A Suggestion for New Halachic and
Spiritual Conditions for Conversion
When suggesting new ways to approach religious and halachic problems in Judaism one must be conscious of the great responsibilities that such suggestions carry. One should never forget that one enters holy territory and touches on issues which could shake the foundations of Judaism and Jewish existence. Still one cannot escape one’s religious responsibilities by denying that there may be ways to help Judaism find solutions to serious problems, even though they may be controversial in the eyes of many greater than oneself.
It is for this reason that I reluctantly suggest new criteria for conversion. They must be seen as a response to the need of the hour in which our people finds itself. This is especially true for the State of Israel to which tens of thousands of people of Jewish descent made aliyah, primarily from Russia, yet who are not halachically Jewish.
Judaism for Non-converts.
In my last Thoughts to Ponder (216) I suggested that we should not propose conversion to our fellow (Russian) Israelis if this clearly means that they would violate the most basic rules of Shabbath observance, kashruth and taharath hamishpacha (family purity). (In fact some of them do not wish to convert knowing that it would be contrary to the spirit of Judaism; nor do they want to be hypocrites by deceiving the rabbinical courts) Instead, I suggested that we should encourage them to become involved in the values and some rituals of Judaism according to their own pace and desire. This could be done through the creation of special outreach-programs and even special “synagogues” thereby creating a love in their hearts for Judaism without violating the basics of normative Halacha for conversion. As such they could somehow be part of “the family” without being fully Jewish.
As mentioned before, the creation of such an option would have to be a process which could, slowly but surely, become increasingly acceptable to all those to whom it applies, and to the Jewish people in general.
I also mentioned in my two previous Thoughts to Ponder that, in those cases where we do speak of conversion for those (Russian) Olim, minimum standards of Jewish observance should be required, but with great doses of inspiration. Obviously such conversions are not ideal since we would like to see a full commitment to Jewish law and spirit. Still there are reasons why we should perhaps permit such “minimum” conversions as an alternative to conversions without any halachic commitment, as reluctantly suggested by Chacham Uziel, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits and others. This is especially urgent because of the precarious situation of those (Russian) Israelis who would like to become Jewish but for whom it is too much to commit to all of Jewish law (at once). No less important is the fact that my suggestion incorporates a greater opportunity for converts to slowly grow into Judaism and make it into a much greater spiritual experience. Let me now try to explain what I mean by minimum standards and spirituality.
Rabbinical Laws in the Talmud.
Over the thousands of years Judaism has become a complex way of living. The reason for this is that all kinds of serious circumstances, both internal and external, required constant adjustment. Rabbinical laws had to be added, including gezeroth and takanoth in response to these new circumstances. Being aware of, and in order to accommodate the enormous challenges Jews would have to face, especially in galuth (exile), the sages created a labyrinth of additional laws and customs. In general this was a most successful undertaking. For nearly two thousand years Judaism was not only able to stay alive, but even managed to continue to give birth to a very rich tradition inspiring many generations.
The greater part of the Talmud deals with these rabbinical ordinances and only a small part deals with the biblical laws themselves. As is well known, the latter include, not only the biblical laws as found in the text of the Torah itself, but also the oral interpretations which, as the Jewish tradition claims, were simultaneously given by God to Moshe at Mount Sinai. Therefore these oral laws are also biblical in nature and need to be treated as such.
One of the most famous examples is the 39 kinds of work which are forbidden on Shabbath. Although these are not mentioned in the biblical text, since they were orally given at Sinai together with the biblical text prohibiting “work” in general , they are in fact considered biblical and of divine origin. They are not rabbinical laws. The Talmud calls them “mi-doraita,” “from the Pentateuch”.
Disputes in the Talmud.
In post biblical times, especially when the Jews were forced to live outside the land of Israel, the general commitment to these biblical laws started to waiver. Once it became apparent that many Jews were increasingly violating these laws the sages started to build fences around them so that the biblical laws themselves would not be violated. (A famous example is the rabbinical institution of the law of muktza which forbids the moving of any item which could lead to the violation of the biblical laws of Shabbath, for example a pencil that one might inadvertently write with). Such laws are to be found throughout the Talmud and they deal with almost all the biblical laws. However they are also the cause of most of the disputes in the Mishnah and both Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Many hundreds of pages have been written discussing these laws and arguing about the best ways to accomplish these goals. Some sages had a more lenient attitude whilst others were stricter. Some considered certain suggested laws to be too extreme whilst others thought they were too lax. But without any doubt it is these laws which have made Jewish religious life both complicated and beautiful. They gave a unique flavor to Jewish life in the Diaspora and created a Jewish culture full of customs and Halachic details as well as a special way of conduct and thinking.
Following the days of the Talmud and subsequent centuries, several great authorities, such as Maimonides, continued to discuss and codify these laws, culminating in the “finalization” of them in the most famous and influential Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch. It was authored by Rabbi Joseph Karo, (1488-1575), a sage of tremendous learning and became the standard work of Jewish law till this very day. Here one can find all the biblical and rabbinical laws (still applicable in exile) yet one can no longer differentiate between them since they are all treated as equal in status. To distinguish which are biblical and which are rabbinical one has to go back to the Talmud itself.
Only Biblical Laws.
Instead of insisting that every convert commits him/herself to all these rulings, (as required by the major rabbinical courts today) or conversely, like in the case of Chacham Benzion Uziel and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits to (reluctantly) allow conversion without even a minimal commitment, perhaps there could be a third option: i.e. to demand from all converts that they fully observe all the biblical laws (as understood by the Oral Tradition) but not make the same requirements as far as rabbinical law is concerned. While it is true that this might not always be possible or appropriate  it could be suggested in many instances.
Here are just a few simple suggestions: Does there need to be a requirement that male converts must pray three times a day? (Only the recitation of “Shema Yisrael” in the morning and evening is biblical.) Is it necessary to go to the synagogue on weekdays and Shabbath? Or to insist that one is not to drive a bicycle on Shabbath? Not play music on Shabbath? Do men need to go with their head covered at all times? Put on tefillin (phylacteries) every weekday? Must married women cover their hair? Is it necessary for the convert to know all the different kinds of berachoth (blessings over food) when the blessing of “shehakol nihya bidbaro” (“by Whose word everything came to be”) would be sufficient for most products? What would be if the convert does not say any bracha at all or formulates his/her own one? We can suggest many more examples but this would be beyond the scope of this essay. Nor is this the right place to do so.
All of them are rabbinical in nature  and some even less. Some that originally started as customs became, over the years, standardized as law.
Let the Converts Decide.
Would it not be better that they, the converts themselves, decide, in an autonomous way, which rabbinical laws they will adopt and which not? Why not just suggest these beautiful laws and customs but not actually insist on them? As long as the biblical laws are being observed, both the positive and the negative ones, we should perhaps allow such conversions.
Another most serious question is whether it would be permissible to suggest minority opinions in the Talmuds as halachic options for the convert, even though they are not accepted by main-stream Judaism. After all these rejected alternative opinions are recorded because they are considered to be of great value, especially in emergency situations. And is that not exactly what we are talking about?
Making Judaism More Attractive.
The motivation behind our suggestions is not (just) to make it easier on the potential convert. To make Judaism just “comfortable” is, in our humble opinion, entirely the wrong strategy. What is at stake here is to make it more attractive and meaningful. Our suggestion allows the convert to grow into Judaism, step by step, to discover it in an autonomous way, which may lead to a much deeper commitment than when he or she is forced to commit to everything at once in a short span of time. A gradually acceptance of more and more of the Halacha makes it possible to internalize deeper the new way of life with desire and integrity, instead of a more quick and superficial adherence, through demand and compliance.
At the same time, it could solve the most urgent problem of mixed marriages between halachic and non-halachic “Jews” which is critical for the State of Israel and the future of the Jewish people. 
The Need for Spiritual Conversions.
This brings us to my second suggestion: The need to emphasize much more spirituality when dealing with conversion. This is not to be seen, as Paul  suggested instead of Halacha but as a result of halachic living and vice versa. Judaism is a response to the mystery of life and what to do about it. The ultimate question is how to live in the presence of God, which is by far the most difficult task man can ever be confronted with. Halacha is the way to sanctify even the most trivial aspect of man’s life. It is not there to be “observed,” but to be experienced in the deepest chambers of one’s soul. It is the way to perceive the infinite through the finite. Or, as Abraham Joshua Heshel so beautiful states, when he writes: A Jew is asked to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.
Halacha is also there to live with the right kind of deeds so as to pave the way to correct thinking, feelings and emotions.
Judaism means to live with a mission for the sake of the betterment of all mankind and to introduce it to God and His ethical advice. Jews are asked to be a holy people and are told that it is not enough to be civilized but to try to surpass civilization.
To be a Jew is to refuse to surrender to the mediocrity, normalcy, and even to the laws of conventional history. It is a covenant which the first Jew, Avraham, agreed on with God to build a world on the basis of ethical monotheism and to bring mankind to the messianic age.
Judaism is a protest movement against all that hinders this goal. These points are undoubtedly not sufficiently emphasized when people convert. Often they are neglected and the minutiae of the Halacha are then all that counts. This is a great tragedy. It ignores much of the very essence of why these minutiae are of such vital spiritual importance and what Judaism is all about.
Acceptable to the Reform and Conservative Movements?
Finally we wonder whether Reform and Conservative Judaism have a place in this approach. Would they be prepared to tell their potential converts that they must observe all the applicable biblical laws, as we mentioned above, as their requirements for conversion? If they would, all conversions could be done under the auspices of an orthodox Beth Din.
Belief and Halachic Observance.
Surely there are major differences of opinion concerning the fundamental beliefs of Judaism between these schools. While Orthodox Judaism believes in the absolute divinity of the Torah text, the Conservative movement is not completely committed to this belief and the Reform movement even less. But the halachic question is whether one needs to fully believe in this “principle of faith” or is it sufficient to treat the text as if it is entirely divine and live accordingly, even when one has doubts about it. This fact itself is a matter of dispute and there are definitely halachic opinions which seem to state that it is not absolutely required. If so, could this not be the basis for my earlier suggestion?
The Responsibility of Halachic Authorities
As mentioned earlier, all of this needs careful consideration and study by the great halachic authorities of our days. But it must be made clear that they can only to do so if they are open to this approach and seriously prepared to consider it. But to just reject it out of hand cannot be accepted. Too much is at stake.
Most important is to see the issue in a much larger framework than the conventional one of conversion only. The matter must be considered in the light of the precarious condition of the Jewish people today, the State of Israel, the philosophy and religious purpose of Halacha, the need for authentic religiosity and spiritual needs of Jews around the world.
This may require the halachic authorities to seek advice from those experts who deal with the above issues so that they can see the full picture. This is similar to the many halachic cases where they consult scientists and medical experts. Only then is a halachic decision possible.
May God grant us to do His will and bless the Jewish people with wisdom and Yirath Shamayim.
 See Thoughts to Ponder 216
 Decrees and Enactments. See my book: The Written and the Oral Torah, A comprehensive Introduction, Jason Aronson, Northvale, New Jersey, 1989, pp. 114-118.
 See the Babylonian Talmud: Shabbath: 49 b.
 It is important to realize that the requirement of “kabbalath mitzvoth”, “the acceptance of the commandments,” the most important and crucial requisite for conversion, is not accepted by all authorities although it is by the vast majority. There is a minority view which states that what counts is the willingness to join the Jewish people. It is not entirely clear what the underpinnings of this opinion are in theological terms since it may lead to the violation of the commandments as I already mentioned. It is, however, this opinion on which Chacham Uziel and Rabbi Berkovits seem to rely. My argument though is that this opinion is not only not accepted but is in fact utterly rejected by nearly all rabbinical courts and the rabbinical establishment and does not seem to have a chance of ever being accepted. It is for this reason that I suggest another approach. No doubt my suggestion could also be rejected but, as long as it has not yet been properly discussed, it is our duty to bring it to the attention of our rabbinical authorities. More over: my suggestion is more conservative than those of Chacham Uziel and Rabbi Berkovits.(although others will argue it is also more radical) For an outstanding study about conversion see: Rabbi Yacov Medan: Tikva Mema’amakim, Iyun b’Megilath Ruth, Tevunoth, Elon Shevuth, 5767, chapter 2. (Hebrew)
 There are instances where rabbinical laws make the applications of biblical laws easier by combining several biblical rules which are very complicated, such as in the case of the laws related to sexuality, purity and impurity (Niddah). On other occasions the removal of rabbinical laws could create too serious a danger of violation of the biblical laws.
 Till this day many orthodox members of the Syrian Jewish communities bicycle to the synagogue on Shabbath (when there is an “eruv” permitting carrying objects in the street). This was allowed by one of the greatest Sefardic Halachic authorities: Rabbi Yosef Chayim ben Eliyah Al-Chacham, the Ben Ish Chai (1835-1909) in his responsa Rav Pealim, first section.
 Many members of the Orthodox Syrian communities never walk with their head covered, unless they are praying or eating. In earlier rabbinic sources, walking with a head covering was considered a pious deed but not a halachic demand. For an excellent overview of this issue, see Hakirah, The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought Volume 4, Winter 2007, Yarmeluke: A Historic Cover-up by Dan Rabinowitz, p.221.
 Some opinions state that this law is biblical whereas others say that it is rabbinical. See for example: Sota 8a
 It should be noted that there are disputes in the Talmud as to whether certain laws are biblical or rabbinical.
 This may be behind the Talmud’s statement Yebamoth 47a, that the Beth Din needs to inform the potential convert of some of the mitzvoth, but seemingly not all. “Once he/she accepts them we immediately accept him/her.” This is codified in Shulchan Aruch: Yoreh Deah 268, 2. See this whole section which shows a very balanced way in which the potential convert is approached by the rabbinical court.
 It can obviously be argued that this suggestion could also apply to all Jews and not just converts. One might suggest that they should also be able to decide which rabbinical laws they would like to keep and which ones not. Indeed this would be a possibility for all those Jews who are not fully committed. Better that they keep the biblical laws than no laws at all. Still it would be too dangerous to make this the official policy for all religious Jews. It would undermine the unity of the religious community in ways in which Judaism could not survive. Rabbinical laws are an inherent part of Judaism, not to be discarded in any way. The Torah itself emphasizes the need to listen to the sages’ directives and considers it crucial. See Devarim 17:11. See my The Written and Oral Torah, p74 -78. As such, one needs to deal with the question whether this directive should also apply in the case of conversion since, as mentioned above, the Talmud demands from the rabbinical court that it informs the converts of some of the commandments but not of all. See note 10.
 Since Paul, the rejection of Halacha became a major foundation of Christianity. See also my: Crisis, Covenant and Creativity, Jewish Thoughts for a Complex World, Urim Publications,,Jerusalem, New York, 2005 chapter 1.
 There is also a difference between those who doubt and those who definitely do not believe. See: Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm’s brilliant article: Faith and Doubt, Ktav, New York,1971 chapter 1. It is most important to realize that nearly all thinking religious people have moments of doubts just like secular people have doubts, concerning their secular ideologies. After all, one does not have control over one’s thoughts. The beauty of Judaism is that it considers somebody to be fully religious when he or she lives in according to Halacha and its spirit even when one has doubts. See Rosh on Rosh Hashana 36b. One is reminded of William James’, famous remark that no decision is also a decision. One must act even when one is in doubt. This is the reason why Rambam’s insistence that one must fully believe in his 13 principles of faith has been rejected by many halachic authorities. See for a discussion: Marc Shapiro: The Limits of Orthodox Theology, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford, Portland, Oregon, 2004, chapter 1.
Leave a Reply