Acceptance of the Yoke of the Commandments

Kabbalat ol ha-mitzvot (acceptance of the commandments) combines faith and action with an intent to evolve as a practicing Jew.

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The following is a look at the traditional practices regarding a potential convert's acceptance of the commandments; contemporary practices may differ, depending on the community, denomination, and personal beliefs of individual rabbis who are working with potential converts. Excerpted with permission from Becoming a Jew (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

The prospective convert's commitment to practice Judaism must be articulated at two stages in the conversion protocol: in the initial statement of intent to enter the Jewish covenant--prerequisite to the total process--and in the declaration recited at the climax of the conversion ceremony, immediately prior to immersion in the ritual pool.

 

Joint Commitment to Belief and Action

Because the Jews constitute a covenant-community rather than a faith-community, the decision to convert is a decision not only to believe in the Jewish idea of God, but to act on that belief. When one "enters into the covenant"--the convert's personal Sinai [the mountain where the Jewish people accepted the covenant]--one accepts the divine mandate requiring distinctive behavior. This is called "acceptance of the yoke of the commandments."

What does this entail as a practical program? First, it necessitates acknowledgment of the authority of Torah, the five books of Moses, and the oral interpretation of that law by the sages of the Talmud and the codes of the halakhah [Jewish law]. These two components are called the "Written Torah" and "Oral Torah" and together they comprise the body of Jewish law.

The rabbis rule that the candidate for conversion may not willfully reject even one of these laws. By this they mean, basically, that the convert may not deny the rabbis' authority to establish a particular law. Thus, the commitment to practice is referred to as kabbalat ol ha'mitzvot the "acceptance of the yoke of the commandments," rather than by the more tepid phrase "observance of the mitzvot [commandments]." It is a recognition that, although the laws may sometimes be restrictive, they need to be accepted as authoritative notwithstanding any difficulty in keeping them.

Second, accepting the "yoke" entails a decision that goes beyond acknowledging the authority of the law. That acknowledgment must be translated into practice and acted upon. The convert's commitment to Judaism must include a commitment to observance. This is true not only for moral laws, but also for the laws of ritual practice.

Starting Small With Intent to Grow

Of course, the conversion candidate may feel disposed to observe the tradition, but lack the emotional stamina to keep it and not just let it slip out of consciousness. This does not by itself cast doubt on the conversion. There is an inherent recognition in the laws of conversion that people can and do grow. What is important, therefore, in addition to the desire to keep the covenant, is to design living conditions that will be conducive to growing in the observance of Torah--such as a willing mate, a vibrant Jewish community, a nearby synagogue, positive Jewish friends, a caring rabbi. On the other hand, if there is no intention to keep the Sabbath or the dietary laws, it indicates no desire to grow after entering into the covenant, and the conversion may not be validated.

The entire conversion process hinges on this one theme--committing one's life to keeping the tradition. That is why the acceptance of the mitzvot is both prerequisite to and the purpose of the process and thus needs to be expressed a second time, immediately prior to the conclusion of the process. Due process requires both the initial reportorial acceptance and the formal ceremonial acceptance. The formal acceptance is paced immediately before the immersion and always requires presence of the beit din [court of three observant Jews], which represents the full authority the law and of the entire community.

It should be evident to any serious thinking person that one who enters a new faith ignorant of its basic requirements is not sincere or authentic and will not be a credit to his people. However, it should be noted that the talmudic requirement is that the convert study "a small portion of the major and minor mitzvot." One is not expected to absorb the encyclopedic details of the law--which takes a lifetime--but only to know enough to practice the major observances and to have a sense of the scope of Judaism's universe and the range of commitment it demands.

The Rabbis did not require expert scholarship of [new converts]. They sought instead a full-hearted willingness to abide by what they had already learned and what they expected to learn in the future.

Rejection of Even One Law Considered Rebellious

While a smattering of ignorance, though objectionable, does not invalidate the conversion process, explicit rejection of even one of the commandments in a manner considered rebellious toward rabbinic authority does. It is a red flag that signals only a conditional acceptance, a less-than-complete commitment in "the marriage of true minds." It is, of course, the individual's option to observe or not to observe any given mitzvah. Every person, Judaism believes, has a God-given freedom of the will. But the halakhah declares that it is not everyone's option to determine what the halakhah is in any specific case, and whether it is valid or not. One may choose to observe or not to observe, but one may not decide what Jewish law demands to be observed.

Therefore, if a convert candidate--before becoming a Jew--rejects the practice of a specific mitzvah as fundamentally not valid and therefore not to be observed (rather than because he simply does not have the capacity to keep it now), he disqualifies himself as a credible candidate for conversion. It is true that many Jews reject mitzvot, but such rejection ab initio constitutes a bar to a prospective convert's admission to the faith.

The grounds for invalidating a conversion because of such rejection are limited to explicit purposeful denial of a mitzvah. Even more, they are restricted by some rabbis to a person who stipulates prior to the immersion that he be granted official permission as a Jew to disregard it. Only in such an instance would he be denied entrance to the Jewish people, because conversion brooks no exceptions: "There is no conversion by halves."

At first, it may seem highly unlikely that a convert would stipulate in advance that he rejects one specific commandment. But that problem does occur, and can cause great consternation, as in the following example: A kohen who, as a descendant of the priestly family, has both privileges and constraints, wishes to marry a convert. The gentile woman sincerely wishes to convert to Judaism, but only with the qualification that after conversion she will be permitted to marry the kohen. According to the halakhah, that would entail accepting the entire halakhah with one exception--the halakhah that kohanim may not marry even properly converted women. The rejection of this one mitzvah may invalidate the entire conversion.

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.