Conversion When The Spouse Remains a Gentile
A woman has asked a congregational rabbi to sponsor and guide her through the conversion process. After a thorough initial interview, the rabbi discovers that her husband, a Roman Catholic, has no intention of converting to Judaism along with her. Although the rabbi judges her character and motives to be sincere in every way, he cannot agree to be her sponsor because her conversion will result in an interfaith marriage. If she were single or married to a Jew, there would be no question of her qualifications as a potential Jew by choice. Should this woman’s love of Judaism and her sincere desire to convert be impacted by the religious identity of her partner? If an interfaith marriage is the result of this conversion, is the sponsoring rabbi held responsible? (Kathy Kahn, UAHC Commission on Outreach)
Should we accept for conversion a married person whose Gentile spouse does not share the desire to become a Jew? Orthodox rabbis would likely respond in the negative. The conversion of one spouse would create a mixed marriage, which is prohibited under Jewish law. Orthodox halakhists would interpret the potential convert’s desire to remain in what would become a mixed marriage as a lack of commitment on his or her part to “accept the mitzvot” and to live a fully Jewish life; such a lack of commitment is a serious impediment to the acceptance of a conversion and to its subsequent validity. Even those authorities who are generally lenient with regard to accepting proselytes would presumably reject this conversion.
Should we Reform rabbis respond in the same way? On the one hand, we certainly view the phenomenon of mixed marriage as a matter of deep concern, in that it calls into question the Jewishness of home and family life and the very survival of the Jewish people. We teach that “it is a mitzvah for a Jew to marry a Jew so that the sacred heritage of Judaism may be transmitted most effectively from generation to generation.” Our Conference has formally declared “its opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage.” Even though many of our members will, under certain circumstances, officiate at ceremonies of mixed marriage, they do so not to lend Jewish religious sanction to those unions but rather in the hope that their act might increase the possibility that the couple will create a Jewish life for themselves and for their children. Even though we do our utmost to reach out to religiously-mixed couples and their families and even though we want them to feel fully at home in our synagogues, we do not see mixed marriage as a proper religious choice for a Jew. Given this stance, it might be argued that we should deny this woman the opportunity to convert to Judaism, on the grounds that converting her would create a mixed marriage in this case and give the impression that we condone mixed marriage in general.
Yet there is another side to this argument. In presiding over this conversion, the rabbi and the beit din do not “create” a mixed marriage. The couple are already married to each other in the eyes of the state, and the conversion does nothing to affect that status in either Jewish or civil law. The ritual of conversion (giyur) is emphatically not a wedding or some other “ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage.” Nor does the conversion signal that we somehow “condone” mixed marriage. Although a mixed marriage will be the result of the conversion, it is not its intended result, the goal or purposeful outcome of the action of the beit din. The giyur centers not upon the couple–indeed, the husband is not a participant in the ceremony– but upon the individual who chooses Judaism. It concerns itself with her, with the motivations that have led her to Judaism and with her readiness to enter the covenant of God and Israel. Far from condoning mixed marriage, the conversion does not address that subject at all; it does not alter in the least our teaching that “it is a mitzvah for a Jew to marry a Jew.”
The new Jew-by-choice, it is true, will be living in a situation in which she does not fulfill the mitzvah of Jewish marriage. This fact, however, is not a sufficient cause to deny her request to become a Jew. We do not demand of a ger or giyoret that he or she observe “all” the mitzvot (however we understand that term) as a condition for conversion. For that matter, it is far from certain that even the traditional halakhah makes that demand. This person, to be sure, has come to Judaism at a time and from a place in her life that present special challenges to her as she undertakes to “find satisfaction and joy in the fulfillment of Your sacred mitzvot.” Yet each of us, it must be said, travels a unique path to Jewish commitment. All of us struggle to overcome the obstacles that stand in our way to a more complete Jewish life. None of us is perfect (however we understand that term) in his or her Jewish observance, and we do not require perfection from this proselyte. All we ask of her–and this is no little thing–is that she make a sincere and informed decision to adopt the Jewish faith as her exclusive religious expression and that she identify her fate and destiny with that of the people of Israel. Who are we, who do not know this person, to say that she has not made such a commitment? Who are we to say that she is not one of those who, according to our agadic tradition, has come to discover that she, too, stood at Sinai and entered the covenant?
How do we determine whether this person is in fact fully and sincerely prepared to accept the faith of Israel and to join the Jewish people? That decision, our sources teach, is left to the judgment of the local rabbi. Our point is simply that, given that her motives are “sincere in every way,” the fact that this woman’s husband will remain a Gentile does not constitute in and of itself a reason for us to turn her away. The rabbi, we think, is entitled to accept her as a Jew-by-choice.
At the same time, however, it should be abundantly clear that the rabbi is not required to accept her. We say this because, though her marriage does not automatically disqualify her from conversion, it most certainly signals the rabbi to proceed with caution. Again, we emphasize that we do not know this person and that we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of her decision. Yet we cannot overlook the fact that a conversion in a case such as this creates a mixed-religion household, and this raises serious questions as to the capacity of even the most devoted proselyte to construct a Jewish life. Our ceremony for giyur requires that the Jew-by-choice answer “yes” to the following, among other questions: “Do you promise to establish a Jewish home?” and “If you should be blessed with children, do you promise to raise them as Jews?” Even with the best of intentions, a proselyte whose spouse remains a Gentile will face enormous difficulties in achieving these goals. For example, does the spouse identify strongly with his or her own religion? A household in which some other religion is practiced on an equal basis with Judaism cannot be called a “Jewish” home in any plausible sense of that term. If children are born to the couple after one of them converts, does the Gentile spouse support him or her in raising those children exclusively as Jews? Children raised in more than one religious identity do not qualify for Jewish status under the CCAR’s Resolution on Patrilineal Descent. All of this testifies to the fact that Judaism is not simply a matter of personal spirituality, restricted to the worship service. Judaism is a complete and all-encompassing religious way of life; it must be practiced in the home as well as in the synagogue, in the family as well as in the heart. No matter how sincere a potential convert’s personal commitment to the Jewish faith, he or she is not yet ready to become a Jew unless that commitment is realized in the arena of home and family life. It is up to the rabbi to determine that such is the case.
Finally, we must raise the issue of the stability of the marriage and the family relationship. A decision to choose Judaism is a life-transforming event, a matter of ultimate seriousness. From this point forward, the Jew-by-choice is committed to new patterns of worship, of ritual behavior, and of personal consciousness. “The proselyte,” we are taught, “is like a new-born child”; making a significant break with all that is past, he or she from now on seeks religious fulfillment as a member of the community of Israel. What does this transformation do to the spouse who does not join in it? How will it alter the common fabric of the marriage? Does it reflect a separation between the couple, a coming apart? As a matter of pastoral responsibility, the rabbi must inquire as to the psychological sources of this decision and as to its effects upon the marriage and the household.
Conclusion. A person who wishes to become a Jew should not be rejected merely because his or her spouse will remain a Gentile. In dealing with conversion, our primary responsibility is toward the individual proselyte. If the rabbi determines, through careful examination, that the decision to convert is “sincere in every way,” then he or she may be accepted as a Jew-by-choice. On the other hand, the spouse’s decision not to become a Jew may be an indication of serious obstacles to the proselyte’s creation of a Jewish life and of problems in the marriage. The rabbi must be satisfied that these difficulties are not serious before proceeding with giyur. In any event, both the rabbi and the prospective proselyte are well advised to proceed slowly, deliberately, and with all caution. No arbitrary time limit can or should be set. Let them rather take all the time they need to determine whether this decision is the right one, both for the Jew-by-choice and for the Jewish people.
- The prohibition is derived from Deuteronomy 21:13; see BT Kidushin 68b. Another possible source is Deuteronomy 7:3, which ostensibly forbids marriage only with members of the seven Canaanite nations. Maimonides, however, reads the prohibition as covering all Gentiles; see Yad, Isurey Bi’ah 12:1.
- On the requirement that the ger/giyoret accept the mitzvot (kabalat hamitzvot) see BT Yevamot 47a-b; Yad, Isurei Bi’ah 13:4 (where he speaks of accepting the yoke of the Torah; Shulchan Arukh YD 268:3. That this acceptance must be complete, without any reservations whatsoever, is indicated in BT Bekhorot 30b: a Gentile who comes to accept the Torah except for one precept is not accepted for conversion. Although this statement is not codified in either the Mishneh Torah or the Shulchan Arukh, it does reflect the thrust of contemporary Orthodox halakhic opinion, which suggests that the proselyte’s failure to observe all the commandments is retroactive evidence that the conversion was null and void ab initio. See, for example, R. Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, Resp. Da`at Kohen, nos. 154-155, and R. Yitzchak Halevy Herzog, Resp. Heikhal Yitzxhak EHE 1:1, nos. 19-21. Yet not all Orthodox halakhists take this position; see at n. 7, below.
- A case in point is R. Benzion Ouziel, Resp. Mishpetei Ouziel EHE 18. In this teshuvah, he demonstrates his generally lenient approach by accepting conversion for the sake of marriage, even though this is generally considered an improper motivation for conversion, on the grounds that this step is necessary to combat the plague of mixed marriage that afflicts the Jewish community. In the same responsum, however, he addresses a second question: is it permissible to convert a Gentile woman who is already married to a kohen? Here his answer is no: since a kohen is prohibited to marry a proselyte (giyoret), to convert this woman would mean that he would transgress that prohibition. R. Ouziel says this, even though the kohen is already violating the prohibition against intermarriage. Based on his reasoning, it seems clear that he would also rule strictly in our case, in which a conversion would lead to a transgression (intermarriage) in a place where, at the moment, no transgression exists.
- Gates of Mitzvah (New York: CCAR, 1979), 36. And on page 37: Judaism resists mixed marriage because it weakens the fabric of family relationship and the survival potential of the Jewish community, and because it makes it more difficult to establish the mikdash me-at that should be the goal of every Jewish marriage.
- See Central Conference of American Rabbis Yearbook 83 (1973), 97, for the text of the resolution. An expansive argument on behalf of the resolution is found in American Reform Responsa, no. 149.
- As indicated in the second paragraph of the resolution cited in note 5.
- See note 2. Although the preponderance of contemporary Orthodox opinion requires that the proselyte accept “all” the mitzvot–which is tantamount in their eyes to a requirement that he or she become an Orthodox Jew–some authorities hold otherwise. Some understand the requirement of kabalat hamitzvot as the ger/giyoret’s self-imposed obligation to undergo circumcision and/or immersion before a beit din (Chidushei Haramban, Yevamot 46b; R. Meir Posner, Resp. Beit Meir, no. 12). Others see it as a general commitment “to forsake his people and its gods, to take refuge beneath the wings of the Shechinah, to accept the religion of Israel and to enter the Jewish community” (R. Shelomo Lifschitz [18th-19th cent. Poland], Resp. Chemdat Shelomo, YD 29, nos. 22-23). R. Benzion Ouziel sees kabalat hamitzvot primarily as the proselyte’s acceptance of the obligation to keep the mitzvot; this acceptance is valid even if we know in advance that he or she will not observe them (Resp. Mishpetei Ouziel II, YD 1:58). In other words, the giyur “takes” even though the proselyte does not live a thoroughly “Orthodox” life style following the conversion. On all this in detail, see Zvi Zohar and Avraham Sagi, Giyur uzehut yehudit (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1997), 171ff.
- Rabbi’s Manual (New York: CCAR, 1988), 200, from the “Giyur Service in the Synagogue.”
- See BT Yevamot 47a, the ger’s declaration of his readiness to accept the vicissitudes of Jewish existence; and see Rashi ad loc., s.v. ve’eini kehda’i.
- The teaching that all future converts were virtually present at Sinai, a midrash on Deut. 29:14, is found in BT Shabbat 146a.
- In matters of conversion, “everything is left to the judgment of the court”; R. Yosef Karo, Beit Yosef YD 268, based upon Tosafot Yevamot 24b, s.v. lo.
- Rabbi’s Manual, 201.
- The text of the resolution itself (see Rabbi’s Manual, 226) speaks of the performance of “timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people”; these are “mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity” (emphasis added). See also Teshuvot for the Nineties, 5755.17, 251-258; Questions and Reform Jewish Answers, no. 109; and Contemporary American Reform Responsa, no. 61.
- BT Yevamot 22a and parallels.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.