The Rabbinic Conversion Ceremony

The different layers of the rabbinic discussion of conversion reveal the beginnings of a transformation from a citizenship ritual to a theological initiation rite.

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The baraita requires two sages to serve as instructors and witnesses. The Talmud asks:

"Did not R. Hiyya, however, state in the name of R. Johanan that the initiation of a convert requires the presence of three?--But, surely. R. Johanan told the tanna [who was the human recorder of the baraita] to read 'three' [instead of two]."

The baraita requires sages to be present to instruct the convert and to attest that the proper procedures were followed; these sages regulate the conversion process. For R. Johanan (and later Jewish law), the sages are not witnesses--they constitute a Jewish court (beit din), representing the Jewish community and beginning the process of the convert's social integration.

Taken as a whole, the tannaitic conversion ceremony serves, in Cohen's words, to regulate conversion by establishing three clear elements: acceptance of the commandments, circumcision (for males), and immersion. The convert is informed both of the situation of Israel in the world as well as aspects of Jewish observance, and the rituals formalizing the ritual are performed and attested to by rabbinic sages. The amoraic expansion of the verses from Ruth and the sages' new role as constituting a public court rather than simply being witnesses indicate the beginnings of a transformation of the conversion procedure from a private citizenship ceremony to a more comprehensive theological and social initiation rite.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.