American Reform Responsa


(Vol. III, 1893, pp. 69ff)

Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Central Conference:

Your Committee, appointed in last year's conference, to whom were referred the papers on the subject of circumcision of adult proselytes (Milat Gerim), beg leave to present the following report to the consideration of your honorable body.

The papers before us in vour Yearbook of 1891-92 are as follows

1. A paper by Dr. Aaron Hahn of Cleveland (Yearbook, pp. 56-69)

2. A paper by Dr. Isaac Schwab of St. Joseph (ibid., pp. 69-84).

3. Responses to Dr. Henry Berkowitz of Kansas City (one to the Rev. Mr. Bien of Vicksburg) on the same subject by the Rev. Dr. Felsenthal of Chicago; Prof. Mielziner of Cincinnati; Sonnenschein, then of St. Louis; Gottheil of New York; Moses of Louisville; Schreiber, then of Little Rock; Landsberg of Rochester; Hecht of Milwaukee; besides a number of reprints from different denominational journals, which were not referred to your committee.

(Vol. III, 1893, pp. 73-95)

A careful perusal of all these papers resulted in the undoubted information that all but two of the authorities mentioned are in favor of discontinuing the practice ("Shev ve-al ta-aseh") of circumcision of adult proselytes, while several are in favor of retaining the practice of the ritual bath (Tevila). Dr. Schreiber, in his epistle to Dr. Berkowitz, adds to the former a respectable number of European authorities, and the reprints from denominational journals swell the number of the former considerably.

The two authorities opposed to the discontinuance of the rites are Professor Dr. Mielziner, from the Rabbinical standpoint, and the Rev. Dr. Schwab, also from the Biblical standpoint. The latter, however, admits (Yearbook, p. 83): "If any changes in the mode of admitting them [proselytes] have to be made, it must, we propose, be done on the independent account that modern American Reform Judaism [is] desirous of it...But it must not be attempted under cover of a relative authority from the so-called rabbinical age."

The difference of opinion in regard to the ritual bath (Tevila) and the strong negative feeling in regard to circumcision (Milat Gerim), necessitated your committee to reinvestigate the entire subject with the following results.

The Union of Israel

The foundation of Judaism is the Pentateuch. This is historical Judaism. Its provisions and teachings may be differently expounded, reduced to practice, and applied to meet emergencies, according to different places, ages, and circumstances (honest, free thought is a privilege of man older than all literary works) without disturbing the unity of Judaism. The various phases of Judaism in the prophetic time and in the time of the Hebrews' Second Commonwealth, Tannaim, Amoraim, Savoraim, and Geonim, in Palestine, Persia and Alexandria; in the philosophic, rationalistic, rabbinistic, and Kabbalistic times of all succeeding ages--all are no more than the garments of the same body, more or less justifiable in their respective times and places, or perhaps every one legitimate at its time as far as it was based upon the Pentateuch provisions and teachings. It follows, therefore, that American Judaism, being one of these historical phases, is no less in union with Israel and in unity with Judaism than any of its other phases ever was, as long as it is based upon the Pentateuchal provisions and teachings. This is to say that American Judaism remains in unity with Judaism in general, as long as it adheres to the provisions and teachings of the Pentateuch, even according to our own construction.

The Pentateuch Permits the Reception of Proselytes

The first preliminary question, then, must be whether the Pentateuch ordains or even permits the reception of proselytes from the midst of the non-Israelites. We know that the Torah permits to receive proselytes from among the Gentiles.

1. In Deuteronomy 23:4, it is ordained: "An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord forever." The Ammonites and Moabites--the descendants of Lot and his daughters, according to Genesis l9--were two petty nations southeast of Palestine. Only these, and no other nationality, are "forever" debarred from entering the congregation of the Lord. This naturally involves the permission of the Torah to receive proselytes from the midst of other nationalities. The Rabbinical expounders understand this prohibition to refer only to the males of Ammon and Moab and not to the females, on account of the fact given in the Book of Ruth that the royal family of David descended from a Moabite woman; and they interpret the prohibition of intermarriage to mean only that the Ammonite and Moabite shall not be permitted to marry a daughter of Israel (see Rashi, Ramban, and Targum Yerushalmi in loc. cit.). The law, however, was understood in the Talmud (Berachot 28a, "Yehuda ger Amoni") to the effect that no male proselytes from Ammon and Moab shall be received in Israel. Therefore, it proves that the Torah permits to receive proselytes from every nationality, race, and tribe (except those specified), and is neither racial nor tribal in its provisions.

2. Numbers 15:15: "The congregation [as a religious body] hath one [and the same] statute for you and the Ger that dwelleth permanently with you; it is an ordinance forever in your generations; as ye are, so shall be the Ger before the Lord." The word Ger occurs fifty-odd times in the law of Moses, and always signifies the non-Israelite who associated himself permanently with the Israelites. The Law guarantees to him all rights and privileges of the native Israelite (haezrach). He is included in the general law of humanity, "Love thy neighbor as thyself" (Leviticus 19:19), as is specifically stated in verses 33 and 34: "And if a Ger sojourneth with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. The Ger that dwelleth with you shall be with you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself," etc. This is repeated emphatically in Deuteronomy 10:19, preceded by the statement that God loves the Ger, it is enjoined, "And ye shall love the Ger."

Although this covers the whole ground of man's natural rights, claims, and privileges, yet the law specifies in numerous instances what should be done for the Ger, or also what he should do to exercise these rights and privileges. Thus, in all ordinances concerning alms to the poor, benefaction and assistance to the needy, recognition and protection by the administrators of the law, taking part in the ritual sacrifices of thanksgiving, rejoicing or atonement, and all services of the priesthood to the people--the Ger is mentioned specifically to have equal rights and claims with the native Israelite. This entire negation of all racial, tribal, or other limitations of human rights is extended to--or rather outdone--in the case of the fugitive slave: "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant that is escaped from his master unto thee. He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not oppress him" (Deut. 23:16-17).

To the best of our knowledge, there never existed, and there does not now exist, any code of laws in any other country with such provisions to protect, naturalize, and assimilate the alien, the foreigner, the stranger, or the Ger with the dominant nation, which so carefully enjoins respect for the dicta of humanity and justice. It seems, therefore, that the Torah invites non-Israelites to come and associate themselves with Israel. It holds out inducements to the alien, not of the seed of Abraham, which at that time no other people offered to one not of their kin, and even now the most enlightened nations offer with considerable limitations. There can be no doubt that the Pentateuch permits the reception of proselytes from all races and classes of men. That the prophets after Moses cherished this idea and predicted its universal success and realization, is evident from passages of the prophetic and psalmic scriptures. We only need to read, in order to be convinced thereof, Isaiah 2:1-4; 56:6-7; Micah 4:1-5; and Zachariah 14:9, 17:21. Still, with all that, there is no commandment in the Law and no suggestion in the Prophets to enjoin upon any man the duty to go forth and to make proselytes among the Gentiles. The fundamental literature of Judaism only permits and favors the reception of proselytes, but ordains nowhere that this should be done by any person.

The Torah Prescribes No Initiatory Observance at All for the Proselyte

The Pentateuch bestows particular care upon all particulars of man's private and public

life and his manifold relations to God and man, providing general and special laws, ordinances, and statutes for almost every doing of man. Furthermore, the same Torah legislates as carefully and humanely for the protection, benefit, and well-being of the foreigner, stranger, and alien of any kind, and evidently holds out most liberal inducements to the Ger to come and affiliate himself with the congregation of Israel, hence the coming in of such Gerim was certainly sanctioned and expected by the lawgivers. If we take all this into consideration, it must appear strange that the same Torah prescribes no initiatory observance for the incoming proselyte--no law, no ordinance, no provision whatever as to what the proselyte must do or what must be done with or for him to make of the pagan a member of the congregation of Israel. The argument e silentio, basing on the absolute silence of the Torah on this point, would induce the common-sense reasoner to the conclusion that the author of the Torah wanted no initiatory observances imposed on the Ger, and that the declaration of an honest man that he is a monotheist in good faith and in perfect harmony with Israel's doctrine and canon should be all-sufficient. So, indeed, Yom Tov Lipmann Muehlhausen, in his Sefer Hanitsachon to Genesis 17:10 (Hackspan edition), expresses himself: "Ein emuna teluya bamila, ela balev," "Faith in Judaism depends not on circumcision; it depends on the heart." In the same sense, the great rabbi Elijah Mizrachi in his Sefer Mayim Amukim (Responsum no. 27) expresses himself thus in regard to the acceptance of a proselyte: "Umide-oraita sagi bekabalat Torah bifnei beit din bilvad," "According to the Torah, the acceptance of the Torah before a college of three is all-sufficient." Still clearer--and to the same effect--Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh de Modena, in his book Bechinat Hakabala, expressed his opinion like Elijah Mizrachi.

But we do not propose to depend on any argument e silentio. We only wish to establish the fact the Torah prescribes no law, ordinance, statute, or any provision in any other form, for the modus of accepting a proselyte into the congregation of Israel, from which it follows that none of those rites is law of Moses (mideoraita), hence they could be only Rabbinical law (miderabanan). And on this point we have in our favor the whole Rabbinical literature, as we shall see instantly.

We open the Rabbinical Code by Moses Maimonides and read in Hil. Melachim 10.7 "Hamila nitstava bah Avraham yezar-o bilvad, shene-emar, 'Ata vezar-acha achareicha'...vehem hamechuyavin bamila." ("Circumcision was commanded to Abraham and his seed only, as said (Genesis 17), 'Thou and thy seed after thee'.... and they are obligated to circumcision"). This decision of Maimonides (see Kesef Mishneh) is based upon the Talmud, Sanhedrin 59, to which we will refer below. The same is the case with a former paragraph of Maimonides (ibid., 8.10): "Mosheh Rabbenu lo hinchil et haTorah vehamitzvot ela leYisra-el, shene-emar, 'Morasha kehilat Ya-akov,' ulechol harotseh lehitgayer mishe-ar ha-umot, shene-emar, 'Kachem kager,' aval mi shelo ratsa, ein kofin oto lekabel Torah umitzvot." ("Moses bequeathed the Torah and the Commandments to Israel only, as said (Deut. 30:4), 'an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob,' and anyone of the Gentiles who of his free will wishes to embrace it, as said (Num. 15:15), 'Like you is the Ger'; but none shall be coerced against his will to embrace the Torah and the Commandments.")

Herewith the principle in regard to the Abrahamitic rite is laid down once and for all: Circumcision is ordained in the Torah for the children of Abraham only. Every father in Israel (not the mother) has the duty to circumcise, or have circumcised, his son on the eighth day after his birth. If the father failed to perform this duty, the Rabbis add, it devolves on the uncircumcised son every day of his life to fulfill the commandment; if he also fails, the Beit Din may enforce it. Whoever is not of the seed of Abraham certainly is not charged with this duty. The Ger is one not of the seed of Abraham, one who attaches himself to the congregation of Israel as a monotheist, in perfect harmony with Israel's doctrine and canon. Hence (mide-oraita) he is a Ger (see also Exodus 12:48), without submitting to the Abrahamitic rite, or even to Korban and Tevila.

It is legitimate to infer from the various statements of the Torah concerning the equality of the Ger and the native Israelite that he--whenever he has become a Ger--is identified with the seed of Abraham. Therefore it is an established custom to call the Ger in all sacerdotal matters "Ben Avraham Avinu," "Son of our Father Abraham." This is stated expressly and explicitly by Moses Maimonides, in his epistle to the learned and very distinguished proselyte, Obadiah of Palestine, who had asked him whether he, the Ger, should say his prayers, "Eloheinu velohei avoteinu" (Igeret Teshuvot HaRambam, Prague, Gersoni edition, 1726, p. 58b). Maimonides responded that "all persons, to the very end of all generations, who profess monotheism as it is written in the Torah, are of the disciples of our Father Abraham, they and all their descendants.... This shows that Abraham, our Father, is the father of his faithful descendants that walk in his ways, and the father of his disciples and these are all the proselytes."

All this, however, does not say that the Ger should be circumcised. It merely says that he, after he has become a Ger, has also become an Abrahamite; consequently he has the same duty to have his sons circumcised as the Abrahamite must do: "Chayav adam lamol et beno."

Evidence from the Established Mosaic Commandments

The same is evident also from all Rabbinical authorities specifying the six hundred thirteen (or eleven) commandments of the Mosaic law. None of them-- neither the followers of Halachot Gedolot, such as Sefer Mitzvot Gadol and Sefer Mitzvot Katan, who count some Rabbinical laws among the six hundred thirteen; nor the followers of Moses Maimonides, such as Nahmanides (with some amendments, hasagot), Aaron Halevy in his Sefer Hachinuch, and down to Moses Galanti's Eleh Hamitzvot (Amsterdam, 1713) and Israel Landau's Chok LeYisra-el (Prague, 1798), who count among the six hundred and thirteen only those expressly stated in the Pentateuch, and call all laws contained in the Mishna and Talmud "Rabbinical," as stated in Maimonides' Sefer Hamitzvot (2nd kelal) and twice in his responses1--none of them count among the Mosaic commandments any of the initiatory observances for the proselyte as being ordained in the Torah. The former class of authors, indeed, include among the commandatory laws "Mitzvah al Beit Din lamol hagerim shenitgayeru," to which is added in Sefer Charedim: "Not of the six hundred and thirteen" (p. 29b in the Venice, 1601, edition). In Hirsch Jost's Kitsur S. Ch. it is added, "Be-Erets Yisra-el" (edition Fuerth, 1849, p. 42).

This tells plainly enough that these initiatory observances are Rabbinical ordinances, and according to this it becomes the duty of the Beit Din "in Palestine" (and not outside thereof, having no jurisdiction) to have the Ger circumcised. But the Ger himself, even according to those rigid Rabbinists, has not the duty to be circumcised. All this, we feel convinced, proves beyond doubt that the Torah ordains no initiatory observances for the Ger, and so from this standpoint of canon law the course before us would be decided. But one of the papers before us (Dr. Schwab's), discussing the matter in an extra-judicial method, is intended to controvert our argument, and must therefore be taken into consideration.

Our position, opposite that of Dr. Schwab, is simply this: These initiatory observances for the Ger, in order to be obligatory, must be canon law, and this is with us statutory, i.e., the existence or non-existence of any particular statute must be proved by documentary evidence, and by no other logical or historical argument. Our canon law, according to all Rabbinical authorities, consists of the six hundred thirteen Mosaic commandments. All kinds of proofs attempting to show that such law or custom existed at some time and place amount to a mere probability (and not certainty) of the existence or non-existence of such a statute; hence, it is not canon law. Therefore, the authorities mentioned above accept neither Rabbinical enactment nor deduction or induction from the Torah as canon law. It is the method of Dr. Schwab's argument in this connection which makes his conclusions illegitimate. We must analyze some of his positions to establish our own.


Dr. Isaac Schwab (Yearbook, 1891-92, pp. 69-70) states at the outset: "It cannot be questioned that since immemorial antiquity, the initiatory rite [of circumcision] was insisted on in Israel as an indispensable requisite for the complete admission to their community of Gentile aspirants...And it may be safely asserted, too, that from the early period of Jacob's sons to the latter of Israel's Second Commonwealth, no Israelitish authority has ever relaxed that stern demand. The insistence of the Abrahamitic rite for the formal entrance into the congregation of Israel-- Kahal--was the rule laid down immovably and observed conscientiously throughout all ages by our ancestors of the East, who adhered faithfully to the belief and worship of God."

The position of our learned colleague is definite, clear, and apodictic. No commentary is necessary. However, he maintains in advance that he forms his conclusions "with the aid of historical data" (p. 69), and this is exactly the point which makes his position untenable. For if he did succeed in producing such data, demonstrating the assumption advanced--which he actually did not, as we shall instantly see--it could only prove that at a certain time, in a certain place, and under such and such circumstances, there was insistence upon submission to the Abrahamitic rite by the Gentile aspiring to enter the congregation of Israel. No amount of such data could establish the fact that the Torah, Moses, or the prophets (at any time or anywhere) ordained, commanded, enacted, or in any other manner imposed on Israel such and such initiatory observances for the Gentile convert. As long as this fact is not established, those observances cannot be accepted as Biblical ordinances, as commanded in the Law (mide-oraita); hence, they are not necessarily integral portions of Judaism. The question is not: What have certain persons at certain times done--they may have acted on their own responsibility and been guided by their own convictions or opinions--the question is: What are we as Israelites commanded to do? What is canon law and what is not so?

Let us see how the Rabbis of the Talmud reason on this proposition.

1. In the Gemara and Kelalei Hagemara it is laid down as an established rule: "Divrei Torah vedivrei kabala la yalfinan," i.e., "The words of the Law [in Pentateuch] must not be construed by the words of tradition." The term "Kabala" in this connection includes all post-Mosaic scriptures, as well as all narrative portions in the Mosaic books. No law can be based on or derived from any narrative and dignified as a law of the Torah (mide-oraita), which specifically ordains, "Ye shall not add" (to the Mosaic laws). This rule is certainly a wise one. If it would be considered legitimate to derive from narratives ("historical data") canon law, commandment, ordinance, or statute--these would become as boundless as all products of fantasy. One would derive from the story of Adam and Eve's sin and punishment that every sinner must be expelled from house and home, even if it was a paradise. Another would deduce from the story of Noah and his son Ham's misdeed that in similar cases not only the son but also the grandson must be punished and cursed. Again, another might derive quite a number of ugly laws and ordinances from the narratives in Numbers 31, Joshua 7, Judges 11 or 19, I Samuel 5 and 6, II Samuel 21, I Kings 2, and many more "historical data." The fact is, no historical data can be turned into Mosaic law. But the question before us is whether the initiatory observances for the proselyte are or are not ordained in the Torah.

2. If Dr. Schwab holds (as one might understand by inference) that whatever follows with logical necessity from historical data or the words of prophets recorded in Holy Writ must have the same canonic force as the commandment of the Torah; if he holds that it is anyhow "Me-ein De-oraita," i.e., similar to Mosaic law, concerning which it is maintained in the Talmud that "chavivin divrei soferim yoter midivrei Torah" ("The words of the scribes are more precious than the words of the Torah")--then we can disabuse his mind by first class authority,2 especially by the rule laid down by Moses Maimonides. He advances in his Sefer Hamitzvot fourteen rules, by which to ascertain what is intended in the Pentateuch as canonical law. The second of these rules states literally not to count among the 613 Mosaic laws any derived from the Torah by means of the thirteen hermeneutic rules on which the Rabbinical law is based. He explains this rule at more length in an epistle addressed to Rabbi Pinchas ben Meshulam. He says there that no law or ordinance in Mishna, Baraita, or Talmud--not even the so-called "Halacha leMosheh miSinai--none at all not explicitly stated in the Pentateuch, can be called Din Torah, "canonical law." These are all divrei soferim, "Rabbinical law," unless (as is the case in three or four instances only) it is expressly stated in the Talmud that this law is canonical and not Rabbinical (see Igeret Teshuvot by Maimonides, Prague, 1726, Gersoni edition, p. 24b). It is evident, therefore, that the most convincing speculation on historical data or on an expressed law cannot produce for us a canonical law. Hence, the initiatory observances for the proselyte cannot possibly be canonical.

But our learned essayist fails to produce historical data to support his position. He begins with pointing to Genesis 34, the story of Shechem and his people, who were massacred by Simeon and Levi after they had submitted to circumcision as the condition for entire parity. This piece of vile strategy--which Jacob upon his death-bed yet denounced (Genesis 49:5-7)--could hardly be accepted as a testimony for anything of a religious or moral character. If Simeon and Levi treacherously said so to the Shechemites, it does not prove that it was so.

However, we need not argue from this standpoint to invalidate the demonstrative force of the historical data cited, including Exodus 4:24. In the Gemara and Kelalei Hagemara, the following established rule is laid down: "Ein mevi-in re-aya mimikra shenichtav kodem matan Torah," "No proof [for a law] can be brought from Scripture written prior to the Sinaic revelation."3

This story of Shechem is reported to have transpired prior to the Sinaic revelation. It is evident that if it had any demonstrative power (which, prima vista, it does not), it could not prove that we should abide by this rule as a part of the canonic law; or else we could prove from Abraham and Sarah that it is lawful to take in marriage one's half-sister (Genesis 20:12), or from the case of Jacob that one may take in marriage two sisters simultaneously, or--as from the story of Yehuda and Tamar (Genesis 38)--many other things which the law of Moses prohibits.

Dr. Schwab then states: "As far as we can judge from extant history, there never was before the apostle of the Gentiles, Paul, a Jewish authority that doubted the indispensable obligation of the initiatory rite upon any convert from paganism, who wished to become totally assimilated to the Israelites as to all communal and spiritual claims." This e silentio argument might have some value if it did not stand opposite the stubborn fact that besides Exodus 12:48 and Joshua 5, down to Hyrcan (end of second century B.C.E.), not a word of law, history, or otherwise, exists in all Jewish literature regarding the initiatory rites of a pagan or any other man wishing to embrace Judaism. It is, therefore, just as proper and legitimate to conclude from their complete silence on this point, down to two centuries before the fall of Jerusalem, that no such or other initiatory rites were established or existed at all (we will attempt further on to prove that nothing was fixed in this matter even after the fall of Jerusalem). Anyhow, this argument e silentio is as forcible as Dr. Schwab's.

Paul's work done among the Gentiles does not concern us here, especially not in regard to the Abrahamitic rite, as he, in the earlier days of his ministry, denounced the entire law and circumcision fiercely, and later on he praised both, and not only ordained the enforcement of the law in a case of adultery, but always argued from it, especially in the case of his son and his assistant's wages. We only take exception to the conclusion that circumcision of proselytes must have been the common practice among Israelites, because the apostles insisted upon it and Paul opposed it. This rather appears to prove that there was nothing fixed or established in Paul's time about the initiatory rites of proselytes, and the general difference of opinion in the matter existed also in the apostolic church. Paul was a stern Pharisee and remained steadfastly upon this platform, to which he added but one plank, viz., the Messiah has come, the Last Judgment is at hand, consequently, the laws and commandments are no longer obligatory--just as the Pharisees maintained to be the case le-atid lavo.

The next passage to which Dr. Schwab and all others point is Exodus 12:48, where all of them suppose to find an express prohibition for the Ger to eat of the Paschal lamb until circumcised. In the papers before us different arguments, pro and con, are based on this Pentateuchal ordinance which--strange to say--according to Rabbinical interpretation, might be understood to the contrary, viz., that one is a Ger without being circumcised. We point to Mechilta to Exodus 12, Talmud Pesachim 28, Targumim Onkelos and Yerushalmi, and Rashi and Ramban in the same place. According to these expounders of the Law, "bal ben nechar" (in verse 43) signifies that no Hebrew renegade should be permitted to eat the Paschal lamb, and "vechol arel" (in verse 49) that no uncircumcised Hebrew should be permitted to eat of it. So the two mitzvot are invariably stated in "Taryag." The exclusion in both cases refers to the sons of Abraham only, to those who are commanded in Genesis 17:9-14 to be circumcised. The Rabbis were evidently led to this interpretation of ben nechar and vechol arel by the fact that Milat Gerim is ordained nowhere in the Torah, and by the fact that in Deuteronomy 16:1-8, the whole ordinance of the Passover is repeated with several additions, without any reference to circumcision, so that the passage in Exodus may be understood to refer only to Pesach Mitsrayim. The passage in Exodus, referring literally to the original commandment in Genesis, tells us in verse 44 that this is not a racial or tribal commandment, for the slave bought for money, if circumcised (and thus belonging to the household of the Hebrew as a member thereof), may eat of the Paschal sacrifice. In verse 45 we are informed that the Toshav and the Sachir--the transient aliens (or, according to Ibn Ezra, also the transient Israelites), persons belonging to no Hebrew family (see 12:3)--shall not be permitted to eat of this sacrifice. Verse 47 expresses the commandment that all the congregation "shall make it," viz., have the duty to make the Paschal sacrifice, while the Eved, Toshav, and Sachir are not commanded to do so. And now in verse 48 we come to the "Ger, who dwells with thee permanently." He is no Eved, Toshav, or Sachir; he is evidently a real Ger, who has the duty to make the same sacrifice (compare "ya-asu" and "ve-asu"), but he is not circumcised; hence, a man is a Ger even if he is not circumcised. He is not forbidden to eat of this sacrifice as are Eved, Sachir, and Toshav. It is not said of him "Lo yochal bo," "He should not eat of it."4 As a Ger, he has the duty not only to make this Paschal sacrifice, but also to have his children, servants, etc., circumcised, as commanded in Genesis 17. If he wants to perform this Paschal duty like the native Israelite, he must do it in his family and household (Exodus 12:3-4). By being himself a Ger, he has not established a family and household in Israel as long as he has not performed his first paternal duty as an Israelite, viz., to circumcise his sons. Therefore, verse 48 says: "And if a Ger dwelleth with thee, and he wisheth to make the Passover [like other Israelites], let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to make it, and he will be like the native of the land, although the uncircumcised Israelite dare not eat of it ('Vechol arla-ei devar Yisra-el,' Targum Yerushalmi)". Because that Israelite is commanded and the Ger is not commanded in the Torah to be circumcised, but, being a Ger, he is subject to the same Torah and enjoys the same rights and privileges as the native Israelite (verse 49). Anyhow, no unprejudiced reader of the Pentateuchal passage can get over the plain statement, that one is a genuine Ger before he is circumcised.

Dr. Schwab furthermore argues (Yearbook, p. 71), "The statement repeated several times in the Mosaic code, that one law should govern the native and the stranger [Ger], can literally mean nothing else than that a foreigner, settled in a Jewish land, should be bound to live up in all respects to the same laws as the Israelites have to observe." The two other points which Dr. Schwab makes on the same page have been controverted above.

The repetition of the same provision with certain special laws, we think, rather proves on the hermeneutic rule of "shenei ketuvim haba-im be-echad" that this provision applies to these particular laws only, and could not be extended to any other law. If the Torah had intended to ordain that the Ger must observe all laws like the native Israelite, it would have ordained so once and for all, and repeated the same only where some new point in this connection was to be suggested. As the matter stands now, we can only apply it to the particular cases mentioned in the respective law or laws. Besides, it is evident from the Torah that the Ger was not expected to perform all ceremonial laws like the native Israelite. He was not forbidden to eat nevela (Deut. 14:21) or gid hanasheh (Gen. 32:33); therefore, it is stated especially in regard to eating blood, that the Ger, too, shall abstain from blood. If all dietary laws had been intended for the Ger, this particular provision concerning the eating of blood would be entirely superfluous. The Ger is exempted from dwelling in booths during the Feast of Tabernacles. The Torah ordains: "Kol ezrach beYisra-el yeshev basukkot" (Leviticus 23:43). This, however, might lead one to premise that the Ger is exempted also from rejoicing on the festivals; therefore, it is mentioned explicitly (Deut. 15) that this is not the case. It is evident from those very provisions that the Ger was expected to observe all the moral laws like the native Israelite, including all the laws concerning the altar and the sanctuary, Sabbath and Day of Atonement, and all the national holy days. In all other respects, the Torah only commands the Israelite what he should do for the Ger, what privileges are especially granted, and what protection the nation or congregation owes to him--all of which is plainly contained in the main law, "Ye shall love the Ger," and "Thou shalt love him like thyself." It is correct, therefore, what is stated in Mechilta and Sifrei: "Ba hakatuv vehishva et hager la-ezrach bechol hamitzvot shebaTorah," "Scripture declares the equality of the Ger with the native Israelite in all commandments of the Torah." We must only understand that the actual signification of "hishva" is lizchut and not lechova, viz., the Ger enjoys all rights, privileges, and promises of the Torah without being expected to submit to all ceremonial laws and ordinances as the native Israelite should.5

Aside from all this argument, and independent thereof, Dr. Schwab's premises bear no relation to the case before us. He discusses the duties of the Ger after he has entered upon that state of obligation, i.e., after he is a Ger he must do so and so. Nobody doubts that with the new faith he embraces, he accepts also new duties. The question before us, however, is of an entirely different nature. We ask: What must a person do, or what must be done for him, to make him a Ger? Must he pass through certain observances or initiatory rites, and is circumcision one of them? It is only after this question is solved that the other comes up, i.e., What must the Ger do as a member of the congregation whose faith he embraced? The answer to our main question is that--according to the Torah, and also as the rabbis of the Talmud and the compilers of the 613 Pentateuchal commandments understand it--no initiatory rites at all are prescribed; hence the decision of Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi: "Umide-oraita sagi bekabalat Torah bifnei beit din, etc." ("According to the Torah, the main declaration before a college of three to accept the Torah as the canon, suffices for the proselyte [to receive him into the congregation of Israel] also, without circumcision and without the ritual bath."

It must be admitted (leika man defalig) that the initiatory rites in question are not canon law, are ordained nowhere in Holy Writ, and are not mide-oraita. This, as far as the legality of setting aside these rites "Shev ve-al ta-aseh," is herewith decided for this body, whose declared standpoint is the historical and not the one-sided Rabbinical legalism, especially in the case of "Shev ve-al ta-aseh," where even the Rabbinical casuists admit that "Beyad beit din la-akor davar min haTorah be'Shev ve-al ta-aseh."'

It Cannot Properly Be Called Rabbinical Law

Still there are two--one by Professor Dr. Melziner, and the otherRabbi Dr. Schwab--from which it appears, although it is not stated expressly, that these initiatory rites are Rabbinical law (miderabanan). On the strength of this, the Amoraim adopted in the Talmud (Shabbat 137b) a passage from the Tosefta demanding of the Ger the blessing "Baruch ata, Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetsivanu al milat gerim." They did so not because it was presumed that God commanded it, but on the basis of "La dela tasur." The Amoraim did the same with other Rabbinic laws (Mitzvot Derabanan), such as likro Megila, likro et haHalel, lishmoa kol shofar, netilat lulav, kiddush hayom beyom tov sheni, lehadlik ner Chanuka--none of which is commanded in the Torah. This beracha was not accepted in the code before Isaac Alfasi (12th century), because it is evidently a fallacy, as God nowhere commanded the Ger to be circumcised, and those Amoraim would not permit the Israelite who performs the rite to say this beracha. He is only wanted to say "Asher Kideshanu bemitzvotav vetsivanu al hamila." It is evident, therefore, that those Amoraim, like the Tosefta, held that Milat Gerim is a Rabbinical law just like Milat Avadim.

The question concerning "La dela tasur" has not been referred to this committee, consequently we cannot discuss it. In this particular case, however, the Talmud Yerushalmi has already decided (Pe-a 2): "Ein lomedin lo min hahalachot velo mehagadot velo mehatosefta." Therefore, these berachot, being taken from the Tosefta, are not Rabbinical law.

What Is Rabbinical Law?

What is Rabbinical law, according to Rabbinical jurisprudence? The usual reply to this query is that it is law not stated expressly in Holy Writ, but ordained in the so-called Oral Law, Torah Shebe-al Peh. Here the question arises: Where is the origin and authority of this law, or these laws? The answer is this:

1. In takanot and gezerot, i.e., ordinances (commendatory or prohibitory) ordained by any lawful Sanhedrin or any other authoritative body, or by any teacher high in authority, such as Ezra and his successors. In this latter case, it is most always added "uveit dino," "and his court," telling indirectly that no one person was vested with the authority to enact or ordain such law. The case before us is entirely excluded from this kind of Oral Law. For, in all collections before us--down to the works of Zachary Frankel, Jacob Bruell, Isaac Hirsch Weiss, and all the others who wrote on the subject--there is no record that at any time a takana or gezera was ordained concerning the initiatory rites of proselytes.

2. In "Halacha leMosheh miSinai"--i.e., a law or rule which is supposed to have been given orally to Moses from Sinai, or rather a custom, the origin of which is unknown and is not premised in the Torah. From Maimonides down to the author of Shenei Luchot Haberit, down to the Yalkut Shim-oni and to Dr. Herzfeld and to all authorities that have written on this point--there is no mention of such a Halacha concerning these initiatory rites.

3. In the Kabbala ("the tradition"). Here it is said in general and without any qualification: "Im kabala hi, nekabel."

4. In laws based on the Torah by means of the hermeneutic rules ("Shelosh esreh midot"), thirteen of which were fixed by Rabbi Ishmael, to which was added Mi-ut Veribui.

If there is anywhere in the Talmud such a kabbala or such a derasha as named in 3 and 4 above, it has not been pointed out in the papers before us, and we--with all our industrious research--found none referring to the origin of these initiatory rites. It is, therefore, no matter of surprise to us. (Supposed exceptions will be noticed below.)

Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi in his entire Mishna laid down no rule, ordinance, or direction concerning the initiatory rites of the proselyte. This must be a matter of surprise to those who consider those rites Rabbinical law. Once in the Mishna (Keritot 2.1) there is inserted contrary to Rabbi Yehuda's setam mishna (evidently an interpolation) a dictum of Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob: "Ger mechusar kapara ad sheyizarek alav hadam," "The Ger is not fully atoned [to eat of the sacrifices] till the blood [of his sacrifice] is sprinkled upon the altar for him or in his name." It is from this passage of doubtful authenticity that the Talmud learns that the Ger must make a sacrifice as an initiatory rite. But this was certainly not the opinion of the author of the Mishna. If it had been, he must at least have given a name to the Ger's sacrifice (to be Ola, Chatat, or Asham), which he does nowhere, not even in "Eizehu mekomo" (Zevachim 5).

The passage in Keritot 9a proves that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi did not consider the initiatory rites as Rabbinical law. It says there as a baraita: "Rabbi omer, 'Kachem ka-avoteichem; ma avoteihem lo nichnesu laberit ela bemila utevila vehartsa-at damim, af hem lo yikanesu laberit ela bemila utevila vehartsa-at damim."' This was certainly not intended to be Halacha, Rabbinical law, or else the Rabbi must have stated it in the Mishna. Besides this, the derasha is not one of Halacha. It is evidently a reminiscence from the school chats on "Kachem hager." It is based on no commandment of the Torah and no tradition; it is a personal and unsupported opinion of Rabbi, which never was intended to be a law, and was therefore not placed in the Mishna. This is provided that Rabbi Yehuda is indeed the author of this passage, which is at least doubtful, as the hartsa-at damim is contrary to Rabbi's Setam Mishna, and reads as if it was said by Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob instead of plain Rabbi (the Talmud, further on, refers to him with "Amar Mar," which is not the usual way of referring to Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi).

This silence of the Mishna is to us a proof e silentio that the author of the Mishna did not consider those initiatory rites Rabbinical law. When Professor Dr. Mielziner points to Beit Hillel's (or, according to another version, Rabbi Akiva's) "Haporesh min ha-orla keforesh min hakever," which occurs twice in the Mishna in Pesachim and in Eduyot, without having become a law anywhere in regard to the purification of the Ger, he does not state that it was Halacha or a moral opinion, or that the Mishna takes any further notice of it. And we--with our limited knowledge of Rabbincal law--cannot see how any rite could be called Rabbinical law if it is not based upon any of the above four points, and has not the sanction of the author of the Mishna. That the Baraita and the older Tannaim had knowledge of said rites, and yet the Mishna had nothing to say about them, can only prove that two different opinions on these rites then prevailed, pro and con, as is evident also from the disagreement of Rabbis Joshua and Eliezer on Mila and Tevila, to which we will refer again after we have cast a glance on history. Here we will but call attention to Yerushalmi. Pe-a II, as quoted in Sefer Keritot 4.14

John Hyrcan and His Successor's Conversions

From the days of Joshua (Joshua 5) to the time of John Hyrcan, High Priest and Prince in Judea (134-107 B.C.E.), no record whatever exists of the practice in accepting proselytes. Like Holy Writ and the Aprocrypha, so all other records extant from that long period of history furnish not the least information as to the existence or nature of such initiatory rites. Moses himself, we are told in Deuteronomy 29 (we refer to this as an offset to the Rabbi's derasha on "Kachem kaavoteichem") made the covenant at the plain of Moab with an uncircumcised generation (comp. Joshua 5), among whom was also the Ger (Deuteronomy 29:10), who was certainly not circumcised. This covenant was made so "that He may establish thee today for a people unto Himself, and He may be unto thee a God, as He has said unto thee [including the Ger] and He has sworn unto thy fathers" (verse 12), after He had said, 'This day art thou become the people of the Lord, thy God."' It is evident that, according to this part of history, circumcision is not required of the Ger in order to enter the covenant of God. After this, all history, down to John Hyrcan, is entirely silent on this topic.

In his reign, we are told in Josephus, John Hyrcan vanquished the Idumeans, and forced upon them the faith of Judea and circumcision. The same was done by his successors to other conquered tribes. These facts, however, prove nothing in regard to proselytes, for all these conquered nationalities or tribes were of the seed of Abraham (on the one side of the country, by Ishmael and Esau, and on the other side, by the sons of Keturah, Abraham's second wife [Genesis 28:1-6]). Being of the seed of Abraham, they were commanded to be circumcised. This is acknowledged in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 59b) in regard to the sons of Keturah, but not in regard to the sons of Ishmael and Esau, who--it is maintained there-- were not included in the commandment given to Abraham and his seed after him. The passage in Sanhedrin reads thus: "Mila me-ikara le-Avraham hu, deka mazher leih Rachamana, 'Ve-ata et beriti tishmor, ata vezar-acha achareicha ledorotam.' Ata vezar-acha--in; enash acharina--la. Ela me-ata benei Yishma-el lichayevu. 'Ki beYitschak yikare lecha zara.' Benei Esav lichayevu. 'BeYitschakr--vela kol Yitschak. Matkif leh Rav Oshaya: 'Ela me-ata benei Ketura dela lichayevu?' Ha-amar Rabbi Yosei bar Avin ve-iteima Rabbi Yosei bar Chanina: 'Et beriti hefar--lerabot benei Ketura."'

This very piece of exegetic nicety in the Talmud, which was without any practical use in that time, is a fragment from the time of John Hyrcan, and tells one of the objections of the Pharisees to the arbitrary doings of John Hyrcan (who became in his advanced years a Sadducee). He decreed a circumcision of Edomites and Ishmaelites, contrary to the will and traditions of the Pharisees. John Hyrcan had no right to expound the law or to enact one. He possessed the executive power, but the judiciary and legislative powers were in the hands of the Sanhedrin, and this body was Pharisaean in his time (under Joshua ben Perachia and Nittai of Arbella). Therefore, there is no proof for the lawful existence of those initiatory rites to be derived from the doings of John Hyrcan and his successors. They forced circumcision upon the seed of Abraham, and applied it to Ishmaelites and Edomites, contrary to the then existing highest authority of the law. But the latter was done by the mandate of the sovereign or the supreme executive, which the Pharisees never acknowledged as a law.

No decree of any king ever was considered law in Israel. Herod and his family, however, were obliged to uphold that mandate of John Hyrcan as established law (to the best of our knowledge nobody else did) because firstly, it had become tradition of the court, and secondly, the Jewish citizenship of Herod and his family depended on the legality of John Hyrcan's decree concerning the Edomites. Therefore, some of the Herodian princesses would not marry uncircumcised men. With them this was perhaps a condition sine qua non, but this does not say by any means that it was law or common custom in Israel. We are entitled to the opinion that it was not, because of the numerous cases of Roman Gerim mentioned in the Talmud; the Yir-ei Adonai mentioned in the later psalms (who were neither Israelites, nor Levites, nor Aaronites), who feared the Lord and were identical with the "devout Gentiles" of the New Testament; and the Roman soldiers that embraced Judaism in Palestine. In all the proselyte stories abounding in Talmud and Midrash, no initiatory rites are even hinted at. Why? We say, because none were established.

The story of King Izates plainly shows that there prevailed different opinions in his time on this question, as one advised him to submit to the Abrahamitic rite and the other advised him not to do so (and both were Israelites, believers in the Law). Besides, with Izates it was a personal question of conscience (and not of formality or law) to be acknowledged as a believer in Judaism by the congregation. The same is the case with Antonius and Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi. "Some say Antonius was and some say he was not proselytized," viz., without circumcision.

The same uncertainty is most strikingly illustrated in the pelugta between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua: One maintains that Mila alone, and the other maintains that Tevila alone suffices to make one a Ger; and according to another version both agree on Tevila as the condition sine qua non (see Yearbook, Mielziner quotation, p. 97). How could those two pillars of traditional law dispute on what was then law and custom in Israel, at a time when the proselytes were so numerous in Israel that a prayer for them was included in the daily eighteen benedictions ("Ve-al gerei hatsedek")? There was nothing certain about the matter--as said--even when the Mishna was written. The whole question, it appears, originated with John Hyrcan's conversion in Idumea.

The Origin of the Initiatory Rites

It appears, therefore, that it was an ancient custom--by no means a law--that the proselyte offer up a sacrifice (Asham) in the Temple of Jerusalem to atone for his past sins of idolatry, as a token of his repentance and a solemn declaration of his loyalty to Israel's monotheism and canon. This sacrifice might have been a pair of young pigeons or a little flour (Leviticus 5:14), which--it seems--could be made by proxy or by another gift to the Temple. Foreign proselytes, also from Rome--we know--sent gifts to the Temple. This was by no means insisted upon in all cases, as Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi and others maintain that according to the Law of Moses a confession before a college of three suffices.

With the sacrifice (Korban) there came naturally Tevila, the ritual bath. As the unclean could not approach the altar, he had to cleanse his body first before he offered up his sacrifice.

Another kind of ritual bath or baptism is unknown in the laws of Moses and the Rabbis, except "Tevilat Ba-alei Teshuva" ("The bath of the penitent sinner"), and this--it appears--has its origin in the cleansing ordinances for him who was to make a sin offering or a trespass offering. When the sacrifice itself was abolished, the preparatory bath remained for the penitent, as was the practice among the Essenes, who made no sacrifices, but observed scrupulously the Levitical cleansing prescriptions connected with it.

After the destruction of the altar, the question arose, what should replace the sacrifices to make atonement for man's sins. The enlightened Rabbis of that age of distress and despair--among whom Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah may be counted--taught the people that substitutes for the sacrifices may be repentance of sin, prayer, alms-giving, acts of charity, the study of the law, conscientious righteousness, and similar practices of piety and humanity, which, they maintained, were more acceptable to God than all sacrifices. With them, the bath of repentance and the confession sufficed to accept the Ger into the fold of Judaism. The more rigorous Rabbis of those days, however, were not satisfied with those mild substitutes for the sacrifices, and resorted to the harsher means of asceticism and self-sacrifice. To them--and Rabbi Eliezer was one of them--the mere bath of repentance did not suffice for the proselyte. They demanded a bodily sacrifice, and found this already in the opinion of the followers of the John Hyrcan decree; and so they demanded also Mila as a substitute for the proselyte's sacrifice. The custom, however, of demanding both Mila and Tevila was certainly not generally established till late in the Amoraim period, and never was a Rabbinical law, as no one could make one when the Sanhedrin and Tannaim were no more. It was all a matter of custom--established by the schools and scholastic wisdom--without any foundation in Scripture or by enactments of the Scribes, Tannaim, or any other authoritative body.

If anybody holds that we, in this 19th century, are bound to uphold, as a matter of religion, customs so and then originated, without any basis in the Torah or even in Rabbinical law, he must be opposed to the abolition of those initiatory rites. Those, however, who think that customs of that kind are not obligatory for us now, and consider it proper and advisable to dispense with them, have undoubtedly the right to say so and do so, when an authoritative body declares so, without endangering the union of Israel and the unity of Judaism.

(Vol. III, 1893, pp. 94-95)

Your committee maintains to have established:

1. That there are known in history three initiatory rites for the proselyte to Judaism, viz., the Sacrificial Rite, the Ritual Bath, and Circumcision.

2. None of these three initiatory rites for the proselyte is ordained or otherwise suggested in the Torah, Prophets, and Hagiography.

3. They appear not in history and literature prior to the conquest of Idumea by John Hyrcan, who decreed circumcision on the Edomites, contrary to law and custom.

4. From and after that time, initiatory rites for the proselyte became customary, but never became canon law, not even Rabbinical law proper, and have therefore found no place in the Mishna; nor were, generally, all three rites considered necessary to every one proselyte; there existed a difference of opinion, as to which rite was necessary, down to the last of the Tannaim.

5. After all legislative authority had been defunct, in the time of the Amoraim, without any lawful enactment, the two rites--the sacrifice having been abolished--were considered necessary to make a proselyte, but this never did and never could become canon law. It always remained custom (minhag) without foundation in the Torah, brought about as "Davar Shebeminyan," and the Rabbinical rule concerning such custom is: "Davar shebeminyan, tsarich minyan acher lehatiro," "What was prohibited [or ordained] by a vote [not by legislative authority] must be revoked by a vote," viz., when the cause of its existence has ceased.

Therefore be it resolved: That the Central Conference of American Rabbis, assembled this day in this city of New York, considers it lawful and proper for any officiating rabbi, assisted by no less than two associates, to accept into the sacred covenant of Israel and declare fully affiliated to the congregation (davar shebikdusha) any honorable and intelligent person, who desires such affiliation, without any initiatory rite, ceremony, or observance whatever; provided, such person be sufficiently acquainted with the faith, doctrine, and canon of Israel; that nothing derogatory to such person's moral and mental character is suspected; that it is his or her free will and choice to embrace the cause of Judaism; and that he or she declare verbally and in a document signed and sealed before such officiating rabbi and his associates his or her intention and firm resolve:

(1) to worship the One, Sole, and Eternal God, and none besides Him;

(2) to be conscientiously governed in his or her doings and omissions in life by God's laws ordained for the child and image of the Maker and Father of all, the sanctified son or daughter of the divine covenant;

(3) to adhere in life and death, actively and faithfully, to the sacred cause and mission of Israel, as marked out in Holy Writ.

Be it furthermore resolved: That a committee of three be appointed to report to this conference formulas of the two documents, viz., one to be signed by the proselyte and witnesses, to remain in the hands of the officiating rabbi, and another to be signed by the officiating rabbi and his associates, to be delivered to the proselyte.


The two other members of the committee, viz., the Rev. Dr. Landsberg, of Rochester, New York, and the Rev. Dr. Adolph Moses, of Louisville, Kentucky, being temporarily absent from the country, in full agreement on this subject with the chairman, authorized him to write and report this document to the Central Conference.


1. Igeret Teshuvot HaRambam, Gersoni edition, Prague, 1726, p. 24b; also Pe-er Hador, Responsum 144, Amsterdam edition.

2. For instance, "Ein oneshin min hadin"; or in Sifrei, Shofetim 154, "Ein chayavin mita al divrei soferim."

3 See also Tosafot in Mo-ed Katan 20a, and Yerushalmi, ibid., 111.5: "Ulemedim davar kodem lematan Torah bitmiha"; ibid., in Pe-a 2: "Hakol modin she-ein lomedin minhama-aseh"; see also Sefer Keritot 4.14.

4. "Rabbi Yochanan amar [in Yalkut, it is Rabbi Akiva]: 'Ein milat zecharim me-akavto mile-echol befesach"' (Mechilta, loc. cit.).

5. See also Ibn Ezra to Leviticus 19:1.

See also:

S.B. Freehof, "Circumcision of Proselytes," Reform Responsa for Our Time, pp. 71ff.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.