Acceptance of the Yoke of the Commandments

Kabbalat ol ha-mitzvot (acceptance of the commandments) combines faith and action with an intent to evolve as a practicing Jew.

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The entire conversion process hinges on this one theme--committing one's life to keeping the tradition. That is why the acceptance of the mitzvot is both prerequisite to and the purpose of the process and thus needs to be expressed a second time, immediately prior to the conclusion of the process. Due process requires both the initial reportorial acceptance and the formal ceremonial acceptance. The formal acceptance is paced immediately before the immersion and always requires presence of the beit din [court of three observant Jews], which represents the full authority the law and of the entire community.

It should be evident to any serious thinking person that one who enters a new faith ignorant of its basic requirements is not sincere or authentic and will not be a credit to his people. However, it should be noted that the talmudic requirement is that the convert study "a small portion of the major and minor mitzvot." One is not expected to absorb the encyclopedic details of the law--which takes a lifetime--but only to know enough to practice the major observances and to have a sense of the scope of Judaism's universe and the range of commitment it demands.

The Rabbis did not require expert scholarship of [new converts]. They sought instead a full-hearted willingness to abide by what they had already learned and what they expected to learn in the future.

Rejection of Even One Law Considered Rebellious

While a smattering of ignorance, though objectionable, does not invalidate the conversion process, explicit rejection of even one of the commandments in a manner considered rebellious toward rabbinic authority does. It is a red flag that signals only a conditional acceptance, a less-than-complete commitment in "the marriage of true minds." It is, of course, the individual's option to observe or not to observe any given mitzvah. Every person, Judaism believes, has a God-given freedom of the will. But the halakhah declares that it is not everyone's option to determine what the halakhah is in any specific case, and whether it is valid or not. One may choose to observe or not to observe, but one may not decide what Jewish law demands to be observed.

Therefore, if a convert candidate--before becoming a Jew--rejects the practice of a specific mitzvah as fundamentally not valid and therefore not to be observed (rather than because he simply does not have the capacity to keep it now), he disqualifies himself as a credible candidate for conversion. It is true that many Jews reject mitzvot, but such rejection ab initio constitutes a bar to a prospective convert's admission to the faith.

The grounds for invalidating a conversion because of such rejection are limited to explicit purposeful denial of a mitzvah. Even more, they are restricted by some rabbis to a person who stipulates prior to the immersion that he be granted official permission as a Jew to disregard it. Only in such an instance would he be denied entrance to the Jewish people, because conversion brooks no exceptions: "There is no conversion by halves."

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.