There's Room for Flexibility

If we are to develop a formula for conversion acceptable to all the Jewish movements, everyone will need to take a step toward the middle.

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"Then they [the court] inform him of the fundamentals of the faith, that is, the unity of God and the prohibition of idolatry, and they go into this at length. Then they inform him of a few of the simple commandments and a few of the weighty commandments, and inform him of some of the punishment for (transgression of) the commandments. They do not overdo this, do not get into all the details."

Here, the greater concern is for the principles of the faith, its theory, and the lesser concern is for its details. It is axiomatic that one cannot agree to what one has not heard, and yet the court is urged not to overburden the willing convert with detail. Rather, it is asked simply to set out the broad strokes, and to do so attractively, for the impetus to conversion has already been established.

"If he accepts, they circumcise him immediately...and afterward he is immersed properly ...with three attending him.... Since he has immersed, he is like any Jew."

The challenge in this law is to construe "acceptance." One court may seek stringently to demand a perfect commitment to action, even a substantial trial period. While that runs afoul of the instruction to perform said conversion "immediately," such a construction is possible. But another court may have substantially different operating assumptions. The extension of the courtesy to accept as binding the deeds of courts with which one does not fully agree is standard Orthodox practice.

Options for Leniency

The second Orthodox objection to liberal conversions is that, too often, marriage is an ulterior motive that vitiates the conversion. Yet non-Orthodox denominations speak openly of conversion as a defense of last resort against an intermarriage. This appears to me to be a worthy substantive debate, but the text of the law as codified in the Shulhan Arukhis instructive.

"When a person comes to convert, [the court] inquires lest it is because of money that he stands to receive or an office he might attain, or on account of fear...and if he is male they inquire if he is enamored of a Jewish woman, or if she is female they inquire if she is enamored of Jewish males. If no ulterior motive is found, then they inform him of the weight of the yoke of Torah and the burden of its fulfillment for simple folk, so that he might be dissuaded. If he accepts, and is not dissuaded, and they see that his decision is taken with love, they accept him."

This section appears to lend credence to the notion that the court should take a tough stand on the matter of ulterior motives for conversion. But the text's continuation places it in a very different light.

"But if they did not inquire or did not inform him of the reward for [observance of] the commandments or the punishment [for nonobservance], and he was circumcised and immersed before three laymen--he is nevertheless a convert, even if it is known that he had an ulterior motive for converting, since he circumcised and immersed he has left the class of gentiles…. Even if he returned to idolatry, he is like a Jewish apostate.…"

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Dr. Avram I. Reisner

Dr. Avram Israel Reisner is a teacher and lecturer in Baltimore, MD. He is a member of the Conservative Movement's Committee of Jewish Law and Standards.