The Beit Din (Rabbinic Court)

Final authority for conversion rests with the three-person beit din, which rules on a candidate's sincerity, knowledge, and potential for success as a Jew.

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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.

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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.