Conversion of a Person Suffering from Mental Illness



A woman in my congregation, married to a Jewish man, has been coming to me to study for conversion to Judaism. Her own religious background is quite mixed, and she feels

no particular attachment to any other faith. She has some knowledge of Judaism, and has been reading and studying with me for about six months. I believe she is sincere about wanting to convert to Judaism, although some of the motivation undoubtedly comes from her in-laws. In my opinion, however, she is not mentally stable.

The first thing she told me when we met was that she was a borderline personality who had been sexually abused by both of her parents. In the fairly brief time I have known her she has been on the verge of divorce twice, stated that her husband was abusing her, changed therapists, and asked if she could bring her dog into the sanctuary with her for emotional solace in a new environment. She often makes very dramatic statements, only to back away from them later. From everything I have been able to learn, she is quite clearly a borderline personality, a well-recognized diagnosis of significant mental illness. She is not, however, insane or incapable of making decisions for herself.

May I reject her as a candidate for conversion on grounds of her mental illness?


1. Mental Competence and Mental Illness.

The possession of mental competence (da`at or de`ah) is one of the principal requirements for conversion to Judaism. This is because conversion is understood as the acceptance by a Gentile of the mitzvot, the obligations of Jewish life.[1] One who is mentally incompetent is not judged legally accountable for his or her actions;[2] therefore, a Jew who lacks da`at is exempt from the duty to perform the mitzvot.[3] Accordingly, the Jew-by-choice who seeks to enter the community of mitzvot must be able understand the nature of the duties he or she is accepting and to be held responsible for them. As our Committee has written in a similar case:[4] "conversion to Judaism is a major religious step which cannot be taken lightly; this act has legal (halachic) implications... (since) a complete understanding of Judaism is necessary for a sincere and complete conversion, such prospective converts must be of sound mind and mentally competent. We cannot accept individuals who do not meet these prerequisites."

For these reasons, it is clear that we are entitled and even required to reject a candidate for conversion should we find that he or she does not possess the necessary mental competence. The question we face here is whether this prospective proselyte fits that concept. Does she, on account of her emotional disturbance, lack the "sound mind" necessary to make the responsible choice to enter the covenant of Israel?

To ask this question is to ask whether, in the terms of our tradition, this woman exhibits the characteristics of the shoteh/ah, the "insane" person, who by definition does not possess da`at and is thereby exempted from any and all responsibility to uphold the mitzvot.[5] The talmudic sources identify the shoteh as one who wanders alone at night, who sleeps in the cemetery, who rips his or her clothing, or who loses everything that is given to him or her.[6] The halakhic consensus holds that a person need not exhibit all of these behaviors to be defined as a shoteh; one of them alone is sufficient, provided that the action is performed regularly and in such a way that it offers evidence of insanity.[7] There is considerable disagreement in the literature as to whether insanity (shetut) is to be identified by these actions in particular or whether they are to be seen as examples of a more general condition. Some authorities regard the list in talmudic sources as exhaustive; "we have nothing to rely upon except the words of our Sages."[8] Maimonides, on the other hand, takes the opposite view. The shoteh of whom we speak is only the one "who walks about naked, breaking things and throwing stones," but rather "one who has lost his mind and whose mind is consistently disturbed with respect to any matter, even though he speaks rationally on all other matters."[9]

This position surely strikes us as the more reasonable one, since it is difficult to imagine a plausible definition of insanity that restricts itself to but three or four specific actions out of a host of others that are clearly symptomatic of serious mental disturbance. As noted above, even a person who exhibits those behaviors is not judged insane by talmudic standards unless they are performed in a manner that indicates insanity (derekh shetut);[10] thus, "insanity" is better understood as a manner of behavior, a state of mental disturbance which can express itself in any number of ways, rather than as a catalogue of several specific acts.[11] Although contemporary Orthodox halakhists tend not to decide between the two sides of this legal dispute,[12] they are capable of recognizing that judgments in this area are necessarily complex. As one puts it: "it is impossible to define with precision just who is called a 'shoteh' in our time, or more properly, at which stage (of an illness) a person is defined as 'insane' and exempt from the mitzvot... On account of the wide variety of psychiatric ailments along with the many specific forms of behavior, which can change from time to time due to natural causes or as a result of treatment, we are required to judge each case separately, in accordance with the opinion of experts and the judgment of the rabbinic authority or beit din."[13] For our part, we hold that the definition of mental illness is to be made by observation a matter of medicine and psychology, properly determined by the accepted procedures of those disciplines. As we have written, "given our positive attitude as liberal Jews toward modernity in general, it is surely appropriate to rely upon the findings of modern science, rather than upon tenuous analogies from traditional sources, in order to render what we must consider to be scientific judgments."[14] We think that this position accurately reflects the view of Maimonides, applied in the context of the scientific and cultural realities of our time.

None of this, of course, renders the answer to this she'elah a simple one. Even if we accept this woman's testimony that she suffers from an emotional disorder, we may not be in a position to declare that she does not possess the requisite mental competence we demand of a person who chooses Judaism. To be sure, borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious condition, and those afflicted with it "present a variety of neurotic symptoms and character defects."[15] They may, we are told, fail to establish their own identities. They may be emotionally unbalanced and impulsive, display multiple phobias, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, and paranoid traits. They may be constantly angry and frequently depressed, sexually promiscuous, and have a pronounced tendency toward drug and alcohol abuse. They are unable to develop lasting relationships in marriage and career, They are quite difficult as patients, often attempting to manipulate their therapists in order to gain needed gratification. Many of them threaten suicide, and some of them are indeed suicidal. All of this may be true of BPD individuals in general and of this woman in particular, yet this is still not enough to say that she, the individual whose case we are addressing here, is a shotah, lacking the da`at or capacity to make rational decisions and judgments about herself and her life. We should not forget that a medical term such as "borderline personality disorder" is simply a name given to a particular constellation of "neurotic symptoms and character defects." It is a category utilized by the mental health professions as a means of classifying data and determining courses of treatment. It is a description of a general phenomenon which in and of itself does not tell us that this woman is "insane." Put another way, while this woman may be "mentally ill," we do not know by that token that she is mentally incompetent. The diagnosis, assuming it is an accurate one, cannot serve as a substitute for a careful examination of her character, her strengths and weaknesses, her "defects" and her resiliency in overcoming or compensating for them.

This is merely another way of saying that "general principles do not decide concrete cases;"[16] or, as Maimonides remarks in his discussion of mental competence, "since it is impossible to define 'da`at' with full precision in writing, the matter must be decided by the judge in the particular instance."[17] To translate this insight into the terms of the present she'elah, we cannot say this individual is unfit for conversion based upon a diagnosis that she suffers from a general syndrome known as "borderline personality disorder." Such a determination can be based only upon a finding that this person, this individual human being, lacks the mental competence we think necessary to make an informed and rational choice for Judaism.

2. Proper and Improper Motivations for Conversion.

Yet the definition of "insanity" is not the only issue here. Our case turns as well upon the question of proper motivations for conversion to Judaism, which the Talmud discusses in two places. In the first, which describes what we must call the ideal state, the prospective proselyte is warned of all the hardships and dangers that await him should he become a Jew; if he says, "would that I merit to participate in their suffering!," he is accepted forthwith.[18] The second text speaks not of the pure religious motivations of the ideal candidate but of those that inspire other sorts of individuals. It tells us that, in principle (lekhatchilah), we should not accept proselytes who wish to convert in order to marry a Jew, or who seek to join us out of a desire to share in our good fortune, or who come to Judaism in response to fear or threats, real or imagined, although should such persons undergo a valid process of conversion they are nonetheless considered proselytes.[19] The medieval commentators raised a difficulty against this "in principle" standard, noting several examples of Talmudic sages who accepted as proselytes individuals who came before them with evidently improper motives. They resolved the difficulty by suggesting that in those cases the sages were confident that the proselytes who came originally out of ulterior motivations would ultimately accept the Torah "for the sake of Heaven."[20] And on the basis of that resolution, later authorities declare: "we learn from this that (with respect to conversion) the entire matter is left to the judgment of the beit din."[21]

This, as far as we are concerned, is a chief guiding principle in our thinking about conversion. It is for the beit din, the religious tribunal under the supervision of the presiding rabbi, to determine in each and every case whether the person who comes before us for conversion does so for reasons that are appropriate. Occasionally, Orthodox authorities will rely upon this discretionary power in order to accept proselytes who wish to become Jews for reasons that fall far short of the ideal standard of pure religious conviction.[22] Yet whether for leniency or stringency, the decision is in any event for the authorities to make. On this point we are in full agreement with Orthodox halakhic thinking. Conversion, for us no less than for other Jews, is not a decision left to the heart and mind of the proselyte but a formal and public matter. One who seeks to convert seeks to join our community as a full and participating "citizen" thereof. It is accordingly for the Jewish community, acting through its acknowledged rabbinical representatives, to determine in each and every case whether an individual who wishes to convert is in fact ready to do so, for reasons that we find persuasive and compelling.

Let us turn this insight to the present case. If the rabbi under whose guidance this woman is studying believes that she is ready for conversion, that she fully understands the fateful nature of this step and is preparing to undertake it out of motivations that strike him as credible and appropriate, then he is entitled (and perhaps even obligated)[23] to accept her as a Jew-by-choice. On the other hand, should the rabbi find that there is significant doubt as to this woman's mental and emotional readiness to make a thoughtful, careful and responsible decision to convert to Judaism, he is entitled (and perhaps required) to reject her candidacy. The burden of proof, that is to say, is upon the candidate to demonstrate her readiness and not upon the rabbi to demonstrate the opposite. His decision need not be based upon preponderant evidence that she is "insane" and lacking in da`at. He may even find, as he tells us in his she'elah, that she is "sincere" in her desire to convert. Yet so long as he is not convinced that she is ready to take this step, so long as he has good reason to believe that her desire to convert is reflective of an emotional pathology rather than what can be defined as a reasonable and responsible choice, he is definitely under no obligation to accept her.


The rabbi may indeed reject this woman as a candidate for conversion, although not simply on the grounds of mental illness. A finding that she is "mentally ill" or even that she displays a condition as serious as borderline personality disorder does not necessarily in and of itself prove that she is lacking in da`at, the ability to make responsible and appropriate choices. The term "mental illness" is a broad descriptive category and not a diagnosis of the fitness of the individual person; we should beware of taking any step which suggests that those who suffer from "mental illness" are to be labelled as "insane." He may reject her rather on the grounds that this decision, in his carefully considered opinion, is motivated by factors that call its rationality and appropriateness into serious question. In any event, "the entire matter is left to the discretion of the beit din."



Bava Kama 8:4; Yad, Chovel Umazik 4:20; SA CM 424:8.

Chagigah 2b and Rashi, 2a, s.v. chutz: the deaf-mute (cheresh), the insane person (shoteh), and the minor (katan) are exempt from the obligation to perform the mitzvot on the ground that "they do not possess de`ah." See also M. Rosh Hashanah 3:8: these same individuals cannot sound the shofar on behalf of others because they themselves are not "obligated with respect to this act." See Yad, Edut 9:9: the shoteh is not qualified to serve as a witness because "he is not subject to the mitzvot"; and Yad, Chametz Umatzah 6:4 (based upon BT Rosh Hashanah 28a): one who performs a mitzvah during a moment of insanity has not fulfilled his obligation, for at that moment he was "exempt from all the mitzvot."

(ARR), no. 67. The she'elah there dealt with a prospective convert described as "mentally unbalanced (paranoid)."

Terumot 1:3; BT Chagigah 3b-4a; PT Terumot 1:1 (40b) and parallels.

, Chulin 1:4, following the view of R. Yochanan and the setam talmud in BT Chagigah 3b-4a; SA Yore De`ah 1:5; R. Shelomo Luria, Yam Shel Shelomo, Chulin 1:4.

, Edut 9:9-10. See R. Yosef Karo's discussion in Beit Yosef, EHE 121. Karo adopts Maimonides' definition of the shoteh in SA CM 35:8, thereby creating a difficulty against his ruling in YD 1:5.

Chagigah 3b.

., 181-182.

Yevamot 47a and Rashi, s.v. ve'eini kedai; Yad, Isurey Bi'ah 14:1; SA YD 268:2.

Yevamot 24b, including the mishnah (M. Yevamot 2:8); Yad, Isurey Bi'ah 13:14-17; SA YD 268:12.

, Yevamot 24b, s.v. lo. The exceptional cases are those involving Hillel (BT Shabbat 31a) and R. Chiya (BT Menachot 44a).

, YD 268; Siftey Kohen, YD 268, no. 23.


If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.