Can you ever imagine a case where you, sitting as a judge on a beit din, would convert a potential convert whom you believe will not be completely mitzva observant? In other words, either s/he will not be Orthodox or s/he will affiliate Orthodox but not really follow much of Jewish law?
If you would convert such a person, why would you do it?
I can think of several reasons why I might sign off on such a conversion:
- To preserve the unity of the Jewish people.
- Because I believe s/he will grow to full mitzva observance over time.
- Because the alternative to conversion is worse.
Before you think I have no halakhic leg to stand on, let me cite three sources, all Sefardi, that agree with me:
- Rabbi Raphael Aaron ben Shimon, Chief Rabbi of Cairo, 1891-1921 (d. 1929).
- Rabbi Moshe HaCohen, Jerba 1906 - Israel, 1966. A leading rabbi in Jerba; immigrated to Israel in the 1950s; dayyan (judge) in the beit din of Tiberias.
- Rabbi Ben-Zion Uzziel; b. Jerusalem, 1880. Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1939 until his passing in 1953.
Rabbi Marc Angel's website has an excerpt from a new book written by Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi, both of Bar Illan University, that cites these three rabbis. According to them, here is how the issue of kabbalat hamitzvot, acceptance of the commandments, was viewed by Rabbi ben Shimon:
When explaining the policy of the Egyptian rabbinate with regard to the giyyur of Gentile women living with Jewish partners, he writes that although the women's motivation is not religious:
We overlook this and accept them... and this is what we do in such cases. We make a condition and explain to the woman proselyte that her intention must be that even if her husband does not wish to marry her after this, and abandons her, she voluntarily accepts the religion, and that the reason for her giyyur is not contingent upon her [interest in] marriage to him. And she says 'yes'. And although we know what is in her heart, we are not very meticulous.
Here is how the authors quote Rabbi Uzziel:
Although we know that most proselytes do not observe the commandments after circumcision and immersion; nevertheless, they [the rabbis] did not refrain from accepting them because of that. Rather, they inform them about some of the harsher commandments, namely, the punishment for transgressing them, so that 'So that if he wants to withdraw - he can withdraw.' But if they do not withdraw, they are accepted, and each proselyte will be responsible for his [future] sin[s], and the people of Israel are not liable for his behaviour. All we have said, then, makes the following absolutely clear: if a proselyte has accepted the commandments and their punishment, then, even when it is known he will not observe them, he should be accepted after being notified about the lenient and harsher commandments, their reward and punishment.
And Rabbi HaCohen:
[A]ccepting the commandments does not mean that he must commit himself to observe all the commandments. Rather, it means that he accepts all the commandments of the Torah in the sense that, if he transgresses, he will be liable for such punishment as he deserves... And if so, we do not care if at the time he accepts the commandments he intends to transgress a particular commandment and accept the punishment. This is not considered a flaw in his acceptance of the commandments.
Until recently, this has been the position of much of the American and Western European rabbinate when dealing with the potential conversion of the spouse or children of mixed marriages.
Haredim are generally opposed to this way of looking at the issue of kabbalat hamitzvot. They expect a convert to be completely observant with no deviance from haredi understandings of halakha. Anything less than that invalidates the conversion.
This is the crux of the battle between haredim and Israel's haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate, on one hand, and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) on the other.
What that means is not that the RCA holds like Rabbis Uzziel, HaCohen and ben Shimon.
What it means is that, before the recent push by haredim to delegitimize RCA conversions, RCA rabbis may have occasionally chosen, based on the particular issues of specific cases, to follow the rulings of Rabbi Uzziel, HaCohen and ben Shimon, rather than the stricter (and currently more normative) rulings of others.
With the new RCA - Israel Chief Rabbinate agreement due to be announced soon, I think, this option will be off the table.
This is sad, I believe, for many reasons – not the least of which is that the positions of Rabbis Uzziel, HaCohen and ben Shimon are far closer to the historical mark than those of the haredi sages of today's Brooklyn, Monsey, Bnai Brak and Mea Shearim.
[Hat Tip: Michelle.]