Adults have agency under Jewish law. So, when a non-Jewish adult expresses a sincere desire to convert to Judaism, they can begin the conversion process. Children, on the other hand, do not have agency under Jewish law. So what happens if a minor wants to convert? Should we ask them to wait until they are adults? Or, is there a mechanism to let them convert before they are legally empowered to do so? On today’s daf, Rav Huna says:
With regard to a convert who is a minor, one immerses him in a ritual bath with the consent of the court.
Rav Huna permits a rabbinic court to step in and act on behalf of the minor and give consent on their behalf for immersion in a ritual bath, one of the rabbinic requirements for conversion.
On what grounds can the court do so? The Gemara justifies the court’s involvement because it views becoming part of the Jewish people as a good thing and intervening to make it happen as in the interest of the child.
Further down the page, the Gemara brings a case about children who convert along with their father, which is indeed a case of child conversion, but not the one that Rav Huna is talking about because, in that case, the father can consent on behalf of his children so the court does not need to step in. Rashi explains that Rav Huna is talking about a case in which the child has no father and is brought by their mother for conversion. Since she, in the eyes of the rabbinic courts, does not have full legal standing, the court steps in to give consent.
In our day, it is common for minor children to be converted along with their parents. The conversion of non-Jewish children who are being adopted by Jewish families falls into this category as well.
And what happens if, after reaching the age of consent, a child convert decides that they do not want to be Jewish? Well, Jewish law gives them an out:
Rav Yosef said: In any case where minors convert, when they reach majority they can protest and annul their conversion.
Later Jewish legal authorities accept the legal and ethical reality that a child who was converted should have this right when they become an adult. However, they agree with the Gemara that it is preferable for the child to remain in the fold so they narrow the window for annulment of conversion in two ways. First, they rule that practicing Judaism publicly (attending synagogue, celebrating Shabbat and holidays, for example) is an indication that those converted in childhood have accepted their conversion. Second, they narrow the time limit in which one can protest and request an annulment of their conversion when they become an adult. Some say this must take place the moment just before they become an adult; others rule that the moment to protest coincides with the time at which they are informed that they have reached the age of adulthood and the responsibilities and obligations that come with it.
In our day, this means that in order to void their conversion, a child-convert, at their bar or bat mitzvah, would have to make a declaration similar to the following:
As you may know, my parents arranged for me to be converted to Judaism as a young child. I’ve learned a lot about my adopted religion over the years. Today, as we celebrate my becoming an adult in the eyes of Judaism, I publicly declare: Judaism is not for me. So, thank you for traveling from near and far to celebrate my bat mitzvah. Enjoy the kiddush. I’m out of here.
Holding to the rabbinic notion that it is a good thing to retain child converts as part of the Jewish people, we do not present this option in b’nai mitzvah training. Nonetheless, barring such a declaration, participating in one’s celebration allows one’s conversion to take hold and the emerging adult assumes their place within the Jewish people.
Read all of Ketubot 11 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 17th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.