The unreasonable view of some rabbis about conversion

 

                                        The unreasonable view of some rabbis about conversion

 

Conversion into Judaism is not an ancient idea although rabbis prefer to say that it is. For example, there is good reason to believe that the rabbis misinterpreted Deuteronomy 17:15 which states “One from among your bothers shall you set as king over you, you may not put a foreigner over you who is not your brother.” Some rabbis believed that the practice of conversion goes back to the biblical period and interpreted the command to exclude converts from serving as a king in Israel.[1]

This is not a reasonable interpretation. Even assuming that the Torah recognized the concept of conversion, which I will argue is not the case, Deuteronomy 17:15 is not speaking about a convert; it doesn’t mention a convert, but a foreigner. A convert is a person who ceases being a foreigner and becomes a full-fledged Jew. The Torah means what it says. Verse 17:14 speaks about the entry of the Israelites into Canaan. In verse 15 the Israelites are told that they should not appoint a foreigner, meaning a Canaanite or any other foreigner, as their king. In verse 18, the Torah instructs the king to follow the Torah laws. Thus the purpose for excluding a non-Israelite was to assure that the people would observe the divine laws and not worship idols. Having a foreign king with his own agenda would frustrate the divine plan. So the passage is not speaking about a convert. Furthermore, the word “foreigner” is an inappropriate if not an insulting description of a person who voluntarily converted and became part of the Israelite nation.

Mishnah Sotah 7:8 supports the view that the sages felt that a convert and a descendant of a convert may serve as a king of Israel. It reports that King Agrippas (c. 10 BCE-44 CE) was a descendant of Herod whose ancestor was converted to Judaism by John Hyrcanus.[2] Agrippas is reported in the Mishnah as crying because he understood that Deuteronomy 17:15 made him ineligible to serve as king. But the sages replied emphatically: “Fear not, Agrippas! Thou art our brother! Thou art our brother! Thou art our brother!”

Beside the logic and support of Sotah 7:8 that this command refers to non-Israelite pagans, there are good reasons to think that the concept of conversion did not exist at the time and was only introduced into Judaism around 125 BCE.

During the biblical period and long afterwards, the Israelites thought of themselves as a nation not a religion. People could join the nation simply by marrying an Israelite or deciding to be an Israelite and live with the nation. It was much like the naturalization process today, except far easier; there was no paperwork or legal requirements. The following supports this conclusion.

  • The Torah does not call the Israelites a religion. The Bible contains no word for religion.[3] Israel is a nation obligated to do what God commands. There is no procedure mentioned in Scripture for joining the Israelites. The concept of conversion, so important to Judaism today, is not mentioned. If it existed, the Torah would have said so.
  • There is no reference to a convert in the Hebrew Bible. The word used today for a convert, ger, means “stranger.” When Scripture states the Israelites were gerim in Egypt (the plural form), it did not mean that they were converts but strangers in Egypt. The term appears 36 times in the Torah teaching Israelites to treat non-Israelites well. When the idea of converts was established, the rabbis wanted to emphasize that Jews should treat converts well, just as they treat Jews who were born Jewish. Since the Torah mentions that the Israelites should love the ger, stranger, thirty-six times, they decided to use ger to mean convert: one should love converts.
  • The term prosēlytos is used in the third century BCE Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, called Septuagint, as the translation of ger. The meaning of the Greek word is “stranger,” as is the Hebrew ger, and it only later that it came into the English language to signify a proselyte, a person who converted to another religion.
  • Many important Israelites married non-Israelites and the Torah does not say the women had to undergo conversion or any procedure. Among the many were: the patriarch Abraham who married Keturah,[4] Judah the son of the patriarch Jacob who wedded a Canaanite, his brother Joseph and Moses who married daughters of pagan priests, the judge Samson, King David, and King Solomon.
  • Many rabbis[5] cite Genesis 12:5 , which relates that when Abraham arrived in Canaan, he brought with him his wife, his nephew Lot, all items they had gathered, “and the nefesh that they had acquired in Haran.” Relying on the post-biblical translation of nefesh as “soul” and supposing that conversions to Judaism existed in the days of Abraham, they say that “Abraham brought converts [the educated and altered souls] that he converted in Haran.” This is not the plain meaning of 12:5, as Rashi acknowledges in his commentary.[6] The biblical word nefesh means “person,” as in Leviticus 2:1.
  • Some rabbis argue that Moses’ father-in-law Jethro converted to Judaism because Exodus 18:10-12 narrates that Jethro was impressed with all that God did and offered sacrifices to God. However this narrative proves nothing. It does not state that Jethro converted; it doesn’t even say he gave up his pagan priesthood and joined the Israelites. Jews always accepted sacrifices from pagans without the pagans needing to accept the Lord as their sole God. Additionally, Jethro seemingly does not reject the existence of other gods; he says “the Lord is greater than all gods.”
  • The Talmud[7]states that the prophet Samuel wrote Ruth to show the people of his time that his choice of David to succeed King Saul was proper because despite being descendant from a Moabite, his ancestress was legally permitted to enter the Jewish fold. Whether this statement is true or not, it is significant that the Talmud felt that the book was composed to show that Ruth was legally permitted to enter the Jewish fold because Moabite women, but not men, could join the Israelite nation. If conversion was necessary at the time to be a Judean, the author should have stated that she was accepted and she converted. This would have demonstrated his point better than anything else.
  • There is no explicit statement in Ruth that she or her sister-in-law Orpah converted, and even the rabbis who feel they or at least Ruth converted differ on how to read the text. Rashi felt that only Ruth converted and did so during the trip from Moab to Judea. Ibn Ezra opined that both converted in Moab prior to their marriage to Mahlon and Chilion.
  • The book of Ruth not only does not indicate Ruth converted, it states seven times that she remained a Moabite, including twice in the final chapter where Boaz calls her a Moabite when he speaks about marrying her. The number seven is significant since Scripture very frequently mentions something seven times to emphasize a point. The number seven is repeated in 4:15 when the people say that Ruth is better for Naomi than seven sons; the city of Bet Lechem appears seven times as does field of Moab and the words el and natan. This repeated use of seven emphasizes that we should pay attention to this number in Ruth.
  • In 2:10, Ruth calls herself a nachriah, a “foreigner,” in a conversation with Boaz. If she had converted she would not be a foreigner.
  • Some rabbis base their notion that Ruth converted on her statement to Naomi “your God is my God.” This statement alone was never considered efficacious in making a person a convert. A ceremony of some sort was probably necessary.[8] There is no ceremony here and significantly, Naomi does not say to Ruth, “now you are a Jew.” Even more significant, Ruth does not declare that she will obey Torah laws. Ruth Rabbah and other Midrashim recognize this lacuna and declare that she did promise to obey the Torah laws, but this is not in the book of Ruth.
  • What was Ruth saying when she said “your God is my God”? She was responding to what Naomi had said and used her words: “Look, your sister-in-law returned to her people and her god, you should return after your sister-in-law.” Ruth answered: no, I will go where you go and your God will be my God.
  • Additionally, many ancients, and apparently also Ruth, believed that each nation had its own god who protected his or her own land. Ruth’s statement “your God is my God” was another way of stating that “your land will be my land.”[9]
  • Ezra and Nehemiah[10] felt very strongly that the Judeans should not be married to non-Judeans and, as leaders of the people at that time ordered Judeans to send away their non-Judean wives and children. This draconian measure would not have been necessary if conversion existed.[11]
  • The first mention of conversion is when the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus forcibly converted Edomites around 125 BCE.[12]

What procedure is necessary for a convert to undergo to become Jewish?

Just as many Jews, including many rabbis, do not understand that conversion to Judaism is a recent phenomenon and not biblical, all too many rabbis erroneously insist that the Torah demands that converts need to promise to observe all of the 613 biblical commands. The Talmudic sources show this is not true.

  • The principle source for the laws of conversion is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47a-b. The candidate for conversion is first told of the dangers that confront Jews in order to determine if he or she is willing to be confronted by these risks. The Talmud also requires that the would-be convert be told of some, but not all, biblical commands, simply to inform the potential convert that Judaism makes some demands upon the Jew. The Talmud does not require the potential convert to go through a period of study. The Talmud also states that even if the potential convert has an ulterior motive for converting, such as a desire to marry a Jew, the conversion is valid.[13]
  • In his comments upon the Talmudic ruling, Maimonides states that “some demands of Judaism” refers to the two basic teachings of Judaism, the unity of God and the prohibition of idolatry.[14] Maimonides does not require converts to receive other training. Similarly, the Shulhan Arukh does not demand that candidates for conversion learn all the biblical commands prior to conversion, or insist that the candidate promise to observe every mitzvah.[15]
  • The Talmud in Shabat 31a records three stories of individuals coming to the sages Hillel and Shammai expressing the desire to become Jewish. Each of the three misunderstood Judaism. One was willing to follow the written Torah but not the oral Torah, the second wanted to learn the entire Torah while he stood on one foot, the third desired to covert so that he could become the high priest. Despite the mistaken ideas about Judaism, Hillel converted all three. While Shammai would not convert them, the Talmud makes it clear that the halakhah follows the view of Hillel.
  • Shabbat 68a tells the tale of a person who was converted to Judaism who after conversion did not even know one of the basic teachings of Judaism, the laws of the Shabbat.
  • It was not until 1876, that a rabbi, Yitzchak Schmelkes, insisted that potential converts commit to observing all of the biblical commands.[16] He also felt that if the convert wanted to convert for ulterior motives, the conversion is not valid.

Unfortunately, this opinion by Rabbi Schmelkes, although contrary to the history of Judaism and the Talmud and halakhic authorities, has become the accepted view of the chief rabbis of Israel and of rabbis who fear disagreeing with them.

 

[1] Mentioned in a legend in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 3b.

[2] W. Whiston, The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus, Antiquities 8:1, John Winston and Company, 1957. See note with a full discussion on page 394. Because these conversions were forced, and since King Herod was born from these people, some Judeans never accepted Herod and his descendants as Jews. This reluctance by some Jews to consider them proper kings may have been because of the force used to make them Jews, not because they were converts.

[3] The Hebrew term dat used today to mean “religion” meant “law” in the Bible.

[4] Genesis 25:1. One can also add the concubines among the many non-Israelite women married to famous Israelites. Abraham had Hagar. Jacob had Bilhah and Zilpah.

[5] Genesis Rabbah, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 79b, Rashi, Targum Onkelos, and many others.

[6] This is also the view of Radak, the Soncino translation, and many other sources.

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 14b.

[8] It appears that no formal ceremony existed for the acceptance of a proselyte until the second century CE. There were still discussions at that time whether circumcision was necessary (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 46a). However, even if no formal ceremony existed, we would expect at least an informal one or some statement that she was now Jewish.

[9] Nachmanides, for example, was convinced that God only exercises divine power in Israel (see C. Chavel, Sefer HaMitzvot l’haRamban im hasagot haRamban, Mossad HaRav Kook, 1981). “There is in this matter a secret relating to that which the rabbis have said: ‘He who dwells outside of the land of Israel is like one who has no God.’” He understood that the Talmud is stating that people who live outside of Israel are under the influence and power of these other supernatural beings and even if they try to worship God it is as if they have no God.

[10] Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 13.

[11] Nehemiah tells us that he fought with the men who married non-Judeans, cursed them, smote them, and plucked out their hair. He wrote that Solomon whom God loved sinned in this way. This point is made by Y. Kaufman and is quoted in Megillot, Olam Hatankh.

12 W. Whiston, The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus, Antiquities, John Winston and Company, 1957, page 394.

[13] This is the opinion of Rab and the halakhah (law) is as he states.

[14] Hilkhot Issurei Biah 14:2.

[15] YD 268:12.

[16] Discussed in “Transforming Identity,” Continuum Press 2007, pages 234f.

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