Converting Children of Mixed Marriages

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

26 Tevet: Tzitz Eliezer on Converting Children of Mixed Marriages

On 26 Tevet, 5719 (1959), a former student now serving as a rabbi in Lima wrote to R. Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg (who eventually recorded his response in volume 19, responsum 34 of Tzitz Eliezer).  A man in his community was married to a non-Jewish woman, and had a son approaching thirteen. Both the man and the son want the boy to convert. The son attended a Jewish school and occasionally came to services in synagogue. 

The father came from a family of proud lineage, and removing the stain from that lineage partially motivated this conversion (although he intends to continue living with his non-Jewish wife).  The president of the community had asked the rabbi to deal sensitively with the case, first because of the father’s prominence and, and, second, for fear the man will turn to other rabbis, who will perform an invalid conversion, which then creates other issues.

Accepting Mitzvot as the Hurdle

In principle, R. Waldenberg allows the conversion. The young man will be an halachic adult, and his mother does not oppose the conversion (giving us no cause to worry she will sabotage his Jewish participation). However, the boy must evince a real kabbalat ha-mitzvot, commitment to observe the Torah, which first requires the father’s active agreement.

The mother ‘s presence concerns Tzitz Eliezer nonetheless. The Talmud requires a convert to commit to observance with no conditions or exceptions. Prior to R. Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the usual understanding of acceptance of mitzvot was for the court to be convinced the convert would observe mitzvot as s/he encounters them. Shut Achiezer 3;26 argued acceptance sufficed, despite evidence the convert would fail to be fully observant. 

A convert’s knowledge s/he will yield to temptation did not disprove the sincerity of the original acceptance of mitzvot, according to R. Grodzensky. (It seems to me somewhat parallel to how most of us act on Yom Kippur, when we sincerely plan to rid ourselves of sin, but know the likelihood of backsliding).

Which makes the mother a problem. For all her acceptance of his choice, she will still be living with them, and will cook non-kosher. The structural presence of non-kosher in his life seems to Tzitz Eliezer tantamount to a declaration he intends to eat non-kosher, which makes the conversion ineffective.

As a workaround, Tzitz Eliezer suggests father and son agree to make the kitchen kosher, and to keep kosher from then on.   

Likely Sin vs. Definite Sin

R. Waldenberg reminds his student of Shu”t Achiezer’s formulationwhich distinguished between knowing the convert’s likely to sin (a matter of temptation and weakness) to where it is clear to all the convert will commit major sins such as violating Shabbat or eating non-kosher. R. Chaim Ozer does not define the line between likely to sin and certain to do so, and Tzitz Eliezer leaves it to the officiating rabbi’s intuition. But it’s a line to remember: sincere acceptance of obligation, even with the knowledge of weakness, differs from conversion with no meaningful intent to observe the Torah.

[Two examples that seem relevant: I heard 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 never included acceptance of the obligation of mitzvot.

Another interesting case would be where the convert joins an Orthodox community whose members themselves observe halachah sporadically, deficiently, or poorly. A convert might sincerely adopt the Jewish religion s/he sees in the world s/he is joining, which might count as kabbalat mitzvot despite our reasonably expectation s/he will violate many serious halachot.  It gets complicated.]

A Dose of Reality

Tzitz Eliezer adds two not-politically-correct points we may forget. First, he says the rabbi obviously must discuss with the father how severely he sins by continuing to live with his non-Jewish wife. I once saw R. Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, make a similar point in a responsum about teaching Torah to non-Jews. In the context of a responsum where he finds leniencies to allow converting the offspring of this marriage, Tzitz Eliezer reminds us halachah does its best to help people, including all appropriate leniencies, while at the same time and to no lesser an extent, insists on calling out wrongs being committed, uncomfortable as that may be.

He also advises pointing out to the father and son conversion may not be the wisest choice, depending on what will happen after. For the boy to convert and become an observant Jew would be a positive; a conversion to assuage the father’s guilty conscience and give the boy access to synagogue rituals like standing at the Torah for an aliyah ignores the downsides of such a conversion, that the boy will be setting himself up for 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 brought no opprobrium upon him, since he was not Jewish. Once the boy converts, each action of sin is just that, a punishable crime before God.

A Postscript with Subtext

R. Waldenberg then adds a postscript he does not explain, which I understand to convey his broader sentiments about the situation. He refers the Lima rabbi to Laws of Prohibited Sexual Relationships 13; 14-17, where Rambam insists Shimshon and Shlomo Hamelech converted their wives before marrying them.  Tanach speaks of the wives as non-Jewish, Rambam says, because they should never have been converted.  

Both greats of Jewish history had ample reason to suspect the wives had motives other than the only acceptable one for conversion, an attraction to the service of Hashem as a Jew. Rambam reminds us the Gemara thought 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 almost guaranteed any potential converts had been drawn in by factors other than the service of God in the highest possible form.

He does validate any such conversions, even if the convert’s true motives were known ahead of time, even if the convert later renounced Judaism. Such people are considered lapsed Jews, not non-Jews who went back to being non-Jews. That explains how Shimshon and Shlomo could have stayed with those wives after their lack of Jewish devotion became apparent. 

Without telling us the lesson he wants us to learn from Rambam, Tzitz Elieer writes “In conclusion.” Read literally, Scripture seems to say Shlomo allowed his wives to turn his heart astray, where Shabbat 56a tells us he in fact “only” only failed to properly remonstrate with them when they returned to idol worshipping. [The passage in Shabbat offers a few more examples of where Scripture treats someone who failed to admonish others as if he had himself committed the sin. People often read that as apologetics, a way to cover over the sins of figures in Tanach, where it seems to me a more frightening assumption, the failure to remonstrate can count close to committing the sin oneself. The Gemara did not excuse Shlomo by saying he did not worship idols himself; it said his failure to stop his wives when he could have makes it as if he did it himself. I think that’s stricter, not less strict.].

Then Tzitz Eliezer adds a Midrash on Shir haShirim which says David and Shlomo are otherwise remarkably parallel, including that both achieved absolution for their sins. Not only that, Shlomo merited the Divine Spirit and produced three books of Scripture, MishleiKohelet, and Shir haShirim.

Subtext Turned into Text

He leaves the letter there, with no direct explanation of the point he was making in the postscript. If I may be so bold, I’d suggest he is telling him the challenge of converting people with questionable attachment to observance lies in what happens after the conversion. The rabbi can convert this boy effectively and validly; but if, after that, the boy will return to the life he has lived until now, the rabbi will have done nothing positive for him, his family, or the community.

Shlomo and Shimshon were sullied by their connection to their converts, regardless of the technical validity of the conversion. The stain was not unrecoverable, as Shlomo managed to still contribute three books to Scripture. But it’s all part of the calculus when we take on converts who raise flags of concern.

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