American Reform Responsa

65. Gerut and the Question of Belief

(Vol. XCII, 1982, pp. 211-213)

QUESTION: A young woman wishes to convert to Judaism. She has given her reasons for doing so as follows. She will marry a Jewish man and wants to establish a home which shall be unified religiously. She has been impressed by the strength of Jewish family life and by its close-knit unity. Her ethical and moral values coincide with those of Judaism; she is strongly committed to Jewish ethical values, and has considerable interest in Israel and Zionism. She does, however, consider herself agnostic and doubts whether her attitude will change. In all of these matters she is in complete agreement with her Jewish fiance. She feels no attachment to her former Christian background. Can we accept such an individual as a convert to Judaism? (D.O., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

ANSWER: The traditional approach to converts was to warn them that they were joining a persecuted community and that many obligations were incumbent upon them. This was followed by a discussion of the ritual necessary for conversion (Yev. 46, 47; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 268; Yad, Hil. Isurei Bi-a 15). It is clear that the "obligations" were the mitzvot and, of course, it was understood that all of these were of divine origin. Therefore, the source of the mitzvot had to be accepted. Modern Orthodox authorities have generally rejected converts who join us for the sake of marriage. Some would accept them in order to avoid the conversion by Reform rabbis (Mendel Kirshbaum, Menachem Meshiv, #9), because civil marriage has preceded, or because the couple is living together (David Hoffman, Melamed Lehoil, Even Ha-ezer 8, 10; Yoreh De-a 85). Similar arguments have been advanced by Meshulam Kutner in Uketora Ya-asu, and by Moses Feinstein in Igerot Mosheh, Even Ha-ezer 27. However, the greatest number of Orthodox authorities have rejected these arguments (e.g., Joseph Saul Nathanson, Jacob Ettlinger, and Yehiel Weinberg). Their rejection, even for consideration as converts, was based upon the ulterior motivation and the likelihood that they would not accept all of the commandments which are not generally observed in the Jewish community today and probably not kept by the Jewish partner (Isaac Herzog, Heichal Yitschak, Even Ha-ezer I, #20; Meir Arak, Imrei Yosher I, #176; Abraham Kook, Da-at Kohen, #154; Moses Feinstein, Igerot Mosheh, Yoreh De-a I, #157, 160; Even Ha-ezer III, #4; CCAR Yearbook, vol. 2, pp. 66ff; Rabbi's Manual, pp. 17ff). It is, therefore, quite clear that in Judaism, belief in God has been considered and was implied as a basis for conversion. The nature of that belief may have varied considerably, as there has always been wide latitude in Judaism and many divergent concepts have been acceptable.

The Biblical figure Ruth has generally been taken as the prototype for all later converts. Her classical statement (in Ruth 1:16) mentioned God only at its conclusion, leading some commentators to the conclusion that while rejection of pagan beliefs was considered essential, belief in God might be achieved gradually. The Biblical Book of Job and many of the psalms display questions verging on agnosticism. Some Spanish Jewish philosophers and those of Renaissance Italy expressed similar doubts. Such thoughts were, however, rejected in the more restrictive ghettos of Central and Eastern Europe. In modern times the writings of Mordecai Kaplan, Martin Buber, Walter Kaufman, and a host of others have presented a variety of radical positions, sometimes close to agnosticism. Sections of the English prayers in the service of Gates of Prayer are written from this questioning stance. Many prospective converts have been and will be motivated by the openness of Judaism which encourages exploration of all ideas even while demanding that the Jewish path of life (Halacha) be followed. The woman in question does not deny the existence of God and is not an atheist. We would not have accepted her if she denied the existence of God, but we should accept this convert with the feeling that her attachment to Judaism and the knowledge of it are sufficient to bring her into Judaism and to help her develop a commitment to this religion. As her Jewish life continues, she may also change her views on the nature of God.

Walter Jacob, Chairman

Isaac Neuman

Leonard S. Kravitz

Harry A. Roth

Rav A. Soloff

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.