2/16/2011

Ruling of Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Shlomo Amar on Conversions

The full translation appears at Kol Ha-Rav. I’ve added my own comments and analysis in square brackets below.

This is the Law that Emerges from the Three Aforementioned Court Rulings:


Conversion (geirut) is a purely halakhic concept. It is not subject to substitution or punditry (parshanut). It is thus mandatory that geirut be in accordance with the halakha as explained by Maimonides and the Shulchan Arukh.

[Classic Rav Ovadia. Rambam and Shulchan Arukh represent an approach to conversion that avoids extremes, is very straightforward, and trusts that the rabbinical court is qualified to make judgment calls. It’s amazing that such a classical, traditional, and mainstream approach to giyur generates so much controversy. We have become accustomed to the extremes of rubber-stamp conversions and draconian standards]

  1. A convert who was circumcised and immersed but did not accept the commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah in the presence of three who are qualified to judge, is not a convert at all. Even if he accepted the mitzvot upon himself, if it was not in the presence of three who are qualified to judge, it is meaningless.

[This is the clause that will allow Israeli rabbinical courts to disqualify conversions of certain courts—mainly non-Orthodox courts, but it’s elastic enough to exclude conversions of some Orthodox courts or include the conversions of certain non-Orthodox courts]

  1. The rabbinical conversion court (beit din) must adequately examine whether the prospective convert has studied and knows the fundamentals of faith, and also has studied the rudimentary halakhot of Judaism (as practiced in Israeli rabbinical courts).

  1. Similarly, they will examine his motives and objectives for conversion. They will examine whether he is sincere in saying that he accepts the Torah and mitzvot upon himself, and is not deceiving the rabbinical court.

[Clauses b. and c. are extremely important and often misunderstood. The ruling speaks to what conversion courts ought to do. It opposes conversions if the prospective convert is unfamiliar with Jewish practice or has hidden and ulterior motives. However, it does not disqualify such a conversion. There is clearly a hierarchy of le-khatchila (ab initio) and be-di’avad (ex post facto). There is how conversion should be done, then there is a less-than-ideal but still valid conversion (clauses b, c, and d), and finally there are invalid conversions (clause a)].

  1. If their assessment is that he will certainly not uphold the mitzvot, they should not accept him as a convert.

[This is the shortest but most significant clause in the entire ruling. Here are some implications:
    1. The court is given discretion to assess the sincerity and motivation of the prospective convert. Both extremes within Orthodox conversion tend to be bureaucratic—by insisting on either maximal or minimal standards that leave little room to gauge the individual. This is a return to a classical model in which the court actually gets to know the convert.
    2. The court should not accept a convert who, in its opinion “will certainly not uphold the mitzvot.” The clear—if shocking—implication is that one who might uphold the mitzvot should be accepted for conversion. This is serious Hillel territory.
    3. Once again, “should not” does not mean “it is invalid if they do.” In fact, it means the conversion is valid, though less than ideal as it could lead to the scenario described in clause e.]

  1. A convert who was circumcised and immersed and accepted the mitzvot of the Torah in the presence of three who are qualified to judge, and everything was done properly and halakhically, and he then reverted to his mistaken ways and violates the mitzvot of the Torah, he is like an apostate Jew: his wine is forbidden, but his marriage and divorce are valid, as is stated explicitly in the Talmud, the code of Maimonides, and the Shulchan Arukh.

[This means that there’s not such thing as a retroactive annulment of conversions that were done properly to begin with.]
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