Sunday, October 15, 2006

Unacceptable Conversions

There is an ongoing debate in Israel over the various programs to convert the tens of thousands of non-Jews who moved to Israel over the past decade. The following are some of my thoughts on the issue:

Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate of Kedushim
Chapter 4, Halacha 1

He who converts for love, whether it be a man for a woman or a woman for a man; also converts of the kings table(1) and converts of the lions(2); also the converts of Mordechai and Esther(3): we do not accept them [any of the above]. Rav says, "they are converts and we do not reject them like we reject non-Jews who ask to convert(4), instead we accept them and they need a welcoming face [cause] maybe they converted for the right reasons".

  1. This appears to be the kind of utilitarian conversion we see today on the basketball or soccer court.
  2. Traditionally these were the non-Jews settled in the Land of Israel in place of the ten tribes. The tradition says that due to fear of the lions of the land these peoples adopted Jewish custom and practice.
  3. When the Jews of Persia destroyed their enemies and gained ascendance in the royal court, many people wanted to join "the winners".
  4. When a non-Jew approaches a Rabbinic Court and asks to be accepted as a convert, the court does everything to convince the candidate that it really is not advantageous to convert. Traditionally twice the candidate is turned away empty handed, and only if they persist and return a third time are their motives and understandings evaluated and the merits of their request judged.

The problem of accepting converts is whether they want to convert for "the sake of heaven" or for some utilitarian purposes. Chazal seem to be aware that at different times, for different reasons, people could see the adoptation of a "Jewish" lifestyle as an improvement over their original circumstances, either as individuals or as collectives - and not because they see "entering the convenant" as a way of "cleaving to HaShem".

In my mind the issue is similar to the questions of "love". Chazal are willing to accept a convert who is motivated by "love of HaShem". HaShem is something constant, immutable. The love of woman (or man) is not.

Mishna, Order of Nezekim
Tractate of Avot, Chapter 5, Mishna 15

Every love which is dependent upon something, [if] that something ceases to be, the loves ceases to be. Which is a love which is dependent upon something - for instances the love of Amnon and Tamar. [A love] which is independent of something, for instance the love of David and Yohonatan.

A love which is conditional upon some outside or material circumstance is a love which, as demonstrated in Amnon's instance (Shmuel II, Chapter 13), can turn to hate when the circumstances change.

On one hand, how can we accept candidates for conversion who obviously have "ulterior motives" for wanting to convert? But on the other, how can men decide what are the motivations of another man?

Deeds Speak!

In this sense it looks like Rav's very liberal approach accepts the fact that someone who has already undergone a "conversion" process is different than someone who has yet to publicly accepted upon themselves to live as a Jew. Once they have made a commitment we should look upon them as sincere and worthy converts [regardless of why they converted], providing them the acceptance, warmth and support they need to complete the transition of "becoming Jews".

I question whether those non-Jews who have moved to Israel and have made the commitment to live with this People Israel in the Land of Israel aren't any different than the "converts" Rav suggests we accept. Some where in my heart and mind, the decision to serve in the Israeli army, to place their lives on-the-line to protect the People of Israel who live in the Land of Israel, is as firm a commitment to Judaism, if not more, than the full-time scholar "cleaving to HaShem" through his learning of Torah. The former is expressing his decision in a "misirat nefesh" (willingness to self-sacrifice) that places their entire material existence at stake. What greater proof of dedication could be asked of a potential convert?

As a result I think the young men who participate in the conversion process during or after their military service should be viewed as worthy candidates for whom their decision to convert has been "proven" by their willingness to serve.