Excerpted with permission from Becoming a Jew (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).
Formal conversion to Judaism requires authorization by a Jewish court. This three-man beit din represents, in a manner of speaking, the whole Jewish people into which the convert seeks entrance. It has the power to authorize or deny the application to join its ranks.
Traditional Requirements for a Beit Din
The beit din [for a conversion] consists of three individuals, as it does in regard to cases other than conversion–at least one of whom must be an ordained rabbi expert in the subject of conversion. Some sages of the Talmud derive the requirement of a beit din from the biblical verse, “You shall have one manner of law, as well for the proselyte as for the home-born. One law shall there be for you and for the convert” (Leviticus 24:22). Others derive it from the verse, ” And thou shalt judge righteously between man and his brothers and the convert…” (Deuteronomy 1:16).
This much is certain: There is to be no difference in the legal process as regards Jews and converted gentiles. As the rules of justice for cases between one Jew and another require a court of three presiding in session during daylight, so too, in all cases between converts and Jews. In matters of the conversion protocol as well, the process is identical–neither more nor less strict–so the halakhah requires three Jews, knowledgeable about the conversion procedure, to oversee the protocol, and it must be held only during daytime.
A problem arose over the requirement of ordained rabbis. While there are many rabbis today who are traditionally ordained, the historic chain of ordination technically linking present-day rabbis with Moses is considered to have been broken. But if there are technically no ordained rabbis today whose lineage stretches back from student to teacher to Moses, what will happen to the conversion process which requires it? Shall Judaism therefore no longer accept converts because the law cannot be fulfilled as completely as the sages determined it should be?
The Tosafists, medieval French scholars, therefore, ruled that the biblical insistence that conversion be a “statute forever throughout your generations” (Numbers 15:15) takes precedence. The requirement of historic ordination had to yield to the biblical mandate on conversion that it be available “for your generations”–able to be practiced for the entire duration of Jewish history. Conversion was not a policy emanating from one period in history or one country–it is part of the warp and woof of the Jewish religion. The rabbis of the court were to be considered as “messengers” of the early rabbis who were ordained in the chain still tied to Moses.
Today, therefore, a rabbi with a traditional ordination who is thoroughly conversant with the requirements of the conversion protocol can select two other rabbis or, in their absence, two knowledgeable and observant laymen, and form a valid Court of Admissions. This milestone decision of the sages, which secured the perpetual right of people to convert to Judaism, was motivated by a standing concern of the rabbis–the fear that we might somehow “shut the door in the face of converts.” That was never to be countenanced.
Authority of the Beit Din
The authority that the sages gave to the members of the beit din is truly remarkable. The entire process was placed in the hands of the beit din–“according to how the eyes of the beit din view it.” The evaluation of the candidate’s sincerity, the testing of his or her knowledge, the assessment of potential for success in becoming a Jew all were entrusted to the judgment of the court. Complexities naturally arise from the obvious fact that people are so unlike, their worldviews so diverse, their spiritual insights so radically different.
The beit din’s ability to judge so many variables might tend to make it susceptible to error. Yet, the halakhah cut a wide swath in these matters and allowed great latitude in this very critical area. The beit din’s latitude was historically and halakhically required simply because the door to gentile conversions had to be kept open, the system of conversion had to be available in every generation and in every corner of the worldwide dispersion of the Jews.
The questions the beit din will ask are designed to determine the sincerity of the convert and the likelihood of religious observance, and whether the degree of knowledge he or she has accumulated will be adequate to the observance of the mitzvot.
The halakhah, in addition to formulating the two principles that conversion must last for all generations and that the court must always act to avoid closing doors to converts, held that the very court process is itself a mitzvah. And, because presiding over a conversion is a mitzvah, the beit din was ordered not to tarry in its performance. Once it saw that a gentile was acceptable for conversion, it needed to proceed forthwith in arranging for the formal conversion.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.