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


Pragmatician said...

Interesting post, I had learned some Mishanyot(or was it Braitot?) on the subject but I had forgotten most of it.

Reuven Chaim Klein said...

You probably learned Meseches (Tractate) Gerim. It is printed in the back of Volume 15 of the Vilna Shas (with Avoda Zara, Horayos, Edyos, etc...). More recently, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (the Rav whose picture until recently adorned thissite) wrote a famous commentary to Gerim.

(I deleted a nasty comment from an anti-semite in this post)

Reuven Chaim Klein said...

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Interest posting, I have noticed as you say that the jewish community does not actively seeks converts unlike most faiths and this in itself is quite interesting

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