Sunday 23 February 2020


Ovadiah the Convert: the Italian Catholic priest Johannes of Dreux who converted to Judaism in 1102. 
Part II:


This article offers a brief overview of the process of conversion to Judaism, spanning from Biblical times to the present. I have drawn largely from the research of Professor Zvi Zohar[1] from Bar Ilan University.

NOTE: This is an academic synopsis and some interesting views will be presented but, obviously, this is not intended to be the final word on the topic and for practical purposes, consultation is advised with one’s local Beit Din.


The Torah does not directly refer to a process of conversion.

However, one could infer veiled references to conversion in four biblical narratives, relating to: 1) Circumcision, 2) the Captive Woman, 3) the Sinai Revelation, 4) Abraham, the first convert.


Regarding a Biblical reference to a conversion ceremony, paradigm or ritual, Zvi Zohar puts it:

“If the Bible refers to any such ceremony, it is for males only: circumcision (Gen. 34: 15-16, Exod. 12: 43-49); this is consonant with a patrilineal definition of Jewishness.”

In Biblical and post-Biblical times, one was considered a Jew if one’s father was Jewish. This is known as patrilineal descent. There appears - certainly during the earlier Biblical period - to have been no specific conversion process or ceremony for a woman, other than her marriage to a Jew and thereby joining her husband's Jewish peoplehood.


Although some maintain that that change to matrilineal descent occurred during the time of Ezra[2], according to Zohar, it was only from around the beginning of the Talmudic period, in the 2nd-century CE, possibly under R. Shimon bar Yochai, that patrilineal descent changed to matrilineal descent, where Jewish status was determined by the mother.[3]

Either way, this must rank as one of the greatest reforms to Judaism, ever, as it went to the very heart of a change in Jewish religious identity.

The reason for the sudden change in determining Jewish status remains uncertain. 

However, there is some speculation that it may have been either as a result of Roman Law, or as a result of the abuse of women in the turmoil following the destruction of the Second Temple, which led to circumstances where the father would have been unknown.

Zohar explains that from around that time it was prescribed that a candidate for conversion would present him or herself to a court of three who would prevail over the conversion. For men, circumcision and immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) was prescribed, while for woman only immersion was required.[4]

Conversion appears to have been quite a simple process with Talmudic sources showing that not too much pressure was put on the candidates in terms of knowledge and observances. Overall, bar some negative comments, the attitude during the early Talmudic period, while certainly not ‘evangelic’, seems to have been quite favourable towards converts.


Comparisons were also made between a convert and the ancient Israelites who together as a nation ‘converted’ at Sinai. Interestingly, although the ancient Israelites declared ‘we will do and obey’[5]:

“...the Israelites’ commitment to obey God’s commandments...was not cited by the sages as prototypical of the conversion ceremony.”

Evidently, at that time, the declaration of intent to observe the commandments was not yet a prerequisite for conversion.


Zohar elaborates[6] on why it was that conversion to Judaism was originally not such a technical process. Jews form part of Judaism because of what sociologists call Ascriptive Identity. This is where people become part of a group primarily due to circumstances beyond their control. In Judaism, this is mainly through birth, although it was sometimes through marriage as well.
Ascription is also defined as a status which is ‘based on a factor other than achievement’.[7] 

Thus, one person can observe every single commandment in the Torah, but (in our times) if the mother is not Jewish, the person remains a non-Jew. –Yet another person can disregard every single commandment in the Torah, but if the mother is Jewish, the person remains a Jew.

This is a concept that many non-Jews (and Jews) find very hard to comprehend. And perhaps this is why a more formal process of conversion evolved over time.

[See Rambam’s view on the Jews as the Chosen People: How Rashi and Rambam Part Ways...]



Rambam (1135-1204) took the position that only converts with pure religious motivation may be accepted.[8] He was conscious of the damage that the ‘eruv rav’ or mixed multitude (defined as ‘opportunistic converts’) could wreak.

Nevertheless, he still ruled that even if an inappropriate candidate converted through an inferior Beit Din or religious court, that individual remained irrevocably Jewish.[9] (See text later.)

Rambam based this on biblical accounts of Solomon[10] and Samson[11] who married non-Israelite women. He believes they certainly would not have intermarried and therefore the wives must have undergone some form of conversion. Although their motivation for conversion was suspect and although they continued to worship idols after marriage, they did so as Jews and not as Gentiles.[12]


MAIMONIDES (1035-1204) AND NACHMANIDES (1194-1270):

The Biblical description[13] of the ‘Captive Woman’ is debated by Maimonides and Nachmanides as to whether it has any bearing on the process of conversion.

The law of the ‘Captive Woman’ concerns a Jew who goes to war and wins the battle and then sees a beautiful captive woman who he wants to marry – he may do so, but only after a waiting period of one month, while she undergoes a process of relinquishing her former idolatrous ties. Part of that process was to shave her hair and cut her nails.

According to Maimonides, this description is entirely unrelated to the process of conversion.[14]

However, the Talmud considers this to be an example of conversion to Judaism[15], and similarly, according to Nachmanides, the ‘Captive Woman’ and her waiting a month while preparing to leave her old pagan life behind, also has a direct bearing on the conversion process. And this view is furthermore reflected, in other medieval works like the 9th-Century Halachot Gedolot[16] and the 14th-century Arba’ah Turim.[17]

In other words, according to many opinions, the process described by the Torah for the ‘Captive Woman’ was to serve as a paradigm for future conversions. 

-Indeed, there is even a text discovered in the Cairo Geniza from ca. 1000, describing two sisters who converted by shaving their hair, cutting their nails and reciting a verse from Jeremiah: “Surely our fathers inherited lies, vanity, and things wherein there is no profit.”[18]

This view may have been the progenitor of the later concept of formalised conversion programmes.


The Talmud[19] brings the view of Rav Huna that a minor can be converted by a Beit Din:

However, some medieval rabbis challenged this assertion by claiming that a minor is incapable of making a legal decision. Yet Rav Huna’s view was defended by some Tosafists (11th -13th century) who countered that:

“Our fathers (at Sinai) entered the covenant through circumcision and immersion...and many children were present at the giving of the Torah.”[20]


Although Circumcision, the 'Captive Woman' and the Sinai experience are often brought as the source for all subsequent Halachik conversion to Judaism, some rabbis look back further to Avraham as the paradigm for conversions.

This view is expressed by Rashi (1040-1105)[21] who points out that in the Book of Psalms, converts are referred to as “nedivei amim” or princes (or volunteers) of the people.[22] These converts are called the “people of the G-d of Avraham”:

The notion of relating all conversions back to Avraham is also expressed by Maimonides in his letter to Ovadiah the Convert. Ovadiah asked Maimonides if he could recite the expression “G-d of our fathers” in his prayers, even though his ancestors were not Jewish. The answer was in the affirmative[23] explaining that not only were Avraham’s descendants regarded as Jews, but all those who followed his path - i.e., the coverts - were also Jews.

Maimonides writes that Avraham:

“ father to his upright seed who walks in his ways, and father to his disciples and to any person who becomes a convert (ger).” 

Therefore you shall recite in [in the prayers] ‘Our God and the God of our fathers’ since your father...

Once you have entered under the wings of the Shechina and accompanied God, there is no difference between us and you...

And know that most of our ancestors who came out of Egypt worshiped idols in Egypt, mixed with the nations and learned from their ways, until God sent us our master Moses,...and differentiated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the Shekhinah - us and all the converts – and made one law for us all.”[24]


Zohar makes the interesting point that the common practice of initially rejecting the convert, has no basis in classical Jewish law.[25] However, it has compelling historical and pragmatic origins. During and after Talmudic times with the rise of Christianity and later Islam, ready acceptance of converts would not have ended well for the Jews.


Notwithstanding the ideologically turbulent modern period - with tensions between Orthodox, Reform, Haskalah, Zionism and an ensuing proliferation of intermarriage - for the first time since antiquity, civil law in most countries permitted conversion to Judaism.

Two major questions bothered the minds of the modern religious leadership when it came to intermarriage:

1) Should conversion be recommended for the non-Jewish spouse?
2) Would that remedy still be valid if the spouse chose to lead a religiously non-committed lifestyle?


R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, considered a leading Halachik authority in the ultra-Orthodox community, wrote (in 1983) that one should prevent marriages between Jews and a converting spouse if the spouse does not intend to lead a religious lifestyle.

He based his ruling of his interpretation of a verse in Ezra:[26]

This verse refers to the campaign initiated by Ezra (480-440 BCE) to force intermarried Jews to leave their wives and their joint children, so that Zera haKodesh or holy seed be not mixed with that of the nations.[27]

In essence, R. Elyashiv was saying that as long as a converted spouse was not prepared to conduct a ‘holy’ lifestyle, the union could not be sanctioned.

Interestingly, R. Elyashiv’s ruling was then adopted by the more ‘centrist’ Orthodox rabbis who used this position to argue that a conversion could be retroactively annulled if the recalcitrant party was not following religious observance.

R. MOSHE FEINSTEIN (1895-1986):

According to R. Moshe Feinstein, a foremost Halachik decisor of modern times:

According to all opinions, a convert who does not observe the commandments is not a convert.”[28]

Compare this ruling to the view of Rambam, (mentioned earlier) where it seems that converts are irrevocably Jewish, and if they transgress, they transgress as Jews.[29] This certainly appears to be a dissenting view (challenging R. Feinstein's statement  'according to all opinions.'). 

Rambam writes:

“A (Jewishly) uninformed and  uneducated  convert...who was circumcised and immersed before (even an inferior court of) three laymen, is a (certified) convert.

Even if it was clear that he converted for an ulterior motive...he is in no longer in the category of a non-Jew...

And even if he goes back (to his old ways) and serves idols, he does so as a recalcitrant Jew...

This is how Samson and Solomon could keep their wives, even though their secrets (of disloyalty to Judaism) were known.”[30]

Fascinatingly, according to Zohar:

“Maimonides, thus indicates that intermarriage poses a greater threat to Jewish survival than does marriage (albeit to a sinner) within the fold.”


The German rabbi, Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer (who was a student of R. Akiva Eiger, and who expressed ideas about Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel before Theodore Herzl) also made use of the notion of Holy seed - mentioned in relation to Ezra, above - but in a different manner entirely.

R. Kalischer regarded the (Halachically non-Jewish) children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as Holy seed!

R. Kalischer explains that Ezra was terribly concerned about the numerous children of such unions, who were Holy seed and he did not want them to assimilate into the nations.[31] Based on this, R. Kalisher ruled[32] that it was especially important to adopt, as Zohar puts it:

‘an especially welcoming policy of conversion towards non-Jews of Jewish ancestry.’

R. BEN ZION OUZIEL 1880-1953:

The first Sefaradic Chief Rabbi of Israel, R. Ben Zion Ouziel[33] held a similar view to R. Kalischer:[34]
R. Ouziel wrote:

“If he (the father) applies for the acceptance of that child for conversion, we are commanded to respond positively, in order to expiate the father’s sin [of intermarriage] by conversion [of the children], and ‘so that none of us be banished’ (2 Samuel 14:14).”

In fact, R. Ouziel went so far as to instruct the rabbis that it was their duty, as leaders of the Jewish community, to actively seek out persons of Jewish ancestry and enable them to return to Judaism:

“...for they are the seed of Israel, and they are as lost sheep.
And I fear that if we reject the children completely, by refusing...conversion, we will be summoned to answer [before God], and it will be said of us: ‘nor have you brought back the strayed, nor have you sought that which is lost’ (Ezek. 34:4)”[35]

R. MOSHE HAKOHEN (1906-1966):

R. Moshe haKohen, the Tunisian Halachist from the island of Djerba, cited the same verse from Samuel, “so that none of us be banished” to support his position that the best solution for intermarriage is:

“ bring the whole family under the wings of the Shekhina ‘so that none of us be banished’...”


We have looked at many divergent and even contradictory ideas on the burning notion of conversion.

When I was studying for Smicha (Ordination), my teacher told me that we were about to discover so many different views and it would soon become apparent that as strict as the Law sometimes is - it is lenient just as many times.

A wise person is one who knows how and when to emphasise which laws.

[For instances of forced conversions to Judaism and active proselytizing, see The Jews of Arabia.]

[1] Zvi Zohar, Conversion to Judaism - Rabbinic times to the Present.  
[2] See note 27.
[3] See Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Matrilineal Principle in Historical Perspective.
[4] Tosafot, however, suggest that circumcision and immersion go back to Sinai. (See later the Tosafot to Sanhedrin 68b.) See also the debate between R. Yehoshua and R. Eliezer in Yevamot 46b.
The introduction of the idea of immersion for conversion at a later period of Jewish history would not preclude the Talmud from the common practice of finding references to it   within the Torah.
For example, while the Torah speaks of ‘loving the ger’ - and this is taken to refer to gerim or converts today - the original Torah meaning of ger had nothing to do with the later concept of converts.
[5] Exod. 19:8
[6] In a lecture ‘Giyyur’.
[7] Ascription, Your Dictionary.
[8] Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 13: 4, 13:14.
[9] Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 13:17.
[10] I Kings 11:1-2.
[11] Judg. 14-16.
[12] Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 13:16.
[13] Deut, 21:10.
[14] Rambam, Responsa no. 211.
[15] Yevamot 47b.
Regarding the ‘Captive Woman’ :

Under what circumstance are these matters stated? It is when she did not accept upon herself the yoke of mitzvot; however, if she willingly accepted upon herself the yoke of mitzvot, he may immerse her for the sake of conversion, and he is permitted to marry her immediately without the need for her to undergo the process described in the Torah.”
[16] There is some controversy over whom authored the Halachot Gedolot:                                                a) Around the 9th-century, Rav Shimon Kayara (or Kiara) wrote the Halachot Gedolot, in Sura, Babylonia. He is also known as the ‘Bahag’- which stands for Baal (author of) Halachot Gedolot.                                                       b) According to R. Moshe miKotzi, the thirteenth-century French Tosafist, who wrote the Semag (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol), it was Yedhudai Gaon who authored Halachot Gedolot, which was a key source for his Semag.                                                                                                                                                              c) However, according to R. David Ganz (1541-1613), a student of the Maharal and a Jewish chronicler, the Semag may have been referring to another Gaon, who went by a similar name, Yehudai ben Ahunai.)
[17] The Arba’ah Turim was authored by R. Yaakov ben Asher 1270- 1340.
[18] Jeremiah 16:19.
[19] Ketuvot 11a.
[20] Tosafot to Sanhedrin 68b. (Translation by Zohar.)
[21] Chaggiga 3a, s.v. nedivei amim.
[22] Tehillim 47:10
[23] Maimonides Responsa no. 293.
[24] Letter to Ovadiah the Ger.
[25] According to Ruth Rabbah 2:16 there is a reference to rejecting a covert three times. This is based on three mentions of rejection in the story of Ruth. However, this does not seem to have translated into actual Halacha.
[26] Ezra 9:2.
[27] This amounted to 113 foreign wives with their children. This incident is used by some to show that Ezra instituted the matrilineal principle. The counter-argument is that Ezra did not legislate against the men because he had no jurisdiction over the men who were not his people, but he had jurisdiction over the women who had married Jews.
[28] Iggerot Moshe, Even haEzer, III, Siman 4.
[29] Rambam does go on to say in the next paragraph that this is exactly why converts are to ‘difficult’ for the Jews because even if their behaviour is inappropriate, they remain irrevocably part of the group.
[30] Translation mine. Unless one reads R. Feinstein as referring to someone who lies openly in court (although one could still equate it to Rambam who says that the court 'knew he was converting for an ulterior motive' and, in the case of the wives, they too were deceptive because 'their secrets were revealed.')
[31] I have difficulty in understanding why Ezra sent these children away then?
[32]See the Responsa of Azriel Hildesheimer no. 229.
[33] Also spelt Uziel.
[34] Piskei Ouziel no. 64.
[35] Piskei Ouziel no. 65.


  1. "Zohar makes the interesting point that the common practice of initially rejecting the convert, has no basis in classical Jewish law."

    Doesn't this count as classical Jewish law?

    תנו רבנן גר שבא להתגייר בזמן הזה אומרים לו מה ראית שבאת להתגייר אי אתה יודע שישראל בזמן הזה דוויים דחופים סחופים ומטורפין ויסורין באין עליהם

    (Yevamot 47a)

  2. See footnote 25 where another source from Rut Rabbah is referenced as well.

    By law was meant Halacha as in Shulchan Aruch (not Gemara or Medrash): This is what Shulchan Aruch says:

    "When the convert comes to convert, the court says to him: What prompted you to come and convert? Don’t you know that the Jews today are pushed, oppressed, (hopeless and oppressed from, “Why are your stalwarts swept away”[Jeremiah 46:15]? ) insane and troubles are constantly finding them? If the prospective convert says, “I know, and I am not worthy to join them,” they accept him immediately. They then inform him of the central tenants of the faith, which are the unity of God, and the prohibition against idolatry, and we discuss these concepts at length. He is then informed about a few of the less stringent commandments and a few of the more serious commandments. He is then advised about some of the punishments (for transgressing) the mitzvot. He is told, “Before you arrived at this point, if you ate forbidden fats you would not be punished by spiritual excommunication. If you desecrated Shabbat, you would not be stoned, but now if you eat forbidden fats, you will be excommunicated, and if you desecrate Shabbat, you will be stoned." Do not expound on this at too great a length, and we do not examine him too closely. Just as you inform him about the punishments (for the transgressing) of the commandments, so too should you inform him of the rewards for (following) the mitzvot, and that by doing the mitzvot he will merit life in the world to come, and that there is no such thing as a complete saint except for one who has wisdom and that does these commandments and understands them." Yoreh Deah 268:2.

    According to this the convert is questioned not rejected.

    (This does not exclude the fact that there may be other Halachik sources that call for rejection.)

  3. BH

    This entire idea that we changed from patrilineal descent to matrilineal descent, is an idea made up by people who don't believe in Torah She'Ba'al Peh. In every single instance you may see the father being the central player, the Chazal consistently explained what the real story was.

    In other words the ideas in this point, reject Chazal and Torah She'Ba'al Peh. In other words beyond the pale for any orthodox Jew.

  4. The matter of patrilineal and matrilineal descent has, unfortunately, become clouded within contemporary religious politics and is always used as an ideological football. We need not, however, allow this to get in the way of respectable scholarly debate.

    The leading German posek and Rosh Yeshiva, R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg famously asked: "Why is a child as his mother? -The answer is not quite clear."

    Ramban holds that matrilineal descent began as far back as Avraham. (Commentary on Vayikra 24:10)

    Thus Eisav may have been considered a Jew (Kiddushin 18a).

    Yet Ramban also mentions the French rabbis who held that the switch from patrilineal to matrilineal descent happened later, at Har Sinai.

    This was based on the Sifra which says that the 'son of an Israelite woman' converted - suggesting that anyone born before Mattan Torah who was not Jewish by patrilineal descent, had to convert.

    According to this Torah she'beal'peh a switch did take place between patrilineal and matrilineal descent (although, of course much earlier than Ezra or R. Shimon bar Yochai.)

  5. BH

    Almost the entire Gamut of Rishonim and Achronim hold that we started following matrilineal descent from Matan Torah, when we became a nation. Some hold it goes earlier to the Rambam. No one holds that it started hundreds of years later in the days of Ezra unless he does not believe in Torah She'ba'al Peh.

  6. You wrote: "This entire idea that we changed from patrilineal descent to matrilineal descent, is an idea made up by people who don't believe in Torah She'Ba'al Peh."

    I showed you it existed in opinions in the Gemara and a Ramban. Are you suggesting they did not believe in Torah she'be'al peh?

    1. You also said: "In every single instance you may see the father being the central player, the Chazal consistently explained what the real story was."

      Now you say: "Almost the entire Gamut of Rishonim and Achronim hold..."

      How did 'every single' become 'almost'?

  7. There was no "swich" from paternal to maternal descent. The belonging to the nation (Jewishness) is determined by the mother, functions within the nation are determined by paternal descent. And it all started at Sinai.