Friday, June 30, 2006

I'm Still Around

I hope my readers haven't forgotten about me. I'm still around, I just haven't really had much inspiration to write recently. It's called "Writer's Bloc." If someone has any ideas for an essay, please feel free to post a comment to this post so I can work on it. I've also recently been making slight (and not-so-slight) changes to old essays, so maybe if you re-read some of your old favorites, you'll find new ideas there.

Gut Shabbos.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Understanding Proselytes

Essay One: Understanding Proselytes
The original Greek word proselyte referred specifically to one who converted to Judaism. Throughout history, many non-Jews have given up grand and powerful lives as non-Jews in order to cling onto the Jewish nation. Many were persecuted against, tortured and killed for doing so. While some force seems to drive certain gentiles to become Jewish, it seems that other converts are motivated by improper intentions for joining the Jewish nation. The seemingly disparaging comments made in the Talmud regarding some converts can aptly be applied to this type of convert, while the label Ger Tzedek (“Righteous Convert”) applies[1] exclusively to a proper proselyte. David Klinghoffer, himself a Jewish convert, compares[2] the mainstream (“frum from birth”) Jewish dependence on converts (whether not born Jewish, or Jews who not born practicing Judaism) to the dependence of Abram (a “Convert” in Klinghoffer’s nomenclature) on Malchizedek (a “Native” of monotheistic tradition), and vice versa. The former sometimes need the latter for revival and inspiration, while the latter need the former for a direct connection to the Masoretic tradition.

Beginning with Abraham, there has been a long-standing Jewish tradition of teaching non-Jews the truth about the world and its Creator. This is done through non-intimidating hospitality and kindness, which was personified, by Abraham and Sara. After being exposed to the good nature of monotheism and understanding the basic principles of the world, many are inspired to convert to Judaism. Indeed, Avraham and his wife, Sarah, themselves helped convert people in Haran[3]; the Scripture[4] considers those people as having been made or created by the couple –because a newly converted convert is like a newly born baby[5]. The maidservant of Sarah, Hagar, was the daughter of the most powerful monarch during that time, the Pharaoh of Egypt, yet she gave up her life of royalty to serve in the household of Abraham because she heard of the miracles performed on the latter’s behalf [6]. Five generations later, another daughter of a Pharaoh converted, Basya[7], Bithiah also gave up a life of riches in order to serve as a secondary wife to Moses’ brother-in-law, Caleb[8]. A third Egyptian princess, Na’ama, converted to Judaism in order to marry King Solomon[9], as one of his thousand wives[10]. Rechav was a prostitute and innkeeper, who was visited by the most important dignitaries and leaders of her generation[11], yet after being exposed to the greatness of two Torah giants, Caleb and Phinehas, who were on a reconnaissance mission to Canaan[12], she converted and married Joshua[13]. Counted among her descendants are priests and prophets including Chuldah the Prophetess, Yirmiyah, Baruch, Neryah, Sharya, Chilkiyah, and Chanamel[14].

During the period of the Judges, following Yehoshua’s death, a princess of the Moabite royal family, Ruth, married a son of the prominent Hebrew migrant Elimelech. The Talmud[15] explains that her grandfather, Eglon and his father, Balak, were Kings of Moab. Despite the infamous Moabite hatred for Jews, she still converted[16] and married a Jew, eventually becoming the wife of the leader Jewry in her time, Boaz—another name for Ibzan, the judge from Judges 12:8[17]. Ruth gave up a life of royalty, despite her extremely anti-Semitic upbringing, in order to become part of the Jewish nation. Even the greatest enemies of the Jewish nation and their descendants converted to Judaism after they recognized the great truths. The sons of the Assyrian King Sennacherib, who exiled the nation of Israel and warred against the nation of Judah, converted to Judaism[18] and from him descended Shmaya and Avtalyon[19]. Nevuzardan—the commander-in-chief of the Babylonian army under King Nebuchadnezzar[20]—converted to Judaism after destroying the First Holy Temple[21]. The Talmud[22] also tells that the sons of Haman, who sought to destroy global Jewry[23], converted to Judaism and taught Torah publicly. Emperor Nero of the Roman Empire, the man who sent future-Emperor Vespasian to destroy Jerusalem and the Second Holy Temple therein, realized the truths of the Torah (through divinely sent messages) and converted to Judaism[24]. Rabbi Meir, an important Tanna mentioned quite frequently as an anonymous rabbinical authority in the Mishna, and supporter of the anti-Roman Bar Kochba revolution, is numbered among his Jewish descendants[25].

Onkelos, a nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus who actually destroyed the Second Temple, converted to Judaism after seeking the truth from Balaam, Yeshu, and his imperial dead uncle[26]. He achieved fame in the Torah world as the author of the famous translation of the Bible into Aramaic (Targum Onkelos), which is still extant and is learned by many contemporary scholars[27]. In addition to Onkelos, many other converts achieved fame and greatness both spiritually and in Torah knowledge. Eliyahu HaNavi (himself a descendant of converts, assuming that he is identical with Pinchas, see below) greatly influenced Ovadiah the Edomite (author of the Book of Obadiah and minister to Ahab, the Israelite King), who eventually became a convert[28] and prophet. In addition, a famous convert with the same name corresponded with the Rambam, Rabbi Ovadiah HaGer. In Tannaic times, Joseph, a simple farmer, converted to Judaism. Although he was merely a simple farmer, his son grew up to be Rabbi Akiva, arguably the greatest sage of the Oral Torah[29]. Other converts mentioned in the Oral Torah include Queen Barzilla[30], Bloria[31], Minyamin[32], Yehuda the Ammonite Convert[33], and Rabbi Avraham the Convert[34]. Additionally, the Talmud tells of converts who were helped by Hillel[35] and were thus known collectively as “Hillel’s Converts”[36]. The Jewish Encyclopedia[37] recorded a list of Roman converts from Antique times (s.v. Proselyte) based on secular sources, including Titus Flavius Clemens, a nephew of Emperor Domitian, the royal family of Adiabene—Queen Helena and her sons Izates and Monobazus, and Fulvia, the wife of Saturninus, a Roman senator. Titus Flavius Clemens, consul of the Roman Empire, was converted by Rabbi Akiva (a son of a convert himself), Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria, and Rabbi Yehoshua, who traveled all the way to Rome from Yavneh and Bnei Barak. Emperor Antonius of the Roman Empire, a close associate of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (redactor of the Mishna) also converted to Judaism[38].

During the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the mass conversion to Judaism at Mount Sinai, one man was noticeably absent and only joined the nation later: Yisro. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moshe was a well-respected Midianite priest, who converted to Judaism after discovering the truisms of monotheism. As a result, he was ostracized from the Midianite communities and his daughters were harassed by the local Shepards[39]. As a member of the Jewish nation, Yitro achieved greatness: His plan for a multi-person judicial system in accordance with Torah law was accepted by G-d Himself[40], and his offspring became great leaders within Jewry. Pinchas, the Kohen Gadol/High Priest was a descendant of Yisro[41], as was Yehonadav ben Rechev the Kenite[42]. The Midrash explains that no proselyte ever loved the Torah as much as Yithro did[43]. It is for this reason that his descendants merited to learn Torah directly from the leader of their generation, Yabetz—another name for Osniel ben Kenaz, the half-brother of Caleb, and successor to Joshua[44]. Yisro is a figure revered by Jews, Christians, the Druze, and many other groups because of his great commitment. A more modern-day example of a convert similar to Yisro is the story of Avraham ben Avraham. He was originally known as Count Valentine Potocki, a Polish nobleman. When he was affected by the great Torah sage, the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Kramer, 1720-1797), he converted, adopting the name Abraham after the father of all converts. The Vilna Gaon revered Avraham ben Avraham and even visited him while he was incarcerated. In the end, he was branded an apostate and burned at the stake (on the second day of Shavuos) by the Roman Catholic Church in Vilna[45]. Contemporary examples of important proselytes include the Swazi prince Rabbi Natan Gamedze from Swaziland and the Polish Ger Tzedek married by a Bobover Rebbe (in April 2006).

The Talmud[46] asks why tragedy and hardships befall converts in present days[47]. Rabbi Chanania son of Rabban Gamliel initially answered that it was because they did not keep the Seven Noahide Commandments in their gentile state. However, said Rabbi Yose, a newly converted convert is like a newly born baby[48], and therefore should not be held liable for acts done prior to conversion. Consequently, the Talmud answered in the name of Rabbi Yose that converts are not experts enough to observe properly the particularities of halakha. Abba Chanan said in the name of Rabbi Elozor that converts perform their commandments out of fear as opposed to out of love. Others—Acheirim, i.e. Rabbi Meir, a descendant of the converted Emperor Nero, who was a student of Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah who is called Acher, “the other one”—explain that converts are punished for delaying their conversion. From the glosses of Rabbi Elazar Moshe HaLevi Horowitz, Chief Rabbi of Pinsk (and father-in-law of Rabbi Baruch Epstein from Novarodok, 1860-1941), it appears that all gentiles have some requirement to convert without delay; however Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (1697-1776) points out[49] that such a requirement simply does not exist and cannot be the problem. A general rule within Judaism is that Jews do not actively seek out converts, but have institutions and means should one seek to convert; Jews, unlike many other religions, do not proselytize. Rather, he explains that once a convert makes the decision to convert and verbalizes that decision, he is obligated to do all that he can to speed his conversion process without procrastination because doing anything less can be considered a violation of a semi-effective verbal vow.

Rabbi Ya’akov Lorberbaum from Lissa (1760-1832) wrote[50] about the driving force, which tells every potential convert to convert. He writes that this force is a spark of holiness, which can be present even within the body of a gentile. A contemporary of Rabbi Loeberbaum, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841) elaborated on this concept and wrote[51] that HaShem gives a gentile many chances to have this spark ignited to initiate adoration for the Jewish people and the prospect of converting to Judaism. With this, he explains why Rabbi Meir said that a proselyte is punished for his delay in conversion: He did not properly utilize his initial messages from G-d to convert, and instead ignored them until the point when he actually converted. A similar meta-physical concept regarding the soul of a convert is found in the Talmud[52], which exegetically understood[53] that even the yet-to-convert souls of future proselytes were present at the Revelation of Mount Sinai.

Despite all the accomplishments in Judaism made by proselytes, Rabbi Chelbo[54] has some harsh words concerning converts: “Converts are as difficult to [the collective nation of] Israel as a sapachas (a type of Tzara’as).” Furthermore, the Talmud asserts that tragedy after tragedy befalls those who accept converts[55]. Although simply put, this can refer to converts like Luke Ford who are a disgrace to Judaism, the early Rabbinical commentaries offer seven different ways to explains this enigmatic passage in the Talmud. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzchack Yarchi (“from the moon” i.e. Lunel) explains[56] that converts are not experts in the particularities and nuances of Jewish law and others can mistakenly learn improper laws through converts’ mistaken actions. Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Min HaHar (“from the mountain” i.e. Montpellier) explains[57] that Jews might mistakenly learn from a convert’s previous deeds as a gentile and accept them as permitted. Tosfos Yeshanim explain[58] that converts sometimes justify their bad deeds by claiming that other Jews also do them; this brings punishments upon the Jewish nation. These three explanations follow the opinion of Rabbi Yose (see below). However, Rabbi Avraham HaGer[59] offers[60] a converse explanation: Since converts are so particular in their adherence to the commandments, they make the other Jews look bad, which causes punishment for the entire Jewish nation. Tosfos HaRosh, compiled by Rabbi Asher Ben Jechiel (1250-1328), introduces[61] a fifth understanding, which is that converts lack a certain genealogical pedigree, which causes the holy presence to distance itself from them. Tosafos explain[62] that a Jew has a grave obligation not to verbally harass converts because of their status[63] (and to love them[64]), and this obligation is so difficult that many people transgress it and cause great punishments to be brought upon the Jewish nation. The seventh understanding is that of Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, 1135-1204), who writes[65] that converts are like a skin disease because they do not always convert with proper intentions.

Even according to the Rambam, a conversion with an improper intention is still a legally valid conversion (provided everything else is perfect in the conversion); it just yields trouble for the Jewish nation. The Gemara[66] says that a conversion is not valid if it was with the intent for marriage, for being a slave of King Solomon (whose servants were treated to a rich lifestyle), for fear of lions (e.g. Kings 2 17:25 ff), or because of the interpretation of a dream which told one to convert. However, a dissenting opinion, which is codified in practical Halacha by the Rambam himself[67], feels that although optimally a convert should not have these types of intentions, such a conversion is nonetheless valid. During certain times of prosperity, converts were not allowed to join the Jewish congregation because of suspicion that their motives were to take part in Jewish riches and not to fully devote themselves to a life of Torah. The Talmud assumes[68] that two such times were during the period of King David and King Solomon’s[69] reigns and after the surprising victory of the Jews of Shushan[70]. A third time will be[71] in the future Messianic Era. One may ask, however, does not the verse say[72] that after the Jewish victory, many of the locals converted, or Judaized themselves? During times when new converts were not accepted, those wishing to convert became “dragged proselytes” meaning that they forced Judaism upon themselves by practicing its tenets without actually becoming Jewish. They wore Tefilin (phylacteries) and Tzitzis-fringes on their four-cornered garments and affixed Mezuzahs to their doorposts, but never formally became Jewish halachikly. These same “dragged convert” are destined to crop up during the Messianic Era.

An eighth understanding of the reason why converts are so detrimental to Jews-by-birth is that the Talmud elsewhere says[73] that the Jews are only in exile because so that they may add converts from amongst the nation. Perhaps the reason why converts are so painful to the Jewish nation is that had the concept of conversion been non-existent, there would be no exile. It can be implied from the Talmud that G-d only sent the Jews into various places all over the globe so that they can influence the local populace and teach them the truths of the monotheism and the Torah, if not to convert them, then at least to create Noahides. Indeed, the Talmud says[74] that converts block the arrival of the Messiah. This should not be understood that the acceptance of converts block the arrival of the Moshiach, but rather that a lack of their acceptance lengthens the exile. The Maharsha, Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi Eidels (1555–1631), explained[75] that had G-d merely wished to punish the Jews, He did not have to exile them from their homeland; the fact that He did exile His nation shows that He intended for another outcome, namely, the amalgamation of proselytes into the Jewish nation. Rabbi Yoshe Ber HaLevi Soloveitchik (1820-1892) added[76] that without the punishment of exile, all those gentile souls who were destined to convert would have come to Israel on their own seeking spiritual enlightenment, just as Jethro and Rehab came on their own. Because of the exile and its scattering of the Jewish nation, Israel will be there when converts from all over the world will seek the truth. May HaShem completely redeem His nation and end the exile from the four corners of the Earth with the coming of the Messiah, speedily and in our days: Amen.

[1] Yevamos 48b
[2] In his book, The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism
[3] Midrash Rabbah Genesis 39:14
[4] Genesis 12:5
[5] Yevamos 22a
[6] Midrash Rabbah Genesis 45:1
[7] Sotah 12b
[8] Chronicles 1 4:18
[9] Megillah 10b
[10] Kings 1 11:3
[11] Zevachim 115a
[12] See Joshua Chapter 2
[13] Megillah 14b-15a
[14] Ibid.
[15] Sanhedrin 105
[16] See Ruth 3:3, “washing” there is a euphemism for immersion into the Mikvah, a crucial element in a proper conversion.
[17] Bava Basra 91a
[18] Gittin 57b
[19] Torah leaders mentioned in Avos 1:10 as the predecessors to Hillel and Shamai.
[20] Kings 2 25:8
[21] Gittin 57b
[22] Ibid.
[23] See the Book of Esther
[24] Although secular scholars deny this claim, it is explicitly written in the Talmud. Roman and modern historians would rather have had the Roman Emperor go crazy and commit suicide than to have had him converted to Judaism.
[25] Gittin 56a
[26] Gittin 56b
[27] Megillah 3a
[28] Sanhedrin 39b
[29] Pesachim 49b
[30] Gerim 2:3
[31] Yevamos 46a
[32] Yevamos 76b, Sotah 9a
[33] Yadayim 4:4, Brachos 28a
[34] Cited in Tosafos to Kiddushin 71a, See below
[35] Shabbos 31a
[36] Avos D’Rabbi Nosson 15:3
[37] Published in America between 1901 and 1906
[38] See Tosafos to Avodah Zarah 10b
[39] Exodus 2:16-22
[40] See Exodus Chapter 18
[41] Sotah 43a
[42] Keni is another name for Yisro
[43] Sifri to Parshas Behaaloscha
[44] See Judges 1:3 and Temurah 16a
[45] Predictably, many secular and Catholic historians deny the entire story of Avraham ben Avraham. The Chofetz Chayim had a custom of telling over the story every year on the anniverssary of Avraham ben Avraham, which only furthers its place in Jewish tradition.
[46] Yevamos 48b
[47] Apparently, the Talmud understood that such punishments befall “Jews by birth” because of the sins of their forefathers, but expressed wonderment as to why “Jews by Choice” are also afflicted. See Ritva to Yevamos 48b.
[48] Yevamos 22a
[49] In his glosses to Yevamos 48b
[50] Imrei Yosher pg. 10
[51] Yismach Moshe, Parshas Emor
[52] Shevuos 39a
[53] Based on Deuteronomy 29:13
[54] Yevamos 47b, 109b, Kiddushin 70b, and Niddah 13b
[55] Yevamos 109b
[56] Yevamos 109b
[57] Yevamos 47b
[58] Ibid.
[59] Or Rabbi Shmuel HaGer, according to the version of the Tosafos of Rabbenu Peretz ben Eliyahu of Corbeil.
[60] As cited by Tosafos to Kiddushin 70b
[61] Yevamos 47b
[62] Ibid.
[63] Leviticus 19:33
[64] Deuteronomy 10:19
[65] Maimonides, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions, 13:18
[66] Yevamos 24b
[67] Maimonides, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions, 13:4
[68] Yevamos 24b, 76b
[69] Concerning Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) and his foreign wives, there are a few answers given. Tosafos explain (Yevamos 76b) that he only “loved” them but did not “marry” them, so his relationship with them was permitted. However, that assumes that only “marriage” with a “wedding” to a gentile woman is forbidden while mere relations with her are permitted; this assumption is disputed by many opinions. Others explain that he converted his wives, and even though normally converts were not accepted during Solomon’s reign, all his wives were princess of foreign dignitaries so there was no suspicion that they married him for his riches, because they lived royally anyways. Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner (1749-1821) explained (Likutei Mamaarim §1) that Solomon planned to transform the root of the evil in those gentile women into good because he believed that that was needed to be done in order to usher in the Messianic Era, however, he was mistaken and the time for that Era had not yet arrived. Therefore, the opposite occurred, instead of him influencing his wives for the good, they influenced him for the bad, and “turned his heart” as is said in Kings 1 11:4.
[70] As recorded in the Book of Esther and celebrated on Purim
[71] Avodah Zarah 3b
[72] Esther 8:17
[73] Pesachim 87b
[74] Niddah 13b
[75] Chiddushei Aggadah to Pesachim 87
[76] Beis HaLevi to Parshas BeShalach

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Becoming a Jew

Essay One: Becoming a Jew
While Jews do not actively seek converts, Halacha does call for their acceptance—should one decide to convert— and details the intricate laws of converting to Judaism. A gentile must walk many steps in order to be accepted into the Jewish Nation. Conversion is a unique far-reaching experience. In converting, one undergoes a change of identity, and the assumption of a new status, a Jewish one. Therefore, many of the rituals involved in conversion include the most basic elements of Judaism. The process of converting to Judaism, for many, is a long and difficult one. An obvious pre-requisite to conversion is the admission and acknowledgment of the existence of one G-d, who created the world and redeemed the Jewish people from Egypt to give them His Torah. A potential male convert must first perform a ritual circumcision (with the intent of conversion) to make his body one with the Jewish Nation. Following this, a convert must properly immerse his or her self into a Mikvah (ritual bath) in the presence of a Beis Din (Jewish Court). The final act done for conversion is the acceptance of the divinely ordained six hundred and thirteen commandments, which a Jew is obligated to observe. When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, a convert was required to bring certain sacrificial offerings as a means of finalizing the conversion.

The exact actions required for a fully valid conversion is subject to a seven-way Tannaic dispute. All agree that the acceptance of the 613 Mitzvos is necessary and crucial for a proper conversion[1]. The Sages—in the form of Rabbi Yose— decided[2] that a male convert must perform both the ritual circumcision and the ritual immersion (in that order) to join the covenant. However, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehuda, and Rabbi Eliezer decided that immersion into a mikveh is enough for a valid conversion, even without circumcision for a male. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehudah also decided that even just a circumcision is a valid conversion for a male, even without the ritual bath. In an individual opinion, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Ya’akov ruled[3] that a convert is required to offer certain sacrifices in the Temple to complete the conversion process. The root of the dispute is whether the male Israelites at Mount Sinai immersed into a mikveh as part of their conversion process or not; the historical facts would have a bearing on whether such a conversion without Mikvah in present times is also valid. Everyone agrees that the requirement for circumcision is based on the Talmud[4], which understood[5] that all the male Jews who exited Egypt circumcised themselves at Mount Sinai as part of their conversion process. The argument is whether they immersed themselves in the Mikvah also, or not.
Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehuda believed that the Jewish males were not required to immerse into the ritual bath for the mass conversion at Mount Sinai; the dissenting opinions reason that they were required. Initially the Talmud[6] understands that the latter view learned an a fortiori logical inference from Exodus 19:10, which required the Israelites at Har Sinai to wash their clothes. However, the Talmud rejected this logic and proposed that perhaps they were required to wash their clothes for hygiene not as a precursor to immersing in a Mikvah. The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchack Zev Soloveitchik (1886-1959) explained[7] that the washing of the clothes was in honor of receiving the holy presence of HaShem, the King of Kings, at the mountain. Indeed, the Brisker Rav’s great-grandfather, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1810-1893), proved[8] etymologically that the clothes referred to were specifically outer clothes that imply that the washing was only to look outwardly fancy and not to imply that there was a ritual immersion. The Classic Aramaic translation of the Torah written by Onkelos (circa. First century) explained[9] that HaShem commanded the Israelites to tightly press their clothes (i.e. dry clean), which, like the Netziv said, does not imply an immersion at all[10].

The Talmud[11] concludes that the source for the Israelites’ performance of an immersion at Mount Sinai is a rule said concerning the Red Heifer. Whenever the ashes of the Red Heifer are sprinkled on an individual as a means of purification from ritual contamination, the individual must first immerse into a Mikvah. At Mount Sinai, before the acceptance of the Torah, blood from sacrifices was sprinkled unto the nation[12]. Since with every sprinkling an immersion into a mikveh is required, the Jews must have immersed into the Mikvah in anticipation of Matan Torah (The Giving of the Torah). The Brisker Rav understood[13] that this sprinkling of blood was a necessary part of the conversion at Mount Sinai; however, his great-grandfather seems to have argued on this point. Rabbi Eliezer seems to have felt that the blood was not sprinkled upon the nation, but rather his opinion of what occurred is reflected in the translation of Onkelos to Exodus 24:8 who understood that the blood was sprinkled on the altar as atonements for the nation, but not literally sprinkled on the nation. Nachmanides explains[14] that half of the blood was sprinkled on the altar, while the other half was sprinkled toward the nation. Therefore, since there was not a sprinkling upon the nation, then there was not an immersion either, accordingly, Rabbi Eliezer therefore rules a male’s conversion without immersion is valid. However, the other Rabbis believed that there indeed was a sprinkling on the nation and therefore there was an immersion, which became an eternal requirement for conversion.

The early commentaries ask, assuming circumcision is an integral part of conversion, how the tribe of Levi converted, if all the Levites already had circumcisions before the revelation at Mount Sinai because they performed the circumcision in Egypt, while the rest of the Jewish nation did not[15]. The non-Levites of the Jewish Nation abstained from circumcision because of the dangers involved while traveling after such a surgery. However, explains Rabbi Dovid Grossman (Maggid Shiur in Los Angeles and whose voice is heard in the ShasPod), the Levites were such believers in divine intervention that the notion of danger after the circumcisional operation did not even occur to them. They were included in the scriptural dictum “HaShem protects the simple”[16], which justifies such dangerous acts of faith[17]. The Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderes, 1235-1310) answers that the Levites at Mount Sinai either they performed a ceremonial circumcision by merely drawing blood from that anatomic region without cutting anything or they had the halachik status of women and were thus exempt from circumcision as a requirement for conversion.

The simple understanding of Yevamos 46a-b is that the proofs regarding circumcision and immersion into the Mikvah came from the actions of the Israelites during their encampment at Mount Sinai. However, the actual language of the Talmud refers to “patriarchs” and “matriarchs.” Rashi understood those terms to refer to the Jewish Nation at Sinai; however, this understanding is problematic (as Tosfos HaRosh asks) because the Talmud elsewhere says[18] that only three people can be called patriarchs (Avraham, Yitzchack, and Yacov), and only four can be called matriarchs (Sarah, Rivkah, Rochel, and Leah), so the Talmud cannot refer to those later Israelites. Therefore, there is divergent explanation: some explain[19] that the Gemara was discussing Abraham and Sarah, the parents of the Jewish Nation. This understanding of the Gemara assumes that they converted to Judaism and that Abraham was circumcised and Sarah immersed into the Mikvah. The dispute amongst the Rabbis was whether Abraham also immersed into the Mikvah. There is great controversy concerning the halachik status of the two, whether they were considered mere Noachides (i.e. gentiles) or Jews. Rabbi Naftali Trop (1871-1930), the Rosh Yeshiva of the Chofetz Chayim’s Yeshiva in Radin, reconciled these divergent opinions[20] by explaining that the Jewish forefathers had a special status genealogically, but the Israelites lacked a certain intrinsic holiness until the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai, four hundred years after Abraham circumcised himself.

Although in practical Halacha, both the circumcision and immersion are required for a valid conversion, the Rashba writes that the circumcision is considered a beginning step toward conversion and the circumcised is considered quasi-Jewish even before his immersion. Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger (1798-1871), author of the Aruch L'Ner, records a story[21], which occurred in Jerusalem with its Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Salant (1816-1909). He wrote that a candidate for conversion was circumcised, and before he had a chance to immerse into the mikveh, the Shabbos arrived. In Rabbi Salant's absence, the man was persuaded by other local Rabbis to desecrate the Shabbos purposely, as any non-Jew should. However, when Rabbi Salant returned to the Holy City, he disagreed with this halachik decision and, basing himself on the words of the Rashba, ruled that such a person is considered like a Jew already regarding his requirement to keep the Shabbos. The Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), quoted[22] the words of the Midrash[23] that a non-Jew can only keep the Sabbath after he has a circumcision. He explained that this means a circumcision with intent for conversion, and the validity of that alone for the conversion is subject to the dispute recorded by Rabbi Ettlinger.

The reasoning behind the association of immersion into a Mikva and conversion to Judaism is not very apparent. Many wrongly think that a convert immerses into a Mikvah as a means of purifying himself from a type of ritual impurity from while he or she was a gentile. However, Rashi[24] explicitly writes that a convert does not perform the ritual bath because of tumah (ritual contamination). Indeed, it is written in the Mishnah[25] that all previous impurities of a gentile disappear after conversion, because, as Rabbi Ovadiah Ben Avraham of Bartenura (circa. Fifteenth century) explains a newly converted Jew is like a newly born baby[26]. The reason behind the immersion as part of a conversion can be implied from Rashi[27]. Rashi writes that since Mikvah is “religiously Jewish” it is a valid component in conversion. By performing the commandment of immersing into the Mikvah, one shows an acceptance of the yoke of heaven. Mikvah is such an integral commandment, that the TaZ, Rabbi Dovid Ben Samuel HaLevi Segal (1586-1667) writes[28] it alone is the factor which separates the Jewish Nation from other nations. This is why the Mikvah is such an important factor in a proper Jewish conversion.

Rabbi Menachem Ben Shlomo Meiri (1249-1310) writes[29] that in the times of the Holy Temple, a convert was required to bring an offering as a sacrifice to finalize the conversion process. This is a codification of the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer Ben Ya’aqov[30]. In the period immediately following the destruction of the Holy Temple, converts were required actually to set aside animals as a qorban for when the Temple would be re-built. However, the leader of Jewry in Yavneh, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, abolished this law[31] because some eventually began to use the holy animals for mundane purposes in the interim. Perhaps he also realized that the Temple was not going to be re-built as quickly as initially thought. In present times, the lack of sacrifice does not hinder one’s conversion because the Talmud understood based on Number 15:14 that there can be converts in every generation, even when there is no Holy Temple to bring sacrifices. However, the ruling of the Meiri still stands and shall be in effect when the Temple will be rebuilt. At such time, a convert’s conversion is not considered valid until the blood of his sacrifice is sprinkled on the Copper Altar in the Bais HaMiqdash. Rabbi Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz (1730-1805), the author of the Hafla’ah and great-grandson of the first Nikolsburger Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke Ha-Levi Horowitz (1726-1778) discussed the sprinkling of blood. He wrote[32] that just like when the Jews came out from exile in Egypt, the blood of sacrifices was sprinkled upon them, so too when they became a nation for the second time at the construction of the Second Holy Temple, after the Babylonian exile, there was the blood of sacrifices sprinkled upon them[33]. In a similar vein, he says, when the Third Temple will be rebuild, the blood of the sacrifices will inaugurate the Jewish Nation again. This explains the verses[34] that refer to the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the continuation of the sacrifices therein, may it come speedily and in our days: Amen.
[1] In a plea for unity in Torah observance, Rabbi Chaim Brisker, said that the existence of proselytes and the fact that the Torah says that converts have the exact same laws as Native Jews (Numbers 15:15-16) should inspire Jews to act with solidarity in keeping the Mitzvos. See Al HaTorah, Parshas Shelach, by Rabbi Mordechai HaKohen (Jerusalem, 1968)
[2] Yevamos 46a-b
[3] Kerisos 8b
[4] Kerisos 9a
[5] Through Joshua 5:5
[6] Yevamos 46b
[7] Chiddushei HaGriz to Parshas Yisro
[8] Bircas HaNetziv to Midrash Mechilta §3
[9] Targum Onkelos to Exodus 19:10
[10] Although, one cannot necessary use Onkelos as a proof to either way in the argument because, as Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes (1805-1855) points out (in his glosses to Yevamos 46b), Onkelos always reflects the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. See Megillah 3a.
[11] Yevamos 46b
[12] Exodus 24:8
[13] Parshas Mishpatim
[14] Commentary to Exodus 24:8
[15] See Sifri Numbers 9:13
[16] Psalms 116:6
[17] See Shabbos 129b; Pesachim 118b; Rosh Hashana 17a; Yevamos 12b, 72a, 100b; Kesubos 39a; Sanhedrin 100b; Avodah Zarah 30b; et al.
[18] Brachos 16b
[19] As cited in the Meiri
[20] Chiddushei GRaNaT on Yevamos, §10
[21] Responsa Binyan Tzion, §91
[22] Divrei Yoel, Volume 4, pg. 330
[23] Deuteronomy Rabbah, 1:21
[24] To Yevamos 47b
[25] Zavim 2:3
[26] Yevamos 22a
[27] To Yevamos 45a
[28] Turei Zahav, Yoreh Deah §268:8
[29] Bais HaBechirah to Yevamos, end of Chapter 4
[30] Kerisos 8b
[31] Kerisos 9a
[32] Panim Yafos, Parshas Mishpatim
[33] Ezra 8:35
[34] Psalms 21:20 ff

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