31 Jul Conversion Annulments
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. Most sincere converts recognize that some people convert insincerely and even take offense at the lightness with which Judaism is taken in such situations.
However, even if some people convert insincerely, it is not the responsibility of the general public to question any individual’s conversion. Readers of this column are not in a position to judge and should accept welcomingly anyone who claims to be a Jew. Too frequently, I hear people state that a celebrity conversion is obviously invalid. Without knowing the details, they jump to conclusions. Celebrity conversions can be sincere also, even when there is marriage involved. I know of one celebrity conversion in which a leading posek was brought in to confirm the sincerity before a reputable beis din performed the conversion, none of which was reported in the media. We should assume the best rather than risk violating the biblical prohibitions of insulting a convert and spreading false rumors.
While I object 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, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik even invalidated a conversion himself in which there was no hatafas dam bris, as recorded in Iggeros Ha-Grid Ha-Levi (p. 107). Even though another rabbi had allowed that conversion, Rav Soloveitchik forcefully disagreed after the fact.
When a conversion annulment is necessary, it certainly is an emotionally trying situation. However, there are occasions where the nullification is an act of mercy, a surprising relief.
Rav Ya’akov Ariel (Be-Ohalah Shel Torah, vol. 2 no. 28) was posed the following question. A woman who had undergone a Reform conversion to Judaism was in the process of studying and preparing for an Orthodox conversion. She was called to attend to her deathly ill mother and asked whether she could fly on Shabbos to reach her mother’s side before she passed away. Permitting the violation of Shabbos in a case that is not piku’ach nefesh requires certainty. Any small amount of doubt would demand stringency.
Rav Ariel examines at length a variety of related issues and concludes that they all point in one direction– the conversion was invalid and the prospective convert could travel on Shabbos (albeit preferably with a foreign, i.e. non-Israeli, airline). I found two specific aspects particularly relevant to many other cases.
Converting to Judaism means joining the Jewish people, Klal Yisrael. Rav Ariel quotes the Gemara (Chullin 101b) that “they were not called Israelites until Sinai.” We are a people because of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. That is where our obligations in commandments began. Rav Ariel writes: “Only one whose feet stood at Mt. Sinai or who joins this acceptance is obligated in the commandments. However, someone who does not accept both that the Torah is from Heaven and that the Sinai event (ma’amad Har Sinai) is an obligating experience does not join Klal Yisrael and does not obligate himself in the commandments, and therefore is not a convert at all.”
He goes one step further. Although certainly not acted upon, technically someone who rejects a fundamental principle of Jewish belief is subject to execution (see Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Rotzei’ach 4:10). Let me quickly reiterate that this is only a theoretical status. Historically, Jewish courts have rarely executed anyone and certainly would not do so today (see Chazon Ish, Yoreh De’ah 2:16). However, the status is important for other reasons, including our own discussion.
How, Rav Ariel asks, can we convert a non-believer to Judaism? How can we bring into the fold someone who is immediately liable – at least in theory – for execution? According to the Rambam, a disbeliever is not a member of Klal Yisrael. A convert who does not believe certainly cannot join Klal Yisrael.
Rav Ariel is not advocating excommunicating disbelievers. Nor is he suggesting burdensome requirements on prospective converts. His point in this section of the long responsum is that theology matters. Jewish law and thought intertwine. Conversion is not just a matter of ritual actions but also belief, a theological transformation. This is a powerful reminder to born-Jews of the importance of belief and a tribute to all faithful converts who join the Torah nation.