Sunday 2 January 2022

365) Leniencies in conversion or stringencies in avoiding assimilation?



The discussion on conversion to Judaism has once again assumed a position of centre stage within Israeli and Jewish politics. This article explores a number of approaches as articulated by Professor Richard Hidary from Yeshiva University[1] in Part I; as well as some recent writings by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, author of the Peninei Halacha series[2] in Part II.

Part I

Some classical sources

Rabbi Dr Hidary begins by bringing some classical sources of which we will examine just three:

a) Mishna Yevamot 2:8

According to the Mishna in Yevamot 2:8, if one converts for ulterior motives, the conversion is considered valid bedieved, or ex post facto. It speaks of a case where a man had relations with a Gentile woman who later converted to Judaism. It rules that he may not marry her lechatchila, or ab initio (because the assumption is that she has ulterior motives for wanting to convert). However, if he did marry her, the Jewish courts cannot force him to divorce her. Her conversion is considered valid, despite the assumption of an ulterior motive, and the Talmud further elaborates that were she to leave her first husband, she can marry another Jewish man.

b) b. Shabbat 31a

The Talmud records a Beraita where a Gentile, after hearing a teacher discuss the garments of the High Priest, decided he wanted to convert to Judaism and become a High Priest. He first goes to Shammai and asks to be converted so that he can become a High Priest. Shammai, known to be overly strict and impatient, rejects him immediately. Then he proceeds to Hillel, known to be kinder and more open, and Hillel converts him, adding afterwards that now he must go and study all the laws of the Torah. Of course, he soon discovers that a convert cannot become a Cohen, let alone the Cohen Gadol. The new convert still blesses Hillel for accepting him and the Talmud comments that “the impatience of Shammai almost removed him from the world, while the humility of Hillel brought him under the wings of the Shechina (G-d’s presence).”

c) Rambam

Rambam in his Mishneh Torah (Isurei Biah 13:14) is concerned about ulterior motives in a candidate for conversion:

“…we check if he does so [i.e., convert] to receive money, or to attain power, or if he enters the religion because of fear, and if he is a man we check perchance he fancies a Jewish woman, and if she is a woman perchance she fancies a Jewish man. If we do not find any ulterior motive, then we inform him of the weight of the yoke of the Torah and the burden there is for common people in fulfilling it, so that they will withdraw. If they accept and do not withdraw and we see that they returned from love, we accept them as it states: “She saw that she persisted to walk with her and she ceased speaking to her” (Ruth 1:18).

In other words, once we have eliminated the question of an ulterior motive, we don’t overburden the converts with too much information.

Rambam continues in the next paragraph (15) that since we are concerned primarily about insincere converts with ulterior motives, historically we never accepted converts during the time of Kings David and Solomon, because the Jewish people were then in the ascendancy and non-Jews wanted to be part of this successful nation who weren’t persecuted at that time.

However, Rambam reminds us that, in fact, many did convert during that time! The only difference was that they converted through lay (non-rabbinic) structures. The rabbis did not involve themselves in the conversion process until they were convinced of their sincerity:

The [rabbinic] court would be suspicious of them.”

The rabbis seemed to have regarded those converted through the lay-leadership as being under some form of temporary spiritual probation. In the following paragraph (17), Rambam continues:

If they did not check the convert or did not inform him of the commandments and their punishments, and he is circumcised and immerses before three laymen, he is a valid convert.”

Rambam is informing us that the check for ulterior motives and the arduous study programme is only required in the lechatchilah (ab initio) situation – but if this did not take place, then provided the immersion in a mikve (and for a male the circumcision) took place before three laymen, the conversion is still valid bedieved (ex post facto)! The immersion (and circumcision) is evidently and effectively sufficient to show commitment to Torah.

And, Rambam emphasises, that even in a case where the converted person was to return to the worship of idols, he or she would simply be regarded as any other recalcitrant Jew who turned to apostasy and idolatry:

Once he immerses, he becomes as a Jew. For this reason Samson and Solomon remained with their wives even though their ruse [i.e., their ulterior motive to be married to powerful men][3] was revealed.”

Sefaradic and Ashkenazic approaches to conversion

Hidary (2015:293) points out that although we should not regard Sefaradic and Ashkenazic Halacha as two separate systems because they both often cite each other, nevertheless, one can discern a particularly more lenient and accepting approach from the Sefaradic authorities.

Rabbi BenZion Uziel (1880-1953)

Hidary deals with various Sefaradic sources but we will primarily focus on Rabbi BenZion Uziel who became the first Sefaradic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel in 1948. R. Uziel was later to give rabbinic ordination to Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. Hidary (2015:302) explains that R. Uziel wrote about three dozen responsa (Halachic opinions) on the matter of conversion.

The Salonica case

While serving for a period in Salonika, R. Uziel was consulted about a Jewish man who married a non-Jewish woman and they had a family together. The woman later decided that she wanted to convert to Judaism. R. Uziel first quotes sources (from Mishneh Torah and Shulchan Aruch) that the judges on the Jewish court must be wary of conversion for marriage as it is considered an ulterior motive. But then he also quotes a Tosafot who allows conversion for marriage even in the first instance (ab initio), provided that the judge anticipates that the intentions are pure and that in the end, the conversion will be sincere. He also quotes the Bet Yosef’s comment on this Tosafot that the courts have the discretion to accept or reject converts with ulterior motives.[4] R. Uziel then rules according to Tosafot (against Rambam and Shulchan Aruch):

This non-Jewish woman is already married to a Jew, and by bringing her into the Jewish covenant she will get closer and closer to her husband’s family and his Torah, and furthermore, the children she bore and those who she will bear from now on will be completely Jewish, behold this is similar to the cases of Hillel and R. Hiyya who were sure that in the end they would be complete converts. They are therefore permitted, or better, commanded to bring them close and have them enter into the covenant of Israel’s Torah and remove the affliction of assimilation, which is an inflammatory affliction in the vineyard of the House of Israel.”

Note how R. Uziel does not only permit the conversion, but deems it a commandment to convert the woman and thereby remove the affliction of assimilation from Israel.

The Istanbul case

In another responsum written in 1943 to R. Chaim Sabban of Istanbul concerning a couple where one partner was not Jewish and wanted to convert expressly for marriage, R. Uziel wrote that even though conversion for marriage was only permitted ex post facto, we adopt the strategy of the lay courts in the times of David and Solomon:

“…we may make ourselves as laymen and perform this conversion in order to save a Jewish man or woman from this terrible sin [of intermarriage], which is an inflammatory affliction in the house of Israel and is likely to bring on its heels destruction to our nation.”[5]

Hidary (2015:324) adds in a footnote:

It is interesting to note that whereas in Mishpete Uziel, Yore De‘ah 1:14 and 2:53, Rabbi Uziel relies on Tosafot’s view that conversion initiated by ulterior motives is permitted if they will result in sincere conversion, this responsum does not cite Tosafot. This implies that, for Rabbi Uziel, even if the conversion is solely for ulterior motives it is still permitted in order to avoid intermarriage.”

Hidary (2015:304) points out that R. Uziel is not just being lenient for the sake of being lenient or unscrupulous regarding conversion laws, rather he is exhibiting “stringency in avoiding intermarriage”.

Converts whose commitment is questionable

R. Uziel offers many ways around the thorny issue of determining whether the commitment of the candidate convert is up to “standard”.[6] He permits conversion ab initio even in circumstances where it is not absolutely clear that convert is “ideal”. He does this because he argues that anyway, it is impossible for the court to demand absolute fulfilment of all the mitzvot. There is always an uncertain human element at play, especially regarding these matters. R. Uziel writes:

The court does not need to know that he will fulfill the mitzvot, for if that were not the case, no converts would ever be accepted in Israel, for who can guarantee that this non-Jew will be trustworthy regarding all mitzvot of the Torah?

This is an interesting point. We can’t always demand unwavering future commitment even from Torah scholars who have spent a lifetime in the world of Torah, how much less so from a non-Jew who has never been exposed to this world at all.

Hidary (2015:304) explains that according to R. Uziel, especially in our generation, excluding so many people from conversion would cause untold numbers of Jews who have a stake in the process, to become enemies of their own religion and assimilate entirely, “as history testifies”.

R. Uziel continues:

The condition of fulfilling commandments is not necessary for conversion even ab initio . . . One is permitted and it is even a mitzvah to accept converts even when we know that they will not fulfill all of the commandments because in the end they will come to fulfill them and we must open up for them this possibility. If they do not fulfill the mitzvot, they will bear their sin and we are innocent.”[7]

This statement of R. Uziel flies in the face of the standard practice of probably every Beit Din today that deal with conversions. One cannot help but wonder what the reaction from these courts would be to his ruling that it “is permitted and even a mitzvah to accept converts even when we know that they will not fulfill all of the commandments…”?

Children of intermarriage

Hidary (2015:305) explains that R. Uziel is especially concerned about the unfortunate fate of children from intermarriage. Children from a Jewish mother are Jewish under Torah law, but the family structure is still under strain because the children and the father all know the religious status of the dad. R. Uziel writes:

Not only if they are children of a Jewish mother whose children are complete Jews, but even if they are children of a non-Jewish mother behold they are of Jewish seed and are like lost sheep. I am afraid that if we reject them completely by not accepting their parents for conversion, we will be brought to judgment and it will be said of us, ‘Those who went astray you did not return and the lost you did not seek’ (Ezekiel 23:4).”[8]

R. Uziel points out that children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, while not technically Jewish are still of Jewish seed or Zera Yisrael. This is a category of affiliation that we seem to have forgotten about. According to R. Uziel, because they are from Jewish stock, the rabbis must therefore encourage such children to convert.

R. Uziel bases himself on b. Kiddushin 78a, where “from the seed of the House of Israel” (Ezekiel 44:22) refers to the lineage of the father.[9] Along similar lines, b. Megilah 25a interprets “your seed” (Leviticus 18:21) to refer to the child of a Jewish father and a Cuthean mother. According to R. Uziel, if the court:

pushes such a child away and uproots him from his source of life and seed, which is the father, then he will surely assimilate among the Gentiles and will reject the God of Israel and will greatly hate Judaism and its Torah.”

It is for this reason that both the father and the Beit Din should go out of their way to convert such children from mixed marriages.

A non-Jewess married to a Cohen

There is, however, one area where even R. Uziel is unable to find mitigating circumstances. This is where a non-Jewess is married under civil law to a Cohen.[10] If the Cohen does not divorce his wife, then R. Uziel still suggests that the father should be encouraged to convert his children to Judaism with the permission of the mother.[11]

Part II

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed    

R. Eliezer Melamed, the author of the respected Peninei Halacha series, wrote recently:

I support the initiative of the Minister of Religions, Matan Kahana, in restoring the authority of conversion to local rabbis. This is the law from time immemorial, namely, that every rabbi is authorized to convert. This was the practice in the State of Israel until about thirty years ago, and similarly, it is fitting and correct today, in order to open the majority of doors for immigrants from Jewish families who are not halachically Jews, to convert according to halakha. I hope that this initiative will add Torah and mitzvot in Israel, and on account of it, more immigrants will return to their roots, and more Jews in the Land of Israel will be strengthened in keeping tradition, in the love of Torah, and in keeping mitzvot.”

Acceptance of the mitzvot

R. Melamed points out that if a candidate for conversion expressly refuses to uphold a certain commandment, then he or she is not permitted to convert (b. Bechorot 30b). If a conversion took place under such circumstances, the conversion is not valid.

However, he continues that if the candidate accepts, in principle, to keep the laws of the Torah, although he or she may be unfamiliar with all the requirements and technicalities, the conversion is valid. R. Melamed writes:

Moreover, even if at the time of conversion he fears he will not be able to keep some of the mitzvoth, such as Shabbat, because perhaps his yetzer (evil inclination) will overcome him, or because of the necessity of earning a living – since in principle he wants to keep the mitzvot, his conversion is valid.”

Fascinatingly, R. Melamed also discusses the candidate for conversion who does not want to be “dati” (religious) but only wants to be “masoriti” (traditional).

He then quotes some rabbis who maintain that one can only be accepted for conversion if one agrees to be religious. Even these rabbis, however, would agree that even under such circumstances, if the person weakened over time and became less religious, the conversion would still be valid.

R. Melamed then quotes other rabbis who take the view that even if the candidate only agrees to be traditional but not religious, then:

as long as his principled approach to Torah and mitzvot is positive, he should be accepted

And even if he does not intend to keep all the laws of Shabbat, he does intend to refrain from working on Shabbat, to honor it by lighting candles and making kiddush, and to celebrate all the Chagim (holidays)… In practice, even according to the strict opinion, if a Beit Din decided to act in accordance with the lenient opinion and accepted a ger who intends to live as a masoriti Jew – his conversion is valid.

R. Melamed concludes:

There are currently hundreds of thousands of people living in Israel who, according to halakha, are not Jews, but are descendants of Jewish families, identify themselves as Israeli and Jewish, and are interested in returning to their roots. On the one hand, the majority of them want to convert and live as masoriti Jews. On the other hand, if they do not convert, they will establish families with Jews who will also move away from the Jewish tradition. In this situation, it is a mitzvah to open the possibility for all rabbis of the lenient opinion, to establish Batei Din and convert them, thereby adding Torah and mitzvot in Israel.”


As a community rabbi having dealt with many conversions of congregants over the years, I found the ideas researched and expressed by both Rabbi Dr Hidary and R. Melamed to be most interesting. It seems that many Battei Din are either unaware of, or choose to disassociate themselves, from such piskei Halacha. The attitude one most often is confronted with is one where the candidate has to become not just “religious” but a certain style of “religious” that is more in keeping with popular Ashkenazi Chareidi patterns than other perfectly acceptable models of orthodoxy.

So, for instance, the candidate would be required to embark upon a strict regimen of Gemora shiurim (not just Halacha or other types of shiurim) – and not even Gemora shiurim at standard orthodox venues, but at specified more Chareidi institutions. In some places, the candidate is even required to physically move into Chareidi families for some time in order to be assimilated within that culture. Sometimes they are even encouraged to travel overseas to attend certain designated yeshivot and seminaries.

These are fine and good under certain conditions but as blanket requirements or strongly advised recommendations, one could argue that they sometimes fall short of the broader practical visions we have seen attempting to deal with very real challenges, if not threats, to contemporary Judaism.

Conversion is a very sensitive issue and it is difficult to express a view without unleashing huge emotive responses, for and against. Not everyone will agree with R. Uziel and R. Melamed on these matters.

I do believe that at the heart of the debate, though, is the need to clarify exactly just what Halacha requires.

Is R. Uziel correct in his analysis of the requirements for conversion not necessitating a full acceptance of all the commandments? Is he correct to say that it “is permitted and even a mitzvah to accept converts even when we know that they will not fulfill all of the commandments…”?

Is R. Melamed correct in his analysis of a candidate for conversion wanting to live the life of a traditional Jew instead of a religious Jew, acceptable?

If they are correct, then our standard model for conversions is out of sync with Halacha and is overreaching. If they are incorrect, then our current systems are simply carrying out their duties as defenders of the faith.


[1] Hidary, R., 2015, “Sephardic Approaches to Conversion” in Conversion, Intermarriage, and Jewish Identity, edited by Adam Mintz and Marc D. Stern, Urim Publications, Jerusalem.

[3] Parenthesis mine.

[4] See Mishpete Uziel Yore De‘ah 2:53.

[5] Mishpete Uziel, Even Ha‘ezer 18 = Piske Uziel 63.

[6] See Mishpete Uziel, Even Ha‘ezer 20 = Piske Uziel 65.

[7] Mishpete Uziel, Yore De‘ah 2:58.

[8] Mishpete Uziel, Even Ha‘ezer 20.

[9] Hidary (2015:324) explains in a footnote: “This is certainly true according to R. Yehuda. Other Tannaim interpret the verse differently but all agree that the phrase ‘seed of the House of Israel’ refers at least to the father and that therefore the daughter of a father who was born Jewish may marry a priest.

[10] Mishpete Uziel, Even Ha‘ezer 18.

[11] Mishpete Uziel, Even Ha‘ezer 19 = Piske Uziel 6.


  1. This is going to be a long sentence but I need to write it.

    From a convert’s perspective that feels neither like a Chabadnik (although I identify with lots of their teachings, the messiah is/was/won’t be the Rabbi and other ashkafot do interest me even though I will always be grateful for my Chabad Rabbi), neither like a dati leumi (no, we did not reached yet the status of mamlekhet cohanim vgoy kadosh , the current state of Israel is….), and certainly not like a haredi (I am thankful for technology and science, even though we should filter it and not waste our time in it, and do not feel threatened by the outside world which I come from) I can tell you that both opinions are completely bonkers!

    There must be some kind of BALANCE between having to become a 100% black&white ultraorthodox closed conformist with no critical thinking (or possibility of it), and saying lékhatkhila openly that 1)I’ll convert for my wife but 2)continue working on Shabbat etc, don’t you think??

    And since this whole topic was launched by the lenient side I have also to say that I take that opinion as an insult for converts who had to completely change their life, habits, friends, leave family and friends, make Alyah to pursue a life dedicated to Hm, the truth of His Torah and Mitzvot with never being able to really fit in anywhere or in any minhag for that matter, with all that costs B'H(and only converts can understand this).

  2. Thank you David for your honest and thought provoking comment. You raise some very real issues that need to somehow be addressed.

    All I can say is that one should never feel insulted by following either the stringencies or leniencies of Halacha. Halacha is a large range or spectrum of permitted activity that is deemed appropriate Jewish practice.

    This holds true despite the social constructs of those who wish to create a false sense of religious elitism, where stricter practices place one on a shallow but perceived higher social standing.

    I had a teacher who explained the ubiquitous statement "ve'hamachmir tavo alav beracha" (The one who is always strict draws down blessing upon himself) as meaning: The individual who incessantly seeks out stricter and more complex Halachic outcomes by inconveniencing him or herself and others in the process, is actually in need of assistance guidance and Beracha for failing to understand the basic mechanics of the Halachic process.

    You may find this article of interest: