Converting a Woman Already Married to a Kohen

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convert-buttonby R. Gidon Rothstein
15 Kislev (5722) : R. Moshe Feinstein on Converting a Woman Already Married to a Kohen

Remembering What’s Supposed to Be

When life presents less than optimal circumstances, we try to respond as generously as we can. That’s as it should be, but it can lead to forgetting the optimal circumstances, such that we’re not sure of how to respond to the next step down from optimal. This comes up in Iggerot Moshe Even HaEzer 2;4, written on 15 Kislev 5722 (1961), where R. Moshe Feinstein was asked about allowing a woman to convert in order to stay married to her common law husband.

It’s worth remembering up front that the Gemara opposed conversion for marriage in general, that the practice of accepting the conversion of common-law spouses was a 19th-century concession by rabbis, who saw that they were not accomplishing anything by refusing such conversions, since the couple was living together anyway. Allowing a suboptimal conversion was seen as a way to perhaps salvage something out of the situation.

We can accept that as valid psak but cannot allow that to become what we think of as normal or good. Especially since if we forget that it’s a concession, we’ll be shocked when we read times that rabbis felt unable to be as accommodating, such as in our teshuvah.

R. Feinstein was asked about a kohen, who was threatening to leave the religion completely unless his wife (the mother of his children) was allowed to convert (clearly, he had already left observance to enough of an extent that he could marry her).

His family had distanced themselves from him long before, but now he’s raised the possibility of her and the children converting, threatening that if they refuse, he’ll leave Judaism completely (R. Feinstein uses the termyishtamed, which usually implies taking on another religion; he doesn’t say more, but my guess would be that the couple had decided to pick a religion, and were willing to pick Judaism. If not, they’d go with her religion, whatever it was).

R. Moshe tells us that he sees no room to allow this, primarily because a kohen is not allowed to marry a convert. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen here, for R. Moshe it means it cannot, for reasons he then lays out.

Yielding to Religious Blackmail

The simpler case is a non-kohen; whether to take account of the threat of abandoning religion is, for R. Feinstein, related to a discussion in Yoreh De’ah 334 about a court’s putting in nidui (an early stage of excommunication) someone who might as a result make worse choices (if the court punishes this person for violating Shabbat, for example, the person might retaliate by violating it more).

Most opinions allowed the court to declare the nidui (Taz disagrees). That might make it obvious that we should ignore this kohen, except that R. Feinstein assumes that that case involves the power of the court to discipline wrongdoers. If the threat of abandoning the religion got people off, everyone would claim it, and the court’s power would soon be meaningless.

[A point worth expanding upon, I think: the desire to deal gently with those with whom that approach might eventually bear fruit comes at the cost of making standards more difficult to enforce. If a potential wrongdoer sees that all the wrongdoers before him/her were treated with kid gloves, it makes it harder to enforce the law on that person. Courts, therefore, have to be more careful with their leniencies than individual citizens].

That being true, the family might in fact be allowed to go along with this woman’s conversion, in the hopes of preventing the husband from even worse transgressions.  The sticking point is that a kohen cannot marry a convert. Converting her might reduce the sin, but it doesn’t take it away. Which then will render her conversion invalid, as we’re about to see.

Converting for Marriage

Were the husband not a kohen, converting the wife wouldn’t be as clear a transgression (so that we might tell the family to go along with it). As Rambam writes in Hilchot Issurei Biah 13;14, if someone converts for an ulterior motive (such as marriage), the conversion is, in retrospect, valid, and there were courts of insufficiently trained judges that accepted such converts.

To R. Feinstein, that proves that there could not have been an obvious and well-established prohibition on such conversions, since even a poorly-trained court would know not to violate the law in that way. If so there’s room to accept such conversions if the other option is that a Jew will go down an even worse path than already being considered.

The Acceptance of Obligation

Our kohen is different because even a conversion with questionable or improper motives needs to have akabbalat ol mitzvot, an acceptance of obligation, without which the conversion is invalid (this, too, is a point that bears repetition and emphasis; if three rabbis oversee a conversion, but the convert does not intend to observe halachah, the conversion is invalid, not objectionable). It’s not that we are upset that this conversion was allowed to happen, it’s that it doesn’t actually happen.

If a convert doesn’t know a certain halachah, even as serious as the prohibition against idolatry, the conversion is often still valid. But a baseline and sincere commitment to keeping that which is obligatory is indispensable, without which a conversion simply cannot occur. That can be quite complicated, because it means that even when we today convert people whose motives we know to be less than optimal, R. Moshe would require that at least at the moment of conversion, the convert be sincerely ready to accept all that which is obligatory, a state that is not always true even of observant Jews, let alone those converting in order to marry a Jew. (I note that this past Shabbat, I heard R. Baruch Gigi, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion,argue that sincere intent to observe at the moment of conversion might suffice, even if we have good reason to believe the person will end up not actually observant; R. Gigi saw that question as one of the ones underlying today’s conversion controversies in Israel).

What About Hillel’s Convert?

Before he specifies the roadblock that the need for kabbalat ol mitzvot creates to the kohen’s wife’s converting, R. Feinstein notes the story told on Shabbat 31 of Hillel converting a man who told him he was willing to accept only the Written Torah (just before the more famous one of the man who wanted to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one foot). Rejeting the Oral Law certainly does not qualify as accepting mitzvot.

Rashi writes that Hillel was confident that he could bring the convert around through study (as he soon did). That doesn’t help R. Feinstein, for whom the conversion should have been invalid, since at that moment, the convert did not believe in the Oral Law. [I might have argued that when the Gemara says he converted him, it didn’t mean it already happened, it meant that he accepted him as a student for conversion, with the understanding that once he’d progressed enough in his studies, he’d be converted. R. Moshe does not entertain that possibility].

R. Feinstein insists, therefore, that the convert must have been already willing to fulfill the dictates of the Oral Law, he just didn’t believe they were given by God. (We find such people today, happy to be fully observant, but think everything other than the Written Torah was created by Chazal; that’s not good, but it’s not a non-acceptance of the obligations of Judaism).

If that’s true, Rashi’s comment about Hillel’s certainty that he can convince the convert otherwise implies that part of a conversion must be both a present willingness to observe what s/he knows as well as a reasonable belief that the convert will observe all that which s/he finds out later. Had Hillel had to worry that the convert would never accept the Divine origins of the Oral Law, that would have also made the conversion impossible.

For this kohen’s wife, all this is impossible, since an agreement to observe halachah would have to include an agreement to separate from her husband (R. Feinstein reminds us that Yevamot 84 is where we find Rava’s assertion that marital prohibitions apply to both spouses equally—his not being allowed to be married to her means she’s also not allowed to be married to him). For her to convert in order to stay married is impossibly oxymoronic.

Does Conversion Save From Sin or Add to It?

The correspondent had suggested, based on Melamed le-Ho’il, that converting the woman would save thekohen from more serious sins, raising the possibility that a conversion would help the kohen overall. R. Moshe disagrees, noting that since we have no real expectation that this couple will keep mitzvot, including the laws we commonly call family purity (niddah), converting this woman changes their ignoring that set of laws from a rabbinic prohibition to a karet one.

He does recognize the complications of that calculus since, for example, if they live among Jews, his intermarriage might qualify as a sin for which kanaim could kill him if not for the obligation to follow secular law. Converting her would save the kohen from that sin, which might in fact be more serious than akaret prohibition. In a non-Jewish neighborhood, he wouldn’t have to worry about kanaim, since he’s living with her be-farhesya, publicly, as far as halachah is concerned (for the purposes of these issues, public means when other Jews can see it).

The letter writer claimed that Melamed le-Ho’il also held that an acceptance of mitzvot could be valid in these situations; R. Moshe notes that he does not have a Melamed le-Ho’il to consult (this is an interesting side-drama of its own: one of the remarkable things about R. Moshe Feinstein is how much he did with what seems to have been a significantly smaller library than, e.g., the Jerusalem rabbis I often turn to in these columns, Tzitz Eliezer and R. Ovadya Yosef), and, in any case, he disagrees.

Leaving us more aware of important questions to ask about conversions: are the motives of the convert pure or not? If not, does the convert nonetheless make a full-fledged commitment to observance, even of that which s/he does not yet know? Is conversion in such situations a net gain or loss to the convert and/or others affected by that conversion?

All part of a complex calculus, which in this case led R. Moshe to believe the conversion could not happen.

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. Regarding the point about Rav Moshe not having access to Melamed Leho’il. According to Rabbi Rakeffet, it doesn’t mean that Rav Moshe was unable to get his hands on that Sefer. Apparently Rav Moshe’s son , Rav Dovid, yibadel lchaim Tovim, was friendly with the local seforim seller in the lower east side. So he could have looked up the Sefer had he wanted to. Rather, it should be understood to mean that the opinion recorded in the Melamed Leho’il was not of concern to Rav Moshe. Once he understood the Gemara and the primary sources and major acharonim on a topic he wasn’t concerned if there may be an opinion out there against his.

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