Conversion

Conversion is a major issue in the Jewish world, especially regarding Israel. I went to a shiur about conversion by Rabbi Ezra Schwartz at Mt. Sinai this past shavuot. It was 1 am, so please do not take my notes as an accurate reflection of the shiur, which was on a very high level, as opposed to my sleepy absorption of said shiur.

Here goes:

1. According to Rambam, there is room to say a person does not need to accept the yoke of mitzvot in order for the conversion to be considered valid.

2. Rav David Tvi Hoffman believes in being lenient on conversions, especially regarding the mitzvah-acceptance of the convert. In this, he might be relying on Rambam.

3. There is room to say, as long as at the moment of conversion (i.e. in the mikvah), the convert is accepting the mitzvot, if five minutes later they change their mind and decide to eat a cheese-burger, it does not matter or invalidate the conversion.

4. For one beit din to rule another beit din’s conversion as invalid is problematic: Beit dins are not supposed to overrule each other, because that lessens the authority of beit dins. It’s as if random appellate courts in the US could overturn each other’s decision – it would render each individual court’s decision meaningless,  and thus wind up rendering the entire court system meaningless.

5. If a beit din is composed or reshaim, its decisions are invalid. Since beit din a in Israel relied on a well-respected yet minority lenient opinion regarding conversion, beit din b said that beit din a was comprised of reshaim, hence all their conversions were invalid. Of course, in my opinion, saying someone is a rasha because they rely on a well-respected yet lenient opinion is ridiculous. Since there is room to say such a person is not a rasha, choosing to define them as a rasha in order to invalidate the conversion, violates the Biblical commandment of not oppressing the convert. It is a halachik principle that when there is an issue of doubt concerning a Torah requirement, we err on the side of caution, which here, would mean not overturning the conversion (since doing so might be considered oppressing the convert). Rabbi Shwarz countered my argument that the requirement to have a non-rasha beit din might be a Torah requirement, and we should thus err  on the side of caution in how we define rasha – but if you take that argument to its conclusion, you would have to invalidate almost any beit din, because so many have at one point relied on a minority yet well-respected lenient opinion, and all of a sudden, thousands of rabbinic rulings would be overturned. If indeed, relying on such an opinion makes one a rasha according to the Torah, perhaps we are halachikly obligated to investigate each beit din and publicly nullify every one that ocassionally relies on minority opinions – i.e. almost every beit din in existence. Since traditionally, rabbis have allowed such beit dins rulings to stand, clearly, it is not a traditional rabbinic stance to consider such a beit din reshaim, and therefore, invalid.

There are two ways to overturn conversions: One is the method used in 5. The other is just to say – look the convert ate a cheeseburger, so could not have accepted the mitzvot, so the conversion’s invalid. There are two problems with this method: 1. It ignores the principle mentioned in point 4 above 2. If one believes either that a) mitzvah-acceptance is not a requirement for conversion, or is only a requirement at the moment of conversion b) that the conversion requirements are rabbinic in nature, then there is a case of having to choose between a doubt in the non-requirement or rabbinic requirement (does the convert accept mitzvot) and a doubt in a Torah requirement (is overturning the conversion violating the Torah prohibition of oppressing a convert), and by the rules of halachik jurisprudence, one must err on the side of caution regarding the Torah commandment, and on the side of leniency regarding the rabbinic one: Meaning, be lenient viz a viz if the convert had to accept mitzvot, and refrain from overturning the conversion because it might override a Biblical prohibition. Of course, one might claim that the no-convert-at-Mcdonalds requirement is Torah law, but then, at the very least, one would have to concede that the overturning-conversion due-to-cheeseburger perogative would be equal to the not-overturning-it -because-it-might-be-opression perogative – until principle 4 kicks in, and forces the balance in favor of not overturning.

In general, if there is a choice of ruling more towards social justice, it is halachik tradition to do so: “Her ways are the ways of pleasantness, her paths the paths of peace”, has been considered a valid factor in judging a halachik argument (as documented by Dr. Daniel Sperber), and here, a decision to not overturn conversion certainly reflects that principle, while one to overturn it does not.

To sum up: 1. If non-rasha and/or mitzvah acceptance are rabbinic, then a rabbinic doubt (maybe beit din are reshaim, maybe convert did not accept mitzvot) is overridden by a Torah doubt (maybe overturning the conversion violates the Biblical prohibition on oppressing converts). 2. If either of those are Torah requirements, then we have two Torah doubts pitted against each other, but at the end of the day, the principle that beit dins can not simply overturn each other’s rulings, combined with the principle of legislating halacha in a way meant to reflect is peaceful and pleasant ways, tip the scales in favor of being strict about the no-opression law by not overturning the conversion.

I am a lay person who is by no means an expert in conversion law, so take my opinion as you will.

 

 

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