American Reform Responsa
66. Conversion Without Formal Instruction
(Vol. XCII, 1982, pp. 209-211)
QUESTION: A couple in a mixed marriage have maintained a Jewish life-style for more than a decade. He is Jewish, and she came from a Protestant background. They were married civilly, and she had not practiced her religion or believed its tenets for many years prior to her marriage. She has received no formal instruction in Judaism, but for the last decade she has lived a Jewish life. She has attended services during the Yamim Nora-im, and intermittently during the year, has participated in many programs of the Temple and its sisterhood, enrolled in some adult education classes, and raised her children as Jews. The family observes Jewish holidays at home by lighting candles and making Kiddush each Friday evening and on the eve of holidays; they erect a Sukka and light Chanuka lights. She considers herself Jewish, as do her friends. She would now like to have this “Jewishness” recognized officially. She does not wish to attend the Introduction to Judaism class for young new converts. She would also feel out of place at the standard conversion ceremonies which her congregation conducts publicly. How can she officially be considered as Jewish? (F.L., Miami, Florida)
ANSWER: Let us begin by reviewing the Reform discussion and the development of the tradition. The American Reform discussions of conversion from 1890 onward make it quite clear that the principal requirements were intellectual; we have been more concerned with understanding than ritual (“Milat Gerim,” CCAR Yearbook, 1947, pp. 15ff; see also responsa #69-71 below). In keeping with this emphasis, Introduction to Judaism classes have been organized by virtually all congregations. In larger communities, some of the congregations have joined together and offered centralized classes on a year-round basis along with individualized instruction by the congregational rabbi. Traditional Judaism, of course, also requires instruction, but usually places the emphasis upon the specific duties incumbent upon either the man or the woman, rather than on a more general background. For traditional Jews, the ritual of conversion is of primary importance, irrespective of the instruction which had taken place.
The traditional requirements for conversion are clear (Yev. 46, 47; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 268; Yad, Isurei Bi-a 15)–a court of three is necessary. Prospective converts must be warned that they are joining a persecuted community, and that many new obligations will be incumbent upon them. They were to bring a sacrifice in the days when the Temple stood, and males had to be circumcised and take a ritual bath. To this day, the requirements of a Beit Din, Tevila, and Berit still remain for traditional Jews. The sources are clear on the requirements, but considerable discussion about them exists in the Talmud. For example, R. Eliezer stated that if a prospective male convert was either circumcised or took a ritual bath, he was considered a prose-
lyte. R. Joshua insisted on both, and his point of view was adopted (Yev. 46b). Hillel and Shammai disagreed about a prospective male convert who was already circumcised: Beit Shammai insisted that blood must be drawn from him, while Beit Hillel stated that one may simply accept that circumcision without drawing blood (Shab. 135a). The Rabbinic authorities decided in favor of Beit Shammai (Sh.A., Yoreh De-a 268.1; Yad, Isurei Bi-a 14.5). There were differences of opinion about steps necessary for the ritual of conversion in ancient times. The Talmudalso contains a variety of opinions about the desirability of accepting converts. These reflect historic competition with Christianity, persecution, etc., in the early centuries of our era.
The Talmudic discussions insist that the convert must join Judaism without any ulterior motives, and if such are present, the conversion is void (Yev. 24b). Of course, the opinion applies only prospectively, not retrospectively, and bedi-avad they were accepted. Some authorities were more lenient in regard to ulterior motives, so Hillel (Shab. 31a) readily accepted a convert who stated that he wished eventually to become a High Priest. R. Hiya accepted a woman who wanted to marry one of his students (Men. 44a). In modern times, although most Orthodox authorities would reject converts who seek to join us for the sake of marriage, some would accept them in order to avoid the conversion by Reform rabbis (Mendel Kirshbaum, Menachem Meshiv, #9), because civil marriage has preceded, or because the couple is living together (David Hoffmann, Melamed Leho-il, Even Ha-ezer 8, 10; Yoreh De-a 85). Similar arguments have been advanced by Meshulam Kutner in Uketora Ya-asu and by Moses Feinstein in Igerot Mosheh, Even Ha-ezer I, 27. However, the greatest number of Orthodox authorities have rejected these arguments (e.g., Joseph Saul Nathanson, Jacob Ettlinger, and Yehiel Weinberg). Their rejection, even for consideration as converts, was based upon the ulterior motivation and the likelihood that they would not accept all the commandments which are not generally observed in the Jewish community today and probably not kept by the Jewish partner (Isaac Herzog, Heichal Yitschak, Even Ha-ezer I, #20; Meir Arak, Imrei Yosher I, #176; Abraham Kook, Da-at Kohen, #154; Moses Feinstein, Igerot Mosheh, Yoreh De-a I, #157, 160; Even Ha-ezer III, #4).
Some Orthodox authorities have ruled that the conduct of a Jewish way of life, even without documentation of conversion, creates a valid assumption of Jewishness (A. Karelitz, Chazon Ish,Yev., par. 83, #6; Beit Hadin Harabani Hagadol, Jerusalem, Appeal 1968/26, case of Chanoch and Miriam Langer). Each of these decisions was based upon Talmudic statements which indicated that this line of thought applied in cases where either father or mother was Jewish (Yev. 45b).
Now let us turn to the specifics of your question. Although the Reform Movement has insisted on instruction and intellectual understanding of Judaism, it has never specified precisely how this instruction is to be obtained. Usually, a young convert receives such instruction through Introduction to Judaism classes and reading connected with them. Such classes extend over a period of three months to a year and meet once or several times a week. The reading assignments are usually geared to the intellectual level of the prospective convert. In some instances they include only a familiarity with basic books on holidays, liturgy, and history, while others require a thorough knowledge of Jewish history, philosophy, literature, and liturgy. There is nothing which would preclude acquisition of such knowledge over a period of years and in a more informal manner, as the woman described in this question. She has undoubtedly accumulated a considerable body of knowledge through her attendance at services and programs in her synagogue, through random reading, and through constant association with Jewish friends. Certainly, her present knowledge of Judaism would exceed that of anyone who completed the customary introductory courses. Even more important is the fact that her commitment has shown itself to be sincere and has stood the test of time. She not only possesses an intellectual understanding of Judaism, but feels herself Jewish and has involved herself in many aspects of Jewish life both inside and outside the synagogue. From the point of view of knowledge and commitment, we may therefore consider her an appropriate candidate for the final steps of conversion. We should encourage her to move in that direction, especially as she and her husband wish to take this step.
There is nothing in our Reform tradition which demands a public conversion ceremony. Her formal reception into Judaism could take place privately, in the presence of a rabbi and two witnesses.
The prospective convert would be told about Tevila and, in case of a male, about circumcision or tipat dam. They should be encouraged to proceed in these directions if that is the custom of the community; however, neither ceremony is mandatory. It is quite clear from tradition that if such an individual at any time undergoes Tevila, even though not specifically for the purpose of conversion, it would be considered the same as if he had undergone it for that purpose (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 268.3). This should be considered seriously if the family has any intention of settling in Israel. A Hebrew name of the convert’s choice can be appropriately provided at this time as well.
In summary, it would be perfectly possible to accept such a woman as a convert to Judaism with very little further action on her part. This step should be made as easy as possible, and we should do everything in our power to bring Gerei Toshav completely into the sphere of Judaism.
Walter Jacob, Chairman
W. Gunther Plaut
Harry A. Roth
Rav A. Soloff
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.