family members were active in ‘Mizrahi’, and he did not protest against them.

His response regarding conversion was written in 1876, and was printed in 1895. A few years later, his words already began to be quoted. Twenty years later, there were Gedolim (eminent rabbis) who actually followed his method with their own additions, such as Rabbi Grodzensky, author of the Achiezer Responsa. The Haredi public as a whole has fully adopted it, so much so that in quite a few books the method of most of the poskim before, and in its day, was not mentioned. In the last generation, the fact that most of the rabbis who preceded him thought otherwise, has almost been forgotten.

The Method of the ‘Beit Yitzchak

The significant question arose in modern times, when many Jews stopped keeping mitzvot, and some even married non-Jews, but sought to preserve their Jewish identity and convert their male or female spouses.

Until ‘Beit Yitzchak’, the question was whether it was permissible to convert a non-Jewish female or male for the sake of marriage, and whether they were allowed to marry after the conversion, from the law of natan al ha’nochrit (someone suspected of having had intimate relations with a non-Jewish woman), in which case le-chatchila (ideally), one should not marry the convert, but be-di’avad (after the fact), if one married her, he did not have to divorce her (Yevamot 24b). They also discussed the question of whether it is a non-Jew’s right to convert, even though he will not keep the mitzvot, and will be punished for any sin he commits. However, they did not claim that without a sincere commitment to keep all the mitzvot – the conversion is invalid.

The ‘Beit Yitzchak’ (Vol.2, 100) as well, does not begin his response with this. For most of his response, he discusses the previous questions. In section 9, however, for the first time he throws into the fray the opinion that if a ger (convert) did not sincerely intend to keep all the mitzvot, his conversion is null and void. At first, he is undecided, but in the end, he is decisive that this is the case. And so he wrote: “According to this, the gerim today, who due to our many iniquities, converts in the Ashkenazi country (Germany), and we know that even after that (conversion), they intend to have relations with a menstruant woman, profane the Sabbath, and eat non-kosher food …are not considered a ger.”

The Source of This

His reasoning was: just as Am Yisrael became a people by the covenant God made with them at Mount Sinai, and they agreed to receive the entire Torah by saying “na’aseh ve’nishma,” (‘we will do, and we will listen’), so too a ger enters into a covenant with God and the people of Israel by receiving all the mitzvot. And if he did not accept – his conversion is void. He learned this from what our Sages said (Bechorot 30 b): “In the case of a gentile who comes to convert and takes upon himself to accept the words of Torah except for one matter, he is not accepted as a convert. Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says: Even if he refuses to accept one detail of rabbinic law, he is not accepted.” (The common explanation for the Gemara is that it is a principled acceptance of all the mitzvot without denying one of them, but without a personal commitment to fulfill them).

The Answers to Questions about the Strict Opinion

His method was questioned, for we have learned in the Gemara (Shabbat 68 a-b) about gerim who did not know about the prohibition of Avodah Zara (idol worship) and Shabbat, and therefore desecrated many Shabbats and worshipped idols, and the question of how many sin offerings they had to sacrifice. And if the conversion is void without a sincere intention to keep the mitzvot – then their conversion is void, and they do not have to bring sin offerings!

They respond, that these gerim agreed to keep all the mitzvot, but did not know about them, since the halakha is that before conversion a ger is taught only a few mitzvot, so that he will not be deterred and turn away, because even a righteous ger cannot learn and keep all the mitzvot at once (SA 268:2). However, he is taught that we have 613 mitzvot, and in accepting the mitzvot, he undertakes to continue studying until he has fulfilled them all (Yevamot 47b). This indeed was their intention, except certain things happened, and they did not have time to teach him, and so he continued to worship idols and the desecrate Shabbat.

They also asked about Hillel, who converted a ger who did not intend to observe the Oral Torah, and a ger who wanted to observe only what he would be taught while standing on one foot, and a ger whose purpose of conversion was to serve as a High Priest, contrary to the Torah (Shabbat 31a). They explained according to what Tosefot clarified (Yevamot 109b, ד”ה ‘ra’ah’): “Hillel knew that in the end they would be complete gerim.”

The Conversion is Invalid with No Intention of Keeping all the Mitzvot

The ‘Beit Yitzchak’ further added that even if a ger said at the time of immersing in the mikveh that he intended to keep all the mitzvot, if in his heart he did not mean it, his conversion is invalid, because the intention of the heart is what determines conversion. Indeed, in matters of negotiation between a man and his fellow man, there is a rule that follows what a man has said verbally, and heart’s intentions are not applicable, otherwise no commitment between a man and his friend would oblige, because one can always claim he meant in his heart something else; conversion, however, is a matter between man and God, the One who examines kidneys and hearts, and if the non-Jew has not sincerely undertaken to keep all the mitzvot, he is not a ger. Not only that, but even if the ger claims he seriously intended to keep the mitzvot – as long as it can be deduced from his living conditions that he will probably not keep all the mitzvot (“umdena de’muchak”, or a “proven estimation”), or that in practice, after the conversion, he does not keep the mitzvot – his conversion is void.

The Questions on Accepting “All the Mitzvot”

The opinion of the poskim who rule strictly need clarification. How can a ger sincerely commit to keeping all the mitzvot? Is he able to commit honestly that he will never offend his friends, will never speak loshon ha’ra (slander), will never be tempted to cheat or evade taxes, will never cause bitul Torah, and when able, always help a friend?

True, one can answer that he undertakes to strive to keep all the mitzvot. Yet, one can still ask, what is the meaning of striving (in Hebrew, hishtadlut)? Because clearly, if he strives with all his might, he will succeed in keeping more mitzvot, and if he strives less – he will sin more. The question is how much of an effort he has to commit to in order for the conversion to apply.

The Time of Commitment

Another important question – we have learned that not all the mitzvot are taught to the ger before conversion, but only “teach him a few of the lighter mitzvot and a few of the more stringent mitzvot… Don’t say too much about this, and don’t get too specific either” (SA,YD, 268:2). In other words, there is no possibility that immediately after the conversion he will keep the mitzvot, because he still does not know how to keep them. For example, without thoroughly studying the laws of Shabbat, he probably will sin in the desecration of Shabbat, and it is agreed that he should not be taught all the details of Shabbat laws before conversion. According to the strict opinion, the ger undertakes to study after the conversion all the mitzvot and to observe them. The question, however, is in how much time must he learn all the mitzvot and observe them? If at maximum speed – then the Beit Din (court) should determine for each ger a course of study tailored to his talents, and if the ger does not undertake to do it honestly, the conversion is void. However, since there are no time limits, is the conversion valid even when the ger intends to progress for a hundred years until all the mitzvot are observed, and until then, many mitzvot will not be observed?

The Mitzvot that Different Groups Do Not Keep

In addition, there are mitzvot in which entire groups of Jews are negligent: there are groups that are negligent in the mitzvot of yishuv ha’aretz (settling the Land) and serving in the army, which are mitzvot that are equal in weight to the entire Torah. And there are groups that are negligent in setting times for Torah study and prayers in a minyan, and keeping the rabbinical laws of modesty. And there are groups that tend to sin by causing controversies and baseless hatred.

If, in the strict opinion, one must undertake to keep all the mitzvot in practice, it turns out that every convert who joins one of these groups, and behaves as is customary with them, according to members of other groups – his conversion is invalid.

We Must Explain that the Intention is to Lead a Religious Way of Life

Therefore, it must be explained that according to the opinion of the machmirim (strict poskim), the ger needs to undertake to lead a religious lifestyle as is customary in one of the religious or haredi circles, with the mitzvot most characteristic of the religious lifestyle being: Shabbat, kashrut, family purity, prayer and blessings, wearing a kippah for men, and clothing customarily worn by religious women. And although at first a ger will not be able to keep these and other mitzvot in all their details, since he sincerely undertook to lead a religious lifestyle – his conversion is valid.

The Logic of the Strict Opinion

Although the strict opinion does not have a solid basis in the Gemara and in the tradition of halachic ruling, it makes a lot of sense. In the past, a person’s religious identity was greatly defined. There was a huge difference between a Jew and a Gentile, and although there were Jews who committed many sins – as long as they did not convert to another religion, it was clear that they were Jews. This was reflected in their legal status, place of residence, dress and language, and of course their religious customs. In modern times, following the granting of legal rights to every person, and in the wake of huge waves of immigration, national identity has been blurred, to the point where it is difficult to say that by accepting upon oneself to be a Jew and committing himself to the mitzvot, he does change his identity. For if he does not actually keep the mitzvot, he remains as he was, without any change.

Thus, “acceptance of the mitzvot,” which in the past meant a principled acceptance of the Jewish religion, was interpreted as a complete commitment to keep all the mitzvot. And thanks to the logic of this position, many rabbis accepted it. In addition, there were those who added (Achiezer 3:26) that even if the ger thinks during the conversion to violate a certain mitzvah, even desecration of Shabbat for the purpose of earning a living – as long as he generally undertakes to lead a religious lifestyle, his conversion is valid.

In my next article, I will present the position of the lenient poskim, and attempt to delve deeper into explaining their position.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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