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A Fundamental Difference Concerning Conversion Between the Liberal Denominations and Orthodox

Today’s liberal Jewish communities, in which rigorous observance of the ritual commandments is no longer part of the fabric of daily Jewish life, insist that a genuine desire to join the Jewish people and share in its fate ought to be a sufficient standard for conversion. Many Orthodox communities, alarmed by what they see as the dilution of Jewish content in liberal Judaism, in general, and liberal conversations, in particular, have responded by adhering ever more rigidly to classic conversion standards. Valid conversions must be accompanied by a genuine commitment to observe the commandments — “for the sake of heaven” (Geirim 1:3) — they insist, and conversions that lack that are simply null and void.

Daniel Gordis, “What, Not Who, Is a Jew?”, Sh’ma (March 2011), 12.

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A Talmudic Tension Concerning Converts Accepting Commandments

…the talmudic sources are divided. A well known baraita (Yevamot 47a) says that converts should at first be turned away: “Our rabbis taught: If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: ‘What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte? Do you not know that Israel at the present time is persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?’ If he replies, ‘I know and yet I am unworthy,’ he is accepted immediately ….” After he is accepted, he is instructed in some of the commandments, but his acceptance comes first.

But another source (Bekhorot 30b) insists that a convert who rejects a single iota of Jewish law may not be accepted. These sources can be made to agree, but doing so clouds the question that their apparent contradiction raises. Is being a Jew fundamentally about the observance of every detail of Jewish law (as Bekhorot implies), or does converting mean joining a covenantal community that sees itself as marginal, a community in which commandments are central, but perhaps not the defining characteristic (as in Yevamot)?

Daniel Gordis, “What, Not Who, Is a Jew?”, Sh’ma (March 2011), 12.


“There is no Judaism without mitzvot…”

Judaism is constituted of the acceptance and practice of the mitzvot. Thus, it is inconceivable that a non-Jew could enter the nation of Israel and acquire kedushat Yisrael without acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot. There is no Judaism without mitzvot. However, there have been different halakhic positions over the centuries as to whether or not the acceptance of mitzvot requires the complete and perfect knowledge and practice of the mitzvot at the time of conversion, like circumcision and immersion in the mikvah.

Yehiel E. Poupko, “Making Jews: Conversion and Mitzvot”, Sh’ma (March 2011), 13.