In considering issues relating to the conversion of non-Jews to Judaism, Orthodox Jews tend to defend a strict policy that we term the halakhic approach [one that strictly follows traditional Jewish law]. Conversion for the sole purpose of marriage is highly discouraged. Conversion when the non-Jew does not intend to observe halakhah in full is generally considered to be no conversion at all. Rabbi Melech Schachter, in a fine article on conversion, states what most Orthodox Jews believe:
“Needless to say, conversion to Judaism without commitment to observance has no validity whatever, and the spuriously converted person remains in the eyes of halakhah a non-Jew as before.”
The Denial of Conversions Motivated by Marriage Creates More Intermarriage
The traditional stringency is not the only halakhically valid approach available to us; on the contrary, this may be the proper time to rely on other halakhic standards. No one will argue that conversion to Judaism for other than spiritual reasons is ideal. Certainly it should be discouraged. However, in terms of practical reality we may have to be more tolerant of such conversions.
Raphael Hayyim Saban, then the Chief Rabbi of Istanbul, wrote to Rabbi Benzion Meir Hai Uziel, the Rishon Lezion, in 1943, asking if conversion for the sake of marriage is valid.
In his response, Rabbi Uziel opens with a quotation from the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah, 268:12), which states that we must examine a potential convert to determine if his motives for accepting Judaism are sincere. Certainly, the ideal is not to convert those who are insincere. Then Rabbi Uziel adds that since in our generation intermarriage is common in civil courts, we are often forced to convert the non-Jewish partner in order to free the couple from the prohibition of intermarriage. We must also do so in order to spare their children who would otherwise be lost to the Jewish fold. If we are faced with a de facto mixed marriage we are permitted to convert the non-Jewish spouse and the children, when applicable. If this is true when a couple is already married, it is obviously true before they have begun a forbidden marriage relationship. The conversion could offset future transgressions and religious difficulties.
Rabbi Uziel bases his opinion on a responsum of the Rambam [a 12th-century North African philosopher and halakhist]. The case before Maimonides dealt with a Jewish man who had a non-Jewish maid-servant. The man was suspected of having conducted himself immorally with his servant. Should the beit din [rabbinic court] have her removed from his house?
In his answer, the Rambam states categorically that according the law, the maid should be sent out. After it learned of his wrongs, the beit din was obligated to exert all its power either to have the maid sent out or to have the Jewish master free and then marry her.
But there is an [apparently contradictory] law stating that if one is suspected of having had immoral relations with his maid and then he freed her, he may not marry her. The Rambam said that in spite of this ruling, he has judged in such cases that the man should free and marry the maid. He justified his decision by stating that it is necessary to make things easier for repentants (Takanat Hashavim). He relied on the famous statement of our rabbis, “It is time to serve the Lord, go against your Torah.” The Rambam closed this responsum with a significant, profoundly religious comment, “and the Lord in His mercy will forgive our sins….”
Mercy and Pragmatism Temper a Strict Halakhic Interpretation
The Rambam recognized that his decision is in violation of the ideal halakhic standard. However, he allowed his human insight to cope with the problem realistically, and he invoked other halakhic standards to justify himself. As a true man of reason and faith, he dealt with the situation sensibly while relying on God’s mercy. God will understand the motivations for this halakhic decision and will either approve or forgive. In any case, what must be done will be done.
In support of the Rambam’s approach, Rabbi Uziel cites several Talmudic sources that reflect the same attitude. It is better to choose the lesser of two evils, even when the choice is not ideal. It is better to stop adding fuel to evil now, rather than risk an increase in transgression.
Based on this attitude, Rabbi Uziel says that when an intermarried couple comes to a beit din seeking the conversion of the non-Jewish partner, we must allow such a conversion. We may not take the haughty position that these are wicked people who deserve to suffer the fate of transgressors. On the contrary, by coming to halakhic authorities the couple displays a desire to avoid transgression. They do not want to reject the Torah but want to be included in the Jewish community.
As was stated earlier, if we are permitted to convert one who is already married to a Jewish mate, we may certainly convert one who wishes to marry a Jewish partner in the future. Even if we know that the main and perhaps only reason for the conversion is marriage, yet when all is said and done such a conversion is still halakhically valid. But Rabbi Uziel considers such conversions not only to be permissible, but actually morally required. Rabbis are not only allowed to convert a non-Jew for the purposes of marriage, but are urged not to step away from the positive responsibility to do so. In support of this idea, Rabbi Uziel referred to the strict chastisements of the prophet Malachi against those who married out of the faith.
“Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the holiness of the Lord which He loves and has married the daughter of a strange god [bat el nehar]. May the Lord cut off to the man that does this…” (Malachi, 2:11-12).
In view of the stringent prohibition of marrying a bat el nehar Rabbi Uziel argues that it is better to convert the non-Jewish partner so that the Jewish partner could be spared from this severe transgression. Such conversion is also better for the children who would be born to the couple since they could now be considered legally as Jews. Considering the alternatives of conversion or intermarriage, Rabbi Uziel ruled in favor of conversion.
Rabbi Uziel, however, qualifies his opinion in that he feels that the judges should do everything they can to break off the projected marriage and resort to conversion only when it is clear that the couple definitely will not be dissuaded. The judges should direct their hearts to God when they perform the conversion, and “the merciful God will forgive.”
It is clear that Rabbi Uziel offers a halakhic perspective that reflects a profoundly sympathetic and understanding spirit. Recognizing the practical realities of our world, it is essential that halakhic authorities courageously respond to the needs. Ours must not be a haughty and elite attitude towards would-be converts. We have a moral obligation to convert those who seek conversion, not only for their sakes but for the sakes of their children. Of course, we must make every effort to teach them the Torah and to encourage their adherence to the mitzvot [commandments].
But in the final analysis, we must put our faith in human reason and compassion, and, certainly, we must put our faith in God ( Vehu Rachum Yekhaper … [And He, The Merciful One, will make amends]).
Reprinted with permission from The Conversion Crisis: Essays from the Pages of Tradition (Ktav), edited by Emanuel Feldman and Joel B. Wolowelsky.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.