Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In this Scroll series, Wolpe examines a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.
“When the proselyte emerges from a mikveh, he is an Israelite in all respects,” we are told in the Talmud. Yet the Talmud and later literature also record negative views of a proselyte. People who convert are at times considered a blessing, at other times a curse.
Some sources consider why one chooses to convert to be important and even decisive. At other times the simple decision to become Jewish seems to be enough. In a famous anecdote, Hillel appears prepared to convert a man (or begin the process?) while standing on one foot without questioning his motivation at all. When it comes to conversion, Talmudic sources differ and as a result so do the attitudes of rabbis throughout the centuries.
One Talmudic source describing conversion (Yevamot 47a-b) might be thought definitive. Yet, as David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis write in their 2012 book, Pledges of Allegiance, “In this ceremony, by which a gentile converts to Judaism, there is no mention of God or of the eternality of the Torah. There is no denial of paganism or the pagan gods, no repentance for the sins of a life lived under the sway of foreign deities, no abjuration of evil, no language of rebirth and renewal. There is no review of the sacred history of the holy people, not is there any prayer.” Hardly what we would think of today as an adequate ushering of a soul into Jewish tradition.
Ellenson and Gordis have written a study of attitudes toward conversion that focuses on the leading poskim (legal decision makers) of the 19th and 20th century in Orthodox Judaism. As a result we see the reasoning of a parade of eminent authorities in the Jewish legal tradition: The Chatam Sofer, R. Moshe Feinstein, Rav Kook, R. David Zvi Hoffman, R. Esriel Hildesheimer, R. Ovadiah Yosef, and many others as they grapple with the sources to develop a normative policy.
Should one convert a child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother? Should one convert a non-Jew who is already married to a Jew? How important is motivation in conversion? The answers to these and other questions may seem obvious, depending upon one’s ideological bent, but they are complex. Watching leading halakhic minds tease out the various sources, giving greater weight to one and less to another, is a drama with many parts: as the Jewish community changes, rabbis face different and often difficult challenges. How much weight, for instance, should an Orthodox rabbi give to the ‘new’ consideration that if he disdains a conversion, a Conservative or Reform rabbi down the street may perform it? How different is the answer to this and other questions inside the State of Israel?
Ellenson and Gordis take us through the arguments and social reality in a book whose clarity matches its erudition. They note in the conclusion: “These poskim should not be regarded as mere legal arbiters deciding individual cases; they must be viewed as framers of public policy for a Jewish community…”
Increasingly Jews live in an age where the struggle over boundaries intensifies. Who is a Jew, who is a rabbi, who counts, who does not—these are enduring issues that will continue to both preoccupy and often inflame the Jewish world.
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David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe