Shiur #18: 9 November 1989 The Fall of the Berlin Wall and Aliya from the Soviet Union Part 3

  • Rav Aviad Tabory
The kibbutz galuyot from the Soviet Union was truly miraculous. However, after 70 years of living behind the Iron Curtain, with minimal access to Jewish tradition, and after 2000 years of exile, it is not surprising that the olim (immigrants) brought with them many questions regarding their Jewish status.
Many Jews arrived with wives who were not Jewish; as a result, their children were not halakhically Jewish. In many cases, even olim who were Jewish had difficulty proving it.
Dilemmas, challenges and difficult questions regarding conversion have been discussed throughout Jewish history. However, the situation in this case was fundamentally different, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the number of people seeking to convert skyrocketed, requiring more personnel to deal with the demand.
Secondly, the motivations for converting were different. Many of the immigrants were interested in becoming part of the Jewish community without the religion. In other words, they were interested in becoming Israeli.
In today’s shiur, we will discuss the laws of conversion and how they relate to the Soviet aliya.
Is there a mitzva to convert people to Judaism?
There are many mitzvot in the Torah regarding the special way we must behave towards converts. We must love them; we must be kind and sensitive to them. But is there a mitzva to convert a non-Jew?[1]
Rav Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (1361–1444, Palma), known as the Rashbatz, wonders why the great rabbis who compile lists of all the 613 mitzvot omit the mitzva of conversion. He quotes the Gemara, which teaches us that once a potential convert shows seriousness in accepting the Jewish faith, we convert him immediately, the reason being:
We do not procrastinate when it comes to a mitzva.[2]
This statement seems to indicate that there is a positive mitzva upon the court to assist non-Jews who are interested in joining the Jewish faith. After arguing that the mitzva of conversion should be listed separately, the Rashbatz claims that he doesn’t see how this law could be included in other mitzvot which appear in the lists.[3]
Rav Yehuda Gershuni attempts to answer the Rashbatz’s challenge.[4] He seems to agree that there is a biblical mitzva to convert non-Jews, but it might be included in the mitzva to love God. He then quotes the Rambam, who explains what is included in the mitzva of loving God:[5]
The third commandment is that we are commanded to love God, i.e. to meditate upon and closely examine His commandments, His utterances and His works, in order to understand Him; and through this understanding, to achieve a feeling of ecstasy. This is the goal of the commandment to love God.
Our Sages also said that this mitzva includes calling out to all mankind to serve God (exalted be He) and to believe in Him. This is because when one loves a person, for example, one praises him and call out to others to draw close to him. So too, if one truly loves God — through one’s understanding and realization of His true existence — one will certainly spread this true knowledge to the ignorant and the foolish. [We see that this commandment includes spreading love for God to others] as the Sifrei states: "'You shall love God' (Devarim 6:5) —make Him beloved among the creatures as your father Avraham did, as it is written (Bereishit 12:5), 'The souls that they made in Charan.'”
The meaning of this passage in the Sifrei is as follows: Avraham, as a result of his deep understanding of God, acquired love for God, as the verse (Yeshayahu 41:8) testifies, "Avraham, who loved Me." This powerful love therefore caused him to call out to all mankind to believe in God. So too, one must love Him to the extent that one draws others to Him.
Rav Yehuda Yerucham Perlow (1846-1934) suggests similarly that the mitzva of conversion is included in another mitzva. Basing himself on the view of the Ri of Barcelona (11th-century Spain), he claims that the acceptance of converts who truly desire to become part of the Jewish nation and keep the Torah is a mitzva upon Jews and is included in the obligation to love the convert.[6]
This discussion is so important because if there is a mitzva on the Jewish people or on the court system to help those who wish to join the Jewish people, then we must offer assistance, guidance and companionship for those who seek conversion.
Kabbalat Ha-mitzvot
As a result of the many conversions taking place over the past few years, a strong disagreement within the religious community, regarding the degree to which we should be stringent about the conversion process, is taking place. The disagreement focuses on Halakha's requirement of kabbalat ha-mitzvot, acceptance of the Torah's laws.[7]
The Gemara quotes a baraita which states that a non-Jew who wishes to convert must accept the entire system of Torah and mitzvot:
The rabbis taught: One who wishes to accept all but one detail of the Torah is not accepted; an idol-worshiper who wishes to accept all but one detail of the Torah is not accepted.
Rabbi Yosei be-Rabbi Yehuda says: Even one detail from the words of the Sages.[8]
Accordingly, the conversion process requires that the prospective convert accept observance of the mitzvot; failure to do so renders the conversion invalid. Although many opinions have argued that this is not clear-cut, it seems that the accepted practice has been to follow the ruling of Rav Yosef Karo, who distinguishes between ab initio (le-khatechilla) and ex post facto (be-diavad).
All matters pertaining to a convert — relating the commandments so that they may be accepted, circumcising and immersing — must be [performed] in the presence of three who are fit to judge and during the day. This, however, is only le-khatechilla, but be-diavad, if [the convert] undergoes circumcision or immersion in the presence of two or at night… this one is a [valid] convert and may marry a Jew. However, when it comes to accepting the commandments, the conversion is invalidated if this is performed not during the day or not in the presence of three [judges].[9]
There is an argument amongst the Poskim as to how to understand the position of the Rambam on this matter.
On the one hand, the Rambam explicitly writes in various places that the acceptance of mitzvot is indeed a prerequisite for conversion:
  1. If he rejects even one thing, he is not accepted.[10]
  2. If the non-Jew wishes to enter the covenant… and accept the yoke of Torah…[11]
  3.  Or if he should become a righteous convert and accept all the commandments.[12]
On the other hand, in the following law, he seems to imply that, be-diavad, acceptance of the mitzvot is not an indispensable requirement for conversion:
When a court did not check a [potential] convert’s background and did not inform him of the mitzvot and the punishment for [the failure to observe] the mitzvot and he circumcised himself and immersed in the presence of three ordinary people, he is a convert. Even if it is discovered that he converted for an ulterior motive, since he circumcised himself and converted, he has departed from the category of non-Jews and we view him with skepticism until his righteousness is revealed.[13]
Many quote Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ben-Tziyon Uziel as the sole opinion who seems to hold that the prospective convert must be informed about mitzvot but is not necessarily required to commit to their observance, so that acceptance of the mitzvot is not required even le-khatechilla:
We do not require of him to observe the mitzvot, and the court need not even know that he will observe them. For were this not true, converts would never be accepted, for who can guarantee that this non-Jew will be faithful to all the mitzvot of the Torah. We inform him about some of the mitzvot so that he may abandon [the conversion], if he so desires, and so that he not be able to say later that had he known, he would never have converted. This is le-khatechilla, but be-diavad, the failure to inform him does not invalidate [the conversion]. We learn from all that has been stated that accepting the observance of the mitzvot is not an indispensable requirement for conversion, even le-khatechilla [14]
“National” Interests
Rav Yisrael Rozen, founder of Zomet Institute in Alon Shevut, a body advancing the integration of Halakha and technology, was appointed to head the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion center. He served as director and as a dayan there during the years 1995-2011. He claims that the practice in Jewish tradition has always been to hold of the opinion that without kabbalat ha-mitzvot, the conversion is invalid. In fact, he argues that Rav Uziel was misunderstood, and that even he did not claim otherwise.[15]
However, he argues that at these special times of kibbutz galuyot, there is room for leniencies within the framework of Halakha. For example, he quotes the opinion of the great Torah leader Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863–1940):
It appears that this law — that if a non-Jew who wishes to become a convert 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, this is not regarded as a deficiency in his acceptance of the mitzvot.[16]
Rav Rozen argues that only if the courts realize, without any doubt, that the convert has no intention to keep the mitzvot, then the conversion is invalid; but if the convert claims to accept the mitzvot, the court has no reason to believe otherwise.
Furthermore, he argues that conversion process should not be adversarial; the judges of the rabbinical court have the responsibility to help converts enter our faith rather than question their motives.
There are other rabbis who have similarly emphasized the issue of national responsibility and who have argued that the miraculous events of the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel should motivates us to find leniencies to aid immigrants when they show interest in joining the Jewish faith.
Rav Shelomo Rosenfeld, Rosh Yeshiva of Shadmot Neriya, writes that since the establishment of the State of Israel, mixed couples have arrived in Israel, and the aliyot from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia have exacerbated this problem. Thus, it is appropriate to impellent the principle of “There is a time to act for God” [extenuating halakhic circumstances].[17]
Similarly, Rav David Bass, who is a dayan on the conversion court, writes that preventing conversion today creates assimilation, so that conversion has become a national responsibility, since the division of the nation is a threat to its existence. Leniency in conversion has become a way of caring for the spiritual future of Am Yisrael.[18]
Other rabbis from the charedi community have argued that there is no room for “national” ideology regarding conversion; as a result, they have questioned the legitimacy of the Religious Zionist courts.[19]
National Acceptance
We have mentioned the importance of kabbalat ha-mitzvot as part of a convert’s entering into the Jewish faith. However, there are specific actions which are required for the non-Jew to fulfill in order to become Jewish. Basing his view on the Gemara, the Rambam describes the full process of conversion:
For [all] future generations, when a non-Jew desires to enter into the covenant, take shelter under the wings of the Divine presence, and accept the yoke of the Torah, he must perform circumcision, immersion and the offering of a sacrifice.[20]
Accordingly, the Rambam claims:
Whether a convert is circumcised, but does not immerse himself; or immerses himself, but is not circumcised — he is not considered a convert until he performs both of these activities.[21]
Rav Yosef Soloveitchik understands that circumcision and immersion in a mikveh symbolize the two main components of Jewish identity. The Rav explains:[22]
‎The Torah relates that the Holy One concluded two Covenants with ‎Israel. ‎One Covenant was made in Egypt. “And I shall take you unto Me for a people, and I will be ‎to you a ‎God” (Exodus 6:7). The second Covenant was at Mount Sinai. “And he [Moses] took the ‎book of ‎the covenant … and he said: ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord made with ‎you in ‎agreement with all these words’” (Exodus 24:7-8)…
What is ‎the ‎essence of these two Covenants? It appears to me that this question was already answered at ‎the ‎beginning of our essay. Just as Judaism distinguished fate from destiny in the realm of ‎personal ‎individuality, so it also differentiated between these two concepts in the sphere of our ‎national-‎historical existence. The individual is tethered to his nation with bonds of fate and chains ‎of ‎destiny. In accordance with this postulate, one can say that the Covenant of Egypt was a ‎Covenant ‎of Fate, and the Covenant of Sinai was one of destiny.‎
What is the Covenant of Fate? Fate signifies in the life of the nation, as it does in the life of ‎the ‎individual, an existence of compulsion. A strange force merges all individuals into one unit. ‎The ‎individual is subject and subjugated against his will to the national fate/existence, and it ‎is ‎impossible for him to avoid it and be absorbed into a different reality. The environment expels ‎the ‎Jew who flees from the presence of God, so that he is awakened from his slumber, like Jonah ‎the ‎prophet, who awoke to the voice of the ship’s captain demanding to know his personal ‎national-‎religious identity.‎
When explaining the meaning of the Covenant of Fate, the Rav stresses the importance of being part of the Jewish nation, feeling the pain and sorrow of the Jewish nation and sharing its fate.
The motto of this covenant is:
“All Israel are bound together (haverim)” (TB Sotah 37a). We are ‎all ‎persecuted, or we are all saved together.‎
The Rav explains the second covenant thusly:
What is the Covenant of Destiny? In the life of a people (as in the life of an individual), destiny signifies an existence that it has chosen of its own free will and in which it finds the full realization of its historical existence
Here the motto is:
The proclamation that “We shall do and we shall hear” (Exodus 24:7) is the foundation of the Torah
The Rav later explains that circumcision symbolizes the Covenant of Fate, while immersion in a mikveh symbolizes the Covenant of Destiny.
If we understand that fate has to do with Jewish identity and destiny has to do with the religious side of Judaism, then the process of joining the Jewish family must be both in the realm of nationality as well as in that of religion. Thus, we could restate the Rambam’s ruling as follows: a convert who wishes to be Jewish and not religious or vice versa is not fully Jewish. In the words of the Rav:
A non-Jew who wishes to join the nation must take upon himself both covenants. He places ‎himself ‎in the ambit of Jewish fate and sanctifies himself for the acceptance of the Jewish destiny. ‎The act ‎of conversion involves associating oneself as a member of the people of the Covenants of ‎Egypt ‎and of Sinai. Keep this important principle in mind: there is no such thing as partial ‎conversion. One ‎cannot omit one iota of either of these two Covenants. Total devotion to ‎the Jewish people ‎‎— as a nation that God took to Himself in Egypt, with all its tribulations, ‎suffering, responsibilities, ‎and actions; and as a holy people that is itself consecrated, heart and ‎soul, to the God of Israel and ‎His halakhic and moral demands — is the absolute foundation of ‎Judaism and hence is also the ‎basis of conversion.‎
This idea that joining the Jewish faith consists of first joining the Jewish nation may be proven from the questions we ask the potential convert. The motive of asking these questions is to investigate if the convert is committed to our faith. We attempt to discourage the potential convert by laying out the difficulties of our religion. The Gemara lists the questions:
"What reason have you for desiring to become a convert; do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?" If he replies: "I know and yet am unworthy," he is immediately accepted, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments. He is informed of the sins [of the neglect of the commandments of] gleaning, the forgotten sheaf, the corner and the poor man's tithe.[23]
Notice that the potential convert is not challenged with the laws of Shabbat or kashrut, but rather the commitment to Jewish national identity. When we give him a “taste of mitzvot,” the Gemara mentions mitzvot bein adam le-chavero (between one Jew and another) rather than mitzvot ben adam la-Makom (between a Jew and God).
As mentioned, many of the immigrants from the former USSR who are not Jewish have joined the Covenant of Fate and joined the national side of the Jewish people.
Is national acceptance without the acceptance of mitzvot sufficient? This idea has been raised by some authorities.[24] The commonly-accepted ruling rejects this approach and promotes the combination of kabbalat ha-mitzvot and the acceptance of national identity. Still, the question remains: how can this element not be a major factor when one faces the challenges of conversion today?
[1] For a complete discussion of this topic, see Gad Eldad, Techumin, Vol.18, pp. 210-218. Rav Shelomo Goren also holds that there is a mitzva of conversion; see Torat Ha-Shabbat Ve-hamo’ed, pp.206-207
[2] Yevamot 47b.
[3] Zohar Ha-rakia 28.
[4] Kol Tzofayikh, pp. 503-505.
[5] Sefer Ha-mitzvot #3.
[6] Commentary of Rav Yehuda Perlow to Sefer Ha-mitzvot shel Ha-Rasag, end of Positive #19.
[7] For a complete discussion on this topic, see Rav Chaim Navon’s article, available at:
[8] Bekhorot 30b.
[9] Shulchan Arukh YD 268:3.
[11] Hilkhot Issurei Bia 13:4.
[12] Hilkhot Melakhim 10:9.
[13] Hilkhot Issurei Bia 13:17.
[14] Piskei Uziel 65.
[15] Techumin 38, p. 319, fn. 2.
[16] Responsa Achi'ezer 3:26.
[17] Techumin 17, p. 223.
[18] Techumin 23, p. 187.
[19] For a complete summary of the debate between the charedi rabbis and the “nationalist” rabbis, see Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon’s article, “Modern-day Ashkenazi Psak regarding the Nullification of Conversion,” in Conversion, Intermarriage, and Jewish Identity, pp. 261–291.
[20] Hilkhot Issurei Bia 13:1-4.
[21] Hilkhot Issurei Bia 13:6.
[22] Kol Dodi Dofek, pp. 51-75.
[23] Yevamot 47a.
[24] see Z. Zohar and A. Sagi in Giyur Ve-zehut Yehudit, pp. 186-187; and Michael J. Broyde and Shmuel Kadosh, “Review Essay: Transforming Identity by Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar,” Tradition 42 (2009).