Contemporary American Reform Responsa

49. Conversion of a Young Child

QUESTION: What should be done for a four year old who was baptized as a Catholic and born to a Roman Catholic mother? The mother has now married a Jew who has legally adopted her son. Both have agreed that the child should be converted to Judaism and raised as a Jew. He is surgically circumcised. What procedure should this conversion follow? (O. R., Pittsburgh, PA)

ANSWER: We should begin by reviewing the traditional requirements for conversion. They are clear (Yeb. 46, 47; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 268; Yad Issurei Biah 15); a court of three is necessary. Prospective converts must be warned that they are joining a persecuted community and that many new obligations will be incumbent upon them. They were then to bring a sacrifice (in the days when the Temple stood), take a ritual bath, and in the case of males, be circumcised. To this day the requirements of a bet din, tevilah and the berit remain for traditional Jews. The sources are clear on the requirements, but considerable discussion about them exists in the Talmud. For example, R. Eliezer stated that if a prospective male convert was circumcised, or took a ritual bath, he was considered a proselyte. R. Joshua insisted on both, and his point of view was adopted (Yeb. 46b). Hillel and Shammai disagreed about a prospective male convert who was already circumcised. Bet Shammai insisted that blood must be drawn from him, while Bet Hillel stated that one simply accept that circumcision without drawing blood (Shab. 135a). The rabbinic authorities decided in favor of Bet Shammai (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 268.1; Yad Issurei Biah 14.5). Clearly, there were differences of opinion about steps necessary for the ritual of conversion in ancient times. The Talmud also contains a variety of opinions about the desirability of accepting converts. These reflect historic competition with Christianity, persecution, etc. in the early centuries of our era.

The Talmudic discussions insist that the convert must join Judaism without any ulterior motives, and if such are present, the conversion is void (Yeb. 24b). Of course this opinion applies only prospectively, not retrospective, and bediavad, they were accepted. This is hardly at issue here, but let us understand this line of reasoning as well. Some authorities were more lenient in regard to ulterior motives, so Hillel (Shab. 31a) readily accepted a convert who stated that he wished eventually to become a high priest. R. Hiya accepted a woman who wanted to marry one of his students (Men. 44a). In modern times, although most Orthodox authorities would reject converts who seek to join us for the sake of marriage, some would accept them in order to avoid conversion by Reform rabbis (Mendel Kirshbaum, Menachem Meshiv, #9), because civil marriage has preceded, or because the couple is living together (David Hoffmann, Melamed Lehoil Even Haezer 8, 10; Yoreh Deah 85). Similar arguments have been advanced by Meshullam Kutner in Uketorah Yaasu and Moses Feinstein in Igrot Mosheh (Even Haezer I, 27). However, the greatest number of Orthodox authorities have rejected these arguments (Joseph Saul Nathenson, Jacob Ettlinger, Yehiel Weinberg). Their rejection even for consideration as converts is based upon ulterior motivation and the likelihood that they would not accept all the mitzvot as they are generally not observed in the Jewish community today, and probably not kept by the Jewish partner (Isaac Herzog, Hekhal Yizhoq, Even Haezer 1, #20; Moses Feinstein, Igrot Mosheh Yoreh Deah, I, #157, 160; Even Haezer III, #4). I have quoted all of these modern Orthodox authorities to show that our gerut may not be accepted by traditional authorities. The Orthodox would, in any case, not accept a liberal conversion. They would consider our bet din invalid and would certainly feel that our converts would not have accepted the yoke of the commandments, the entire system of mitzvot.

As we view the rite of conversion from a Reform point of view, we should note that the Reform movement has placed its stress on careful instruction with more attention on intellectual rather than ritual requirements. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, in 1892, abolished the requirement of any ritual including circumcision. Most liberal rabbis, however, require circumcision in accordance with the opinion of Hillel (Shab. 135b). Converts are to be accepted after due instruction before "any officiating rabbi assisted by no less than two associates." There are, of course, definite limits to instruction in this instance, but some initial education can be undertaken.

Except in a cursory way, no discussion of tevilah has been undertaken by liberal Jewish authorities. The custom has fallen into disuse, but was never actually rejected. It is followed for niddah by only a small percentage even within the Orthodox community. The practice has been further hindered by endless Orthodox debates about the technical requirements of miqveh. A ritual immersion has, therefore, not been considered necessary for conversion in many Reform Jewish communities. There are, however, a number of cities in the United States and Canada in which tevilah has been encouraged or required for Reform conversion. In others it is optional.

We might conclude that if the custom possesses meaning for the communities and for the prospective convert, it should be encouraged. This would make it more difficult for traditionalists to challenge liberal conversions, although Orthodox authorities will never willingly accept anything we do as our basic premises differ sharply.

When infants who are adopted become Jewish, it may also be done through the naming ceremony conducted either at home or in the synagogue. In many Reform congregations, this would be considered sufficient ritual conversion for girls and also for a large number of boys. This act, along with Jewish education, would bring the child into the covenant of Judaism in the same manner as a child born Jewish .

We have several possibilities which might be followed in the conversion of this young boy about whom you ask. He should certainly begin to receive some Jewish education. As he is already circumcised, his parents might want to undertake tipat dam. Although tradition would encourage this, we would not suggest it for a child four years old. It would certainly provide a negative initial experience with Judaism. However, tevilah, with an appropriate ceremony, or a Hebrew name bestowed either in the synagogue or at home, would provide a proper initiation into Judaism through something meaningful and understandable to the young boy and his parents.

October 1980

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.