Over the past few years we have witnessed a disturbing questioning of the validity of long-standing conversions to Judaism. This is a very sensitive topic because many converts — nearly every single one I’ve ever met — are extremely devoted to their adopted religion, having overcome great obstacles to adopt the faith they love and fully accept. Any implicit questioning of their sincerity is a terrible sin. Yet there are exceptions, people who convert insincerely. While I have objected to the overly broad application of annulments, I firmly believe that there is a place for retroactive annulment of conversions in specific, highly limited circumstances. Indeed, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik even invalidated a conversion himself (see below from Iggeros Ha-Grid Ha-Levi, p. 107 and here: link).
I would like here to briefly discuss the issue from the perspective of Conservative interpretations of halakhah, not because I believe they merit a place within traditional halakhic deliberation but because I see value in recognizing that even non-Orthodox scholars of Jewish law, who are often much more inclined to leniency, accept the concept of retroactive annulment of conversions in certain circumstances. (Note to avoid confusion: All rabbis quoted below are Conservative)
In a 1982 responsum on Reform conversions (link – PDF), R. David Novak argued that if the conversion deliberately omitted immersion in a mikvah, it is invalid because it demonstrates a failure to accept the rules of Jewish law. “This does not mean that the convert is expected to observe every aspect of Jewish law — clearly an impossible demand, intellectually, morally and religiously. Rather, it means that conversion must involve an unconditional acceptance of the valid authority of Jewish law and an initial rejection of none of its specifics… I find no cogent basis in halakhah for accepting, even ex post facto, converts who did not undergo specific tevilah for the sake of conversion, unless it can be shown that they are strictly observant Jews, particularly scrupulous in the use of a mikvah.” (pp. 7-8 of PDF) R. Novak recognizes the possibility of retroactively annulling a conversion due to failure to accept the commandments. While he allows for non-observance (and strangely claims that it is unreasonable to expect a convert to be fully observant), he does not accept, even ex post facto, a conversion where the prospective convert implicitly rejects even a single Torah law.
In a 1984 responsum on whether rabbis are obligated to inquire about the Jewish status of a bride and groom before performing a wedding, R. Joel Roth assumes that some conversions are invalid (link – PDF). “As regrettable as the fact may be, it is virtually undeniable that a presumption of a halakhically valid conversion without proof or verification thereof is radically weakened today by our reality. Therefore, an investigation of its kashrut is not only desirable, but necessary even if we had no prior knowledge of the gentile status of the convert.” (p. 3 of PDF) And further, “because the negative consequences of the marriage of a Jew to one improperly converted are very great, we too should insist on proof or verification of a valid conversion before permitting the marriage — me’alah asu beyuhasin.” (p. 4)
In a 1989 responsum, R. Steven Saltzman responded to a case of two Arabs who converted to Judaism under false pretenses in order to become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return (link – PDF). I’m not sure what they gained from it but they immediately moved to an Arab village where they could not practice Judaism. R. Saltzman argues that religiously improper behavior subsequent to conversion is insufficient to annul it. However, “[w]here it can be clearly demonstrated that the proselyte acted dishonestly, withholding information vital to [the converting court’s] ability to make a coherent decision [on the convert’s sincerity], then the conversion may be considered null and void.” (p. 9 of PDF) In a concurring 1989 responsum, R. Avram Reisner examines the core texts regarding annulments and presumptions of validity of conversions (link – PDF). While he limits the cases where annulment is possible, he allows for it where “the converts appear to have perpretrated a fraud with no intention whatsoever to function as Jews…” (p. 4 of PDF)
More recently, R. Wayne Allen addressed this issue in his Further Perspectives on Jewish Law (pp. 259-267) and offered a view I find puzzling. He begins a discussion of retroactive nullification of conversion by exploring the requirements to serve on a rabbinical court for conversion. Quoting scholars such as the Maharam Schick, Maharatz Chajes, R. Maurice Lamm and R. Marc Angel, he objects to the idea that a judge for conversion must have specific beliefs. Rather, he accepts anyone who is knowledgeable in the laws of conversion, even if he is not a rabbi.
However, he adds two further qualifications: the person must not be otherwise barred from serving as a judge, and a non-observant rabbi, who knows the laws but fails to fulfill them, is also invalid as a judge for conversion (“[s]uch people are disqualified from serving on any Bet Din”, p. 267). The first qualification seems to me to bar anyone with heretical beliefs and the second would bar most non-Orthodox rabbis. Which means that R. Allen effectively agrees with those who retroactively annul (most) non-Orthodox conversions. But that is beside the point.
What if one of the conversion judges fails to meet R. Allen’s criteria? “[S]o long as the judges who serve on a rabbinical court for conversion are well-trained in those laws and knowledgeable of them, and so long as they are not otherwise legally barred from acting as judges, the conversions performed by them are valid.” (p. 66) In other words, if any of the judges is legally barred from serving on the court for conversion then the conversion is retroactively invalid despite the fact that the prospective convert immersed and was circumcised. R. Allen agrees with the concept of retroactive nullification of conversions if a judge is invalid but disagrees with overly broad invalidations.
None of the above Conservative scholars believe in willy-nilly nullifying conversions, wreaking havoc on people’s lives. Nor do they believe that sincere converts should live their lives in constant fear of losing their status in the community they have overturned their lives to join. That notwithstanding, they accept that some conversions are completely invalid and effectively null and void.