Who Gets To Judge The Converts?
The law “ואהבתם את הגר,” and you shall love the convert, is mentioned over 36 times in the Torah. The prolific rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote that “As a matter of normative practice, one should know that the mitzvah (commandment) to love the convert obligates us to bring them closer and to be lenient on all these matters [of Jewish law].”
Yet for more than a decade Orthodox Jewry has been gripped by a civil war over recognizing converts. Rabbis on both sides of the Atlantic debate previously indisputable points of Jewish law. All the while, the lives of tens of thousands of Orthodox converts hang in the balance.
I happen to be one of them. My own experience is largely positive. However, many of my fellow converts feel differently and have experienced far less fortune than I have in integrating into the Jewish community. My experiences as a convert and in speaking with my fellow Jews-by-choice suggest something critical is systematically ignored in our discussion of the issue: the converts themselves.
There is great confusion surrounding Jewish law pertaining to converts’ place in the Jewish community. While we face some limits due to our status, such as women not being able to marry a descendant of the Kohenic line, many take this too far. Some matchmakers might seldom match converts and born Jews. Others may block converts from being synagogue rabbis or even in leadership positions.
I study whatever I can get my hands on regarding the laws of conversion. I feel a compulsion to make the law concise and as undisputed as possible to protect other converts from any unnecessary and insensitive questioning of their bonafides.
This is where Emory University Professor Rabbi Michael J. Broyde’s new book, “A Concise Code of Jewish Law for Converts,” comes in. It attempts to address all of the aspects of a convert’s life in their new communities and detailing where those lives and native-born Jews might diverge. It is seldom understood, even among the learned, that Jewish law draws significant distinctions between Jews-from-birth and converts that impact their personal lives.
Broyde covers laws from the perspective of both demographics. He cites obligations on born Jews quite often, like the obligation to invite converts to holiday meals (Orah Haim 529:2) or that a born Jew may ignore a parent’s demand not to marry a convert (Yoreh Deah 240).
However, converts face legal limitations that born Jews do not. Depending on the stringency of the opinion, those restrictions can be incredibly burdensome. Broyde’s account recognizes the seriousness and sensitivity of these laws and how they impact converts. He gives us a concise breakdown of all the laws in the Shulchan Aruch code of Jewish Law that pertain to converts. He then delves deeply into some specific issues of concern for the convert community.
There is a strong discussion about the way converts relate to the rest of the Jewish people. The best example is Broyde’s discussion of the blessing, “sh’lo asani goy” (Blessed are you God…who did not make me a non-Jew). Most know that in practice, converts do not say anything different than born Jews during their daily recitation during morning prayers. However, this wasn’t always the case. Plenty of major Rabbinic figures through the annals of time recommended converts use a different formula so as not to imply they had been initially created Jewish. But the prevailing opinion today is that the blessing reflects God’s ongoing creation of human beings, i.e. a convert’s current status. The need to err on the side of respecting converts and including them wherever possible might be a sort of tie-breaking factor, though Rabbi Broyde never says so explicitly.
A much more consequential discussion revolves around whether a convert can serve as a judge on a conversion court. The issue is mainly a contemporary one, as sources rarely hint at the question prior to 150 years ago. Yet it constitutes a fundamental issue: How much of a leadership role can converts obtain in the community?
For the uninitiated, the Torah sets limits on who may serve as king. The verse in Deuteronomy instructs the Israelites to only appoint a king from “among your brothers,” inferred by the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud to refer to native-born Jews. But this also trickles down to lower positions, like leading communities or serving as a judge in which the judge has coercive power over the parties to a case. But can a convert exert authority over other converts?
Thanks to the work catalogued and contrasted by Broyde, a nuanced picture emerges which is typically absent from public discussion. After the fact, a conversion in which one of the judges who served on the beit din was himself a convert, the conversion should be accepted because it is up to the Torah’s basic standard. Alas, Broyde concludes the safest bet is that a convert should not sit as one of the judges, merely because of the widespread rabbinic disagreement about what the law should be. It is better not to sow doubt about the subject’s status.
It’s not clear why Rabbi Broyde does not enter into another perspective on the issue, that a conversion court is not really a true court at all, since there is no defendant or plaintiff/prosecutor, and there is no case in which there would be a 2-1 split decision on accepting the convert, but rather simply a tribunal questioning a candidate.
Where I find Broyde’s account lacking is in its discussion of more contemporary concepts. He does not discuss giyyur l’humra, where a Jew undergoes a conversion to dismiss doubts about someone’s legal status as a Jew.
This is extraordinarily relevant for the American Jewish community. My mother converted via the Conservative Movement in the 1970s. What are the obligations of born Jews to these people, who might be Jewish but might also not be? What are the obligations of the rabbis teaching these students or overseeing their formal conversions? Is their process to be expedited and made more lenient?
Similarly, Broyde does not address the concept of Zera Yisrael, popularized by some modern Orthodox Rabbis and the former Knesset member Rabbi David Amsalem, which calls for a process by which patrilineal Jews should have an easier time of converting. Are people with Jewish heritage but whose mothers are not Jewish supposed to have an easier track toward conversion? Does the Jewish community have an obligation (as Amsalem argues) to convert these people? These are questions addressed in many sources in Hebrew (and somewhat in English), but usually only niche corners of modern Rabbinic literature. A second edition to Rabbi Broyde’s book would benefit from at least some mention of the topic.
At the heart of every debate about this topic, Jews must ask themselves if their words or ideas contrast with the foremost obligation to love the convert and err on the side of caution when considering stricter standards for admission. Or, especially, when raising questions about someone’s identity.
It is unfair to judge a religion based on its practitioners. All faiths are vulnerable to zealotry and charlatanism; to excessive stringency and excessive leniency. A community, however, should consider itself as shepherding that religion’s integrity.
For Judaism, where widows and orphans and converts are given extra attention to God in the Torah, our very legal principles demand deference to needs of our most vulnerable. Should the community care enough about its weakest members’ survival, it certainly can and must eventually overcome even the most bitter divisions.
Rabbi Broyde treats the issues in a careful manner and with great precision, and his accessible book would be an indispensable and usable addition to any Jewish library. His stress on constitutional premise that loving the convert should guide all halachic decisions regarding new entrants to the community is a critical one. It informs not only how we see Jewish law, but absent a layman’s wisdom of the law that a layman still can maintain the principle of safek d’orayta l’humra: When you have a doubt about how to proceed on a rule from the Torah, err on the side of caution. With converts, that caution means accepting converts for whom they say they are.