Kabbalat Mitzvot (5) Contemporary Approaches to Kabbalat Mitzvot (3)

  • Rav David Brofsky
Last week, we continued our discussion of contemporary approaches to conversion in general, and to kabbalat mitzvot in particular. In contrast to the view of R. Benzion Meir Chai Uziel (1880-1953) – who expressed his great concern for Jews who might assimilate due to intermarriage and therefore argued that “it is permissible and it is a mitzva to accept male and female converts, even though it is known to us that they will not fulfill all of the mitzvot” (Mishpetei Uziel 7:20) – we presented the view of R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940).
            After discussing the broader question of conversions for the sake of marriage and whether the couple may be married after the non-Jewish partner’s conversion, R. Grodzinski asserts that the validity of the conversion is dependent upon the convert genuinely and whole-heartedly accepting upon himself to fulfill all of the mitzvot of the Torah. However, he adds:
It appears that this law – that if a non-Jew who wishes to become a proselyte accepts all the mitzvot except for a single detail of rabbinic law, we do not accept him – only applies where he stipulates that he does not accept [that one detail] and that it should be permitted to him by right. In such a case, we do not accept him, for conditions may not be attached to conversion, and there is no half conversion. If, however, he accepts upon himself all the mitzvot, but he intends to violate [a certain law] to gratify his appetite (le-te’avon), this is not regarded as a deficiency in his acceptance of the mitzvot.
R. Grodzinski qualifies this assertion: “If it is clear that he will certainly violate Torah laws, such as violate the Shabbat and eating non-kosher foods, then we clearly know that his intention is not to convert whole-heartedly.” (See also Seridei Eish 2:75.)
            Although R. Avraham Dov-Ber Kahana Shapiro (Kovno, 1870–1943), in his Dvar Avraham (28), argues that nowadays, since a couple can be civilly married, we can no longer assume that the convert’s kabbalat mitzvot is whole-hearted, R. Grodzinki’s approach to kabbalat ha-mitzvot – that the awareness that he will be unable, or unwilling due to his desires, to fulfill some of the mitzvot does not undermine the kabbalat ha-mitzvot – was widely accepted.
            This week we will present the view of other contemporary posekim and point to the possible uniqueness of conversion in the State of Israel.
R. Moshe Feinstein
            R. Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986), the senior halakhic authority of American Orthodoxy in the 20th century, was well acquainted with the challenges of intermarriage and assimilation. He was, quite possible, “the posek who engaged more than any other in the laws of conversion in recent generations, in law and practice” (Finkelstein, Ha-Giyur – Halakha u-Ma’aseh, p. 356). His responsa widely influenced the policies of batei din in America and around the world.
            R. Feinstein, in numerous responsa, expresses his overall discomfort with conversions for the sake of marriage in the modern era. In response to an American rabbi, he writes (Iggerot Moshe, YD 1:159):
I am generally uncomfortable with conversion and I refrain from it, not only because of the law which instructs [a beit din] not to accepts converts for the sake of marriage, but also because it is almost completely clear, as we can attest (anan sehadei), that the convert does not accept the mitzvot and only in her mouth does she accept them… In the majority of conversions in this country that are for the sake of marriage, they do not accept the mitzvot even when they say they accept, as it is known that they are being deceitful, as the convert will certainly not be any better than her husband who openly violates of the commandments. However, since the convert may actually accept the mitzvot, I refrain from saying anything, as there are many rabbis in New York who accept this type of convert, and therefore I refrain from saying that it is prohibited, and he [i.e., you] should act according to his understanding and knowledge, and according to the urgency.
This passage reflects R. Feinstein’s reluctance to engage in conversion, which he restates in other responsa (see ibid. YD 3:106). At the same time, he is aware of the complexity of the situation and the pressures that local rabbis face; he thus refrains from criticizing them, and even lends them his support.
            Regarding the expectation of kabbalat mitzvot, R. Feinstein writes (ibid. YD 1:157):
Regarding the matter about which you were in doubt, whether a convert who failed to accept the mitzvot is regarded as a convert – it is clear and simple that he is not at all a convert, even bedi'eved, and so ruled my father and master ztz"l, in actual practice, that he is not considered to be a convert at all, both in leniency and in stringency, as [the absence of] kabbalat mitzvot undermines the validity of the conversion (YD 268:3). And even if he states that he accepts the mitzvot, if we are witnesses (anan sehadi) that he is not truly accepting [the mitzvot], it is nothing. The case of conversion for the sake of marriage that is valid bedi'eved is where for the sake of marriage he truly accepts upon himself the mitzvot.
R. Feinstein clearly states that an insincere kabbalat mitzvot undermines the validity of the conversion.
            In contrast to R. Grodnizki, who rules that a convert’s explicit intention not to fulfill certain mitzvot due to his “desires” (le-te’avon) does not undermine his kabbalat mitzvot, R. Feinstein appears to adopt a stricter standard. Regarding a woman who had in mind during her conversion that she would work on the final days of Yom Tov, although she afterwards never knowingly violated Yom Tov again, he writes:
A convert who accepts upon himself the mitzvot, but told the beit din that although he accepts the mitzvot he knows that he would be unable to withstand the threat of death, if he was forced to violate a prohibition regarding which he is commanded to die and not sin, this is considered to be a proper kabbalat mitzvot … And it seems that even if he says that he would be unable to withstand financial coercion … this would also be considered a valid acceptance [of the mitzvot], and the fear that she would be suddenly removed from her position and therefore she planned to go to work on Yom Tov … It appears that this was a fully valid kabbalat mitzvot, and she is a full convert without any doubt.
R. Grodzinski discusses one who will not observe certain mitzvot due to his urges (le-te’avon), which seemingly reflects a bit of apathy towards full religious observance. R. Feinstein, on the other hand, discusses a case in which a person feels coerced into violating the Torah. In other words, R. Feinstein appear to set a higher bar for kabbalat mitzvot.
            Of course, R. Feinstein is aware of the sources (Yevamot 47a; Shabbat 68a; ibid. 31a) that imply that even one who is relatively unaware of the scope of religious observance is considered to be a convert. He articulates his definition of kabbalat mitzvot in response to a query regarding a woman who wishes to convert, but “does not wish to accept the standards of dress of modest women, but rather, intends to wear the clothes of ordinary women in this immodest generation.” He writes (ibid. YD 3:106):
It appears in the Talmud (Bekorot 30b) that “if a gentile comes to convert and takes upon himself to accept the words of Torah except for one matter, he is not accepted” … And although they certainly accepted converts who did not know the majority of the laws of the Torah, as they only inform them of some of the mitzvot, and it is obvious that they do not inform them of the majority of the laws of Shabbat, and furthermore we see that even if a convert did not know even a single mitzva, he is a convert, as is stated in Shabbat 68b … That is because he accepted upon himself to behave as the other Jews behave, and that is sufficient for convert.
Therefore, R. Feinstein concludes, since even religious women wear immodest clothing, “this gentile who comes to convert believes that [modest dress] is merely a stringency which some women accept upon themselves, as they know many women who consider themselves religious who wear immodest clothing.” In other words, R. Feinstein asserts that kabbalat mitzvot is the willingness to behave as other observant Jews behave.
            Here lies the difference between R. Godzinski and R. Feinstein: R. Grodzinski believes that a commitment to certain, central mitzvot (Shabbat, kashrut) reflects a full, inner acceptance of the mitzvot, even if the convert acknowledges that he may find it difficult to perform all of the mitzvot. Without accepting these central mitzvot, it is difficult to consider his commitment as a kabbalat ha-mitzvot. R. Feinstein, on the other hand, expects the convert to embrace complete religious observance, and therefore does not attempt to quantify religious commitment. However, he defines “religious observance” as a willingness to fully join a religiously observant community, whose standards may differ from place to place.
Conversion and Identification with the Jewish People
R. Isser Yehuda Unterman
            We saw above that while R. Moshe Feinstein demands a full and complete acceptance of the mitzvot, although in practice, the scope of his kabbalat ha-mitzvot may depend upon the religious community in which one lives. Although R. Feinstein emphasizes the convert’s communal identity, he does attribute any significance to the converts “national identity.” Similarly, R. Mordechai Yaakov Breisch (Zurich, 1896–1976), in his Chelkat Yaakov, writes:
And I am shocked at the sight, the rabbis of Western Europe are unable to fool themselves, as they know very well that the overwhelming majority of the converts, who have attached themselves to the Jewish people by marriage, and the majority of these Jews are themselves sinners, do not at all wish to know about kashrut, Shabbat, and the laws of nidda. The mitzvot are a burden for them, and they are Jewish only in nationality (yehudi le’umi) … and in this manner it seems obvious to me that even after the fact they are not considered to be converts.
R. Breisch completely negates “national identity” as having any significance in one’s kabbalat mitzvot.
            Some authorities point to a possible difference between conversions performed in Israel and those performed in the diaspora. One who converts in the diaspora continues to live in his prior surroundings, near his non-Jewish family and in his non-Jewish national culture. The only expression and indication of his inner transformation is his commitment to halakhic observance. However, one who converts the Judaism in the State of Israel integrates into a Jewish national collective, which itself reflects an inner change, and may lead, over time, to a deeper and increased connection to Torah and mitzvot.
            For example, R. Isser Yehuda Unterman (1886–1976), who served as Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1964 until 1972, relates that during the two decades he served as a rabbi in England, he refrained from performing conversions (Shevet Mi-Yehuda, vol. 2, pp. 376–383). However, as Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, responding to the immigration of Russians to Israel, he adopted a different approach:
During all of my days in the rabbinate in England I stood my ground and did not accept converts for the sake of marriage. However, there we had numerous reasons, which are not relevant here.
He explains that in the diaspora, accepting converts for the sake of marriage may increase assimilation and intermarriage. Further, he notes that those who convert “remain in the same environment, and live in the atmosphere, and do not feel that they are detached from their past…and this type of convert does not think of and see himself as a ‘newborn,’ as he does not see a change in his lifestyle.” However, after mustering numerous halakhic and meta-halakhic reasons to justify the conversion of non-Jewish spouses and family members, R. Unterman concludes:
In my opinion, one should not be strict by [asking them] difficult questions, as it appears that we are antagonizing them. The fact is that they truly wish to convert, and that is clear for two reasons. First, they did not accept the tenets of the Christian religion there … and when they are presented with the fundamentals of our holy faith it is like ink of a fresh piece of paper which is not quickly erased. And second, those who came are filled with bitterness against the persecutions of the Jews … And therefore, when we accept them and they whole-heartedly connect to the Jewish People, and also with the foundations of our holy faith, such as the observance of Shabbat and kosher foods … There is no need for extra concern, and God forbid that we should distance push them away, and by doing so push away their entire family.
R. Unterman, based upon the halakhic standard articulated by R. Grodzinski, insists that one should be lenient and welcoming of these immigrants. He does not do away with kabbalat mitzvot; rather, he asserts that immigrating to and living in Israel is the first step of an inner transformation, which serves as the foundation of one’s kabbalat mitzvot.
R. Shaul Yisraeli
            While R. Unterman views living in Israel as the foundation of kabbalat ha-mitzvot, R. Shaul Yisraeli (1909–1995) a rabbinic judge and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Merkaz Ha-Rav, asserts that the determination of one’s national identity is the essence of conversion. R. Yisraeli asserts (Chavot Binyamin 2:67):
The foundation of conversion is that the Jewish People agree to accept [the convert] into their assembly, and this is expressed by the beit din, as representatives of the Jewish people, deciding to accept him, by informing him of some of the mitzvot, and he accepts them in their presence. Therefore, if this condition is not fulfilled, the other acts of conversion are insignificant.
R. Yisraeli explains that kabbalat mitzvot must be performed in the presence of a beit din, as their decision to accept the convert confirmed by his acceptance of the mitzvot. In other words, the process of conversion is, fundamentally, national.
Therefore, the primary reason why [kabbalat mizvot] must be performed before the beit din is because kabbalat mitzvot, on its own, is the expressions of their willingness to accept him as a convert. The other actions that are performed afterwards, the mila and the tevila, may be performed in from of two witnesses who confirm that he did what was required to enter the Jewish People.
According to R. Yisraeli, the non-Jew does not convert in the presence of a beit din. Rather, the beit din decides to accept this non-Jew as a member of the Jewish People. More importantly, kabbalat mitzvot is not part of the conversion process, but is rather part of beit din’s acceptance of the convert into the Jewish People.
            Whether or not this understanding impacts upon the scope and sincerity of the kabbalat ha-mitzvot is subject to debate.
            The past three shiurim have focused on contemporary approaches to kabbalat mitzvot. R. Uziel, followed by others, maintained that ultimately beit din decides whether or not a person should be converted, and although the formal declaration of kabbalat mitzvot is required, beit din does not necessarily expect the convert to fully adhere to the mitzvot, at least initially. Others maintain that the convert must wholeheartedly accept upon himself to fulfill the mitzvot in order for the conversion to be valid. Of course, being that this commitment is “devarim she-belev” (i.e., and inner, personal matter), beit din should only convert when they are convinced of the pure intentions of the convert. The Acharonim differ as to how to define the completeness of the convert’s commitment. Finally, some maintain that ultimately, conversion is a process of joining the Jewish People, which is defined and characterized by one’s acceptance of the mitzvot. This process may be easier, or more natural, in a Jewish State.
            Next week, we will discuss whether a conversion may be challenged or revoked.