CARR 83-85


Contemporary American Reform Responsa

49. Conversion of a Young


QUESTION: What should be done for a four year old who was

baptized as a Catholic and born to a Roman Catholic mother? The mother has now married a

Jew who has legally adopted her son. Both have agreed that the child should be converted to

Judaism and raised as a Jew. He is surgically circumcised. What procedure should this

conversion follow? (O. R., Pittsburgh, PA)ANSWER: We should begin by reviewing

the traditional requirements for conversion. They are clear (Yeb. 46, 47; Shulhan Arukh

Yoreh Deah 268; Yad Issurei Biah 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 then to bring a sacrifice (in the days when

the Temple stood), take a ritual bath, and in the case of males, be circumcised. To this day the

requirements of a bet din, tevilah and the berit 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

circumcised, or took a ritual bath, he was considered a proselyte. R. Joshua insisted on both, and

his point of view was adopted (Yeb. 46b). Hillel and Shammai disagreed about a prospective

male convert who was already circumcised. Bet Shammai insisted that blood must be

drawn from him, while Bet Hillel stated that one simply accept that circumcision without

drawing blood (Shab. 135a). The rabbinic authorities decided in favor of Bet Shammai

(Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 268.1; Yad Issurei Biah 14.5). Clearly, there were

differences of opinion about steps necessary for the ritual of conversion in ancient times. The

Talmud also 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 (Yeb. 24b). Of course this

opinion applies only prospectively, not retrospective, and bediavad, they were accepted.

This is hardly at issue here, but let us understand this line of reasoning as well. 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 conversion by Reform rabbis (Mendel Kirshbaum, Menachem

Meshiv, #9), because civil marriage has preceded, or because the couple is living together

(David Hoffmann, Melamed Lehoil Even Haezer 8, 10; Yoreh Deah 85). Similar

arguments have been advanced by Meshullam Kutner in Uketorah Yaasu and Moses

Feinstein in Igrot Mosheh (Even Haezer I, 27). However, the greatest number of

Orthodox authorities have rejected these arguments (Joseph Saul Nathenson, Jacob Ettlinger,

Yehiel Weinberg). Their rejection even for consideration as converts is based upon ulterior

motivation and the likelihood that they would not accept all the mitzvot as they are

generally not observed in the Jewish community today, and probably not kept by the Jewish

partner (Isaac Herzog, Hekhal Yizhoq, Even Haezer 1, #20; Moses Feinstein, Igrot

Mosheh Yoreh Deah, I, #157, 160; Even Haezer III, #4). I have quoted all of these modern

Orthodox authorities to show that our gerut may not be accepted by traditional authorities.

The Orthodox would, in any case, not accept a liberal conversion. They would consider our

bet din invalid and would certainly feel that our converts would not have accepted the

yoke of the commandments, the entire system of mitzvot. As we view the rite

of conversion from a Reform point of view, we should note that the Reform movement has

placed its stress on careful instruction with more attention on intellectual rather than ritual

requirements. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, in 1892, abolished the requirement

of any ritual including circumcision. Most liberal rabbis, however, require circumcision in

accordance with the opinion of Hillel (Shab. 135b). Converts are to be accepted after due

instruction before “any officiating rabbi assisted by no less than two associates.” There are, of

course, definite limits to instruction in this instance, but some initial education can be

undertaken. Except in a cursory way, no discussion of tevilah has been

undertaken by liberal Jewish authorities. The custom has fallen into disuse, but was never

actually rejected. It is followed for niddah by only a small percentage even within the

Orthodox community. The practice has been further hindered by endless Orthodox debates

about the technical requirements of miqveh. A ritual immersion has, therefore, not been

considered necessary for conversion in many Reform Jewish communities. There are, however,

a number of cities in the United States and Canada in which tevilah has been encouraged

or required for Reform conversion. In others it is optional. We might conclude that if

the custom possesses meaning for the communities and for the prospective convert, it should be

encouraged. This would make it more difficult for traditionalists to challenge liberal conversions,

although Orthodox authorities will never willingly accept anything we do as our basic premises

differ sharply. When infants who are adopted become Jewish, it may also be done

through the naming ceremony conducted either at home or in the synagogue. In many Reform

congregations, this would be considered sufficient ritual conversion for girls and also for a large

number of boys. This act, along with Jewish education, would bring the child into the covenant of

Judaism in the same manner as a child born Jewish . We have several possibilities

which might be followed in the conversion of this young boy about whom you ask. He should

certainly begin to receive some Jewish education. As he is already circumcised, his parents

might want to undertake tipat dam. Although tradition would encourage this, we would not

suggest it for a child four years old. It would certainly provide a negative initial experience with

Judaism. However, tevilah, with an appropriate ceremony, or a Hebrew name bestowed

either in the synagogue or at home, would provide a proper initiation into Judaism through

something meaningful and understandable to the young boy and his parents.October 1980

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.