26 Tevet: Tsits Eliezer on Converting Teenage Children of Mixed Marriages

F ifty three years ago, Tsits Eliezer was approached by a student who was serving as a rabbi in Lima.  A man in the community was married to a non-Jew, and as their son approached 13, the man and the son wanted the son to convert. The son attended some kind of a Jewish school and did attend services occasionally.

I throw in as an aside that the rabbi includes the information that the father came from a family of proud lineage and that part of his motivation was to remove the stain from that family lineage.  I highlight that because it shows how far off the mark we can easily go—thinking we are making a dent in the wrongs we have committed, when we haven’t even started on the real problem!

The rabbi broaching the question notes, also, that the president of his community had asked him to deal sensitively with the case because of the father’s prominence, and that he worries that if he refuses, they will turn to another rabbi, who will perform an invalid conversion, such as by not having a court of three judges.

Accepting the Mitsvot as the Hurdle

R. Waldenberg begins by agreeing that in principle the young man can be converted.  Since he is going to be an halachic adult, and his mother does not oppose the conversion (so we need not worry that she will sabotage his Jewish participation), we can be lenient. He does require the father’s active agreement, to assure that the boy’s kabbalat hamitsvot, acceptance of the obligation to fulfill the Torah, has some teeth to it.

That last issue is not quite so easily removed, however. For all that the mother doesn’t object, a conversion requires a significant commitment. If the boy is going to continue living at home, where his mother will continue to cook non-kosher food, that is evidence that the boy intends to condition his conversion on the right to dispense with at least some mitsvot, and any such condition invalidates a conversion.  Tsits Eliezer suggests that if the father and son agree to kasher the kitchen and to keep kosher from then on, that could avoid the problem.

He notes that the significant opening for leniency in terms of accepting the mitsvot comes from R. Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, zt”l.  The easiest way to understand the notion of unconditional acceptance of mitsvot, the Gemara’s standard, is that our knowledge that a convert has every intention of violating some commandments would give the lie to his acceptance of mitsvot.  R. Chaim Ozer in Shut Achiezer 3;26 argued that the requirement in the Gemara wasn’t observance, but acceptance.

If a convert knows that he will still, after conversion, give in to temptation and partake of forbidden vices, that does not necessarily show that s/he did not have a sincere acceptance of mitsvot.  (It seems to me somewhat parallel to the status of most of us on Yom Kippur, when we sincerely plan to rid ourselves of sin going forward, but probably know the likelihood is that we will occasionally backslide).

Likely Sin vs. Definite Sin

The challenge is that R. Chaim Ozer himself—in the next sentence—distinguishes the convert’s knowing he’s likely to sin from where it is clear that the convert will commit major sins such as violating Shabbat or eating non-kosher (an early example of using those two as demonstrative mitsvot), that renders the acceptance of mitsvot meaningless. R. Chaim Ozer does not define the line, and Tsits Eliezer notes that it’s a matter of the officiating rabbi’s intuition.  If there is a sincere acceptance of obligation, even with the knowledge of weakness, that differs from conversion with no meaningful intention to observe the Torah.

Let me give two examples that seem relevant: I heard that R. Soloveitchik, zt”l, mocked conversions where the convert and friends went out to a non-kosher restaurant afterwards to celebrate. To immediately violate the Torah, to no purpose other than having a good meal, seemed to him to verify that the conversion was never intended as an acceptance of the obligation of mitsvot.

Another interesting case would be where the convert begins to associate with an Orthodox community that is itself not particularly observant.  Suppose the convert sincerely adopts the level of observance s/he sees in the Jewish world s/he is joining—we can know that that will likely include the violation of various halachot, but we can’t really ascribe that to an insincere acceptance of the mitsvot.  It gets complicated.

A Dose of Reality

Tsits Eliezer adds two not-politically-correct points that I think bear repeating. First, he says that it should be obvious that the rabbi should feel obligated to fully explain to the father the sins he is committing by continuing to live with this non-Jewish wife. I point that out—and I recently saw a similar comment by R. Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, in a responsum about teaching Torah to non-Jews—because many people have gotten so used to being welcoming and friendly, in the hopes that that will produce better outcomes, that we forget that major rabbis were of the opinion that if you saw someone living in a state of continuing sin, you needed to bring it up, uncomfortable as that may be.

Similarly, he advises pointing out to the father and son that conversion may not be the wisest choice. If the boy is going to adopt an observant life, conversion can be a positive part of his life. But if he is going to convert thinking that that’s enough to assuage the father’s guilty conscience, to let the boy have a Bar Mitsvah, and to give him access to synagogue rituals like standing at the Torah for an aliyah, the rabbi should bring to their attention the downside, that the boy will be leading himself into Divine blame and punishment.

Until this point, the non-kosher food the boy ate, the violations of Shabbat he committed, and all his other nonobservances of Judaism carried no opprobrium. Non-Jews are just that, and they are not expected to keep mitsvot or incur guilt for failing to do so.  Once the boy converts, though, each action of sin is just that, a punishable crime before God.

A Postcript with Subtext

R. Waldenberg then adds a postscript, with no explanation, but that seems to me to convey his broader sentiments about the situation. He notes Rambam Issurei Biah 13; 14-17, where Rambam insists that Shimshon and Shlomo Hamelech converted their wives before marrying them.  The reason Tanach speaks of the wives as having been non-Jewish, Rambam says, is that the conversions were ones that should not have happened.

In both cases, there was ample reason to suspect that the prospective wives had ulterior motives in converting, that they were not motivated purely by attraction to God and Judaism.  Rambam notes that the Gemara tells us that courts refrained from accepting converts throughout David and Shlomo’s reigns, since the former’s military success and the latter’s splendid and lavish court made it almost certain that converts had improper reasons for converting.

Rambam does believe, as an halachic matter, that such conversions are valid, even if the ulterior motive was known ahead of time, even if the convert later renounced Judaism. Such people are considered lapsed Jews, not returned non-Jews. That explains, to Rambam, why Shimshon and Shlomo would have stayed with those wives even when their lack of Jewish devotion became apparent.

Then Tsits Elieer writes “In conclusion,” words I can apply to this essay as well. His conclusion is to cite the Talmud’s comment that whoever says that Shlomo sinned is in error (this despite the text saying that his wives turned his heart so that it was not as fully with God as that of his father). In the Talmud’s reading, Shlomo failed to properly remonstrate with his wives when they returned to their idol worshipping ways, and is blamed for that as if he had done it himself (that, by the way, is a theme of that discussion in the Gemara, Shabbat 56b, that if we fail to admonish those whom we might have changed, we are blamed too for their sins).

Then Tsits Eliezer adds a Midrash on Shir haShirim that insists that David and Shlomo are otherwise remarkably parallel, and includes the fact that David achieved absolution for his sins, as did Shlomo for his. Not only that, Shlomo merited the Divine Spirit and produced three books of Scripture, Mishlei, Kohelet, and Shir haShirim.

Subtext Turned into Text

Tsits Eliezer does not elaborate, leaving it to his student to understand the message he is sending with this postscript. If I may be so bold, I’d suggest that he is telling him that the challenge of converting people with questionable attachment to observance lies not in the act of the conversion, but its’ aftermath.  If the kid comes and insists he wants to be Jewish, the rabbi can convert him and it will be valid.  But after that, if this kid is going to return to his ordinary life, it will have done nothing positive for him, for his family, or for the Jewish community.

Shlomo and Shimshon were sullied by their connection to their converts, even if they were technically valid.  That wasn’t an unrecoverable stain, as Shlomo managed to go from there and still contribute three books to Scripture. But it’s all part of the calculus when we take on converts whose context raises some flags of concern.

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