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Lessons from Mount Sinai

The Interplay between Halacha and Humanity
in the Gerus Process
A major motif of the Shavuos
holiday is the idea that
kabbalas HaTorah represents
the collective conversion of B’nai
Yisroel to the Jewish faith. Indeed,
Rabbi Yona Reiss
Rosh Yeshiva, RIETS, Av Beit Din, CRC
the Talmud (Kerisus 9a) derives Chairman, RCA Conversion Committee
from the matan Torah experience
at Har Sinai each of the requisite
components of conversion, including Hadibros on Shavuot morning, the grandiose reward for her conversion
the requirements for immersion in entire congregation rises to stage a to Judaism. According to one opinion
a mikvah and, in the case of male reenactment of the entering of the in the Talmud (that of “acherim
converts, bris milah. The statement community of Israel into the Divine omrim”), most converts endure a
of “na’aseh ve’nishma” (Shemos covenant (see Mesorah, volume 1, certain amount of suffering as a result
24:7) — that we agreed to accept the pp. 17-18). Along the same lines, of having delayed their entry into
covenant of all the laws of the Torah, the reading of the Megillah of Ruth the covenant of the Jewish people.
including those not yet known by on Shavuos (in the Diaspora on the However, in the case of Ruth, she was
us — parallels the requirement of second day) evokes the conversion not able to convert until the Sages had
kabbalas ol mitzvos, the acceptance experience of each individual convert. decreed that the Biblical ban against
by each convert throughout Ruth, in her exclamation (1:16) of marrying Moabite converts applied
the generations of the yoke of “amech ami v’elokoich elokai” (your only to Moabite men and not Moabite
commandments (see, e.g., Teshuvos people are my people, and your G-d is women. As soon as this ruling was
VeHanhagos 2:515). Similarly, the my G-d), represents the paradigmatic issued, she converted immediately
requirement that a conversion take convert who is prepared to associate without delay, and was therefore not
place before a rabbinical court is herself wholly and unconditionally to subject to punishment (commentary
based on the concept of the rabbinical the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. of Etz Yosef, ibid).
court serving in the place of the
Divine Presence that was present at The Talmud (Yevamos 48b) derives However, the aforementioned opinion
Har Sinai, as expressed in the verse from the verse in Ruth (2:12) in in the Talmud about how converts are
(Tehillim 82:1) Elokim nitzav ba’adas which Boaz tells her “u’sehi maskurtech penalized for not having converted
Kel be’kerev Elokim yishpot — that shelemah” — that your reward shall at an earlier point in time is puzzling
the Divine Presence resides within a be complete, “asher bas lachasos because Judaism does not seek to
rabbinical court (see Rabbi Joseph B. tachas kenafav” — because you have proselytize non-Jews to convert
Soloveitchik, Al HaTeshuva, p. 137). chosen to enter under the protections to Judaism, and believes that it is
of the wings of the Divine Presence, perfectly legitimate for non-Jews to
During the reading of the Aseres that Ruth received a particularly remain non-Jewish. Why, then, should

Special Symposium • Shavuot 5777

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
a convert be punished for taking so understand why, notwithstanding It is interesting in this vein to note
long to convert? Na’ami’s three utterances of shovna that while Judaism recognizes the
The commentary Ahavas Eisan (on and shovna b’nosai (“return, my validity of she’ain da’atam domeh
daughters, go back”), from which zeh lazeh (Berachos 58a) — of there
the Eyn Yaakov) answers this question
based on a different Talmudic passage. we derive that a convert should be being a variety of different personality
The Gemara in Shabbos (146a) states discouraged three times, the Midrash types — nonetheless when it comes
that all Jews were present at Har Sinai (Yalkut Shimoni, Yisro, Remez 268) to interactions with conversion
and have therefore been cleansed teaches: candidates the Talmud (Shabbos 30b)
states explicitly:
of the contamination brought upon ‫כשיבוא אדם אצלך להתגייר ואינו בא אלא‬
humankind by the Serpent in the ‫לשם שמים אף אתה קרבהו ואל תרחקהו‬ ‫לעולם יהא אדם ענוותן כהלל ולא קפדן‬
Garden of Eden. The Talmud then ‫מכאן אתה למד שיהא אדם דוחה בשמאל‬ .‫כשמאי‬
asks that while this makes sense with .‫ומקרב בימין‬ A person should always have the patience
respect to descendants of those who When a person comes to you to convert and forbearance of Hillel and not the
were present at Mount Sinai, this and is sincerely motivated to do so, you strictness and severity of Shamai.
does not account for converts whose should welcome him and not distance Most people are familiar with the
ancestors were not present at the time. him. From here we learn that a person famous story of the individual who
Accordingly, the Talmud answers that should distance with left (weaker hand) thought he could cause Hillel to
while the converts were not present, and welcome with the right (stronger) lose his temper by continuously
their “mazal,” or spiritual shadow, hand.
interrupting him with silly questions
was indeed present at Har Sinai when Since each sincere convert starts off while Hillel was trying to bathe for
the Torah was given. Therefore, all as a destined member of the Jewish
Shabbos. What is not as well known is
converts were predestined from the people, special care must be taken
that this story appears in the context
time of their birth to become converts not to cast the convert away, even in
of the Talmudic passage praising
to Judaism, in which case, explains the process of our appropriate efforts
Hillel’s personality specifically when
the Ahavas Eisan, they can be held to gauge his or her commitment and
dealing with candidates for Jewish
responsible for not converting quickly sincerity to adopt the Jewish faith.
conversion. The Talmud immediately
enough. The Radal (commentary to Midrash
thereafter recounts how after
The Chida (Midbar Kedemos) notes Rabbah, Megillas Ruth) writes: Shamai forcefully turned away three
that this is a reason why a convert ‫והיינו שפותחין לו דלת ואין דוחין לגמרי לנעול‬ conversion candidates who came with
is not called a “goy she’nisgayer” (a .‫דלת בפניו‬ unreasonable attitudes (one wanting
non-Jew who converted), but rather The door to conversion should never be to accept only the Written Law, one
a “ger she’nisgayer” (a convert who shut entirely but must always maintain a wanting to learn the entire Torah
converted), since he or she was sliver of an aperture. on one foot, and the other wanting
always destined to become a convert. In fact, the Ba’alei Tosafot (Yevamos to become the High Priest), Hillel
This insight is also consistent with 109b, s.v. Ra’ah) note that while it worked with them with patience and
the comment attributed to the Ger is improper to solicit converts or to understanding until they were fully
Tzedek of Vilna that throughout the convert an individual precipitously, ready for conversion (see Maharsha ad
generations, those Jews who became the patriarchs were criticized for locum, s.v. amar leih). At the end of the
apostates were descendants of the rejecting the overtures of Timna account, the Talmud (Shabbos 31a)
small minority of Jews who did not (see Sanhedrin 99b), a daughter of a tells about how the three individuals
want to accept the Torah at the time chieftain of Seir, when she genuinely met up in one place and declared:
of matan Torah, and those non-Jews desired to become a member of the ‫קפדנותו של שמאי בקשה לטורדנו מן העולם‬
who converted to Judaism were Jewish people. A consequence of her .‫ענוותנותו של הלל קרבנו תחת כנפי השכינה‬
descendants from the small minority rejection from conversion to Judaism The severity of Shamai sought to banish
of the other nations who would have was that she ended up in a union with us from the world, and the humility of
been prepared to accept the Torah Elifaz, the son of Esav, from whom she Hillel drew us under the wings of the
when it was offered to them. bore Amalek, the arch enemy of the Divine Presence.
Jewish people.
Based on this insight, we can

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
The clear message from this Talmudic level prior to the completion of the to Judaism is a significant human
passage is that the rabbis who deal conversion process. milestone that requires humanity,
with conversion candidates are sensitivity and appreciation.
Along these lines, Rav Asher Weiss
enjoined to assume the personality Accordingly, in addition to sending
(Shu”t Minchas Asher 1:49) rules that
profile of Hillel. out a certificate of conversion to
it is not the province of the Beth Din
The Gemara in Yevamos (47b) to reject a candidate based on the fact the conversion candidate, we have
indicates that it is a mitzvah to that they are uncomfortable with the adopted the practice of sending out
convert a sincere conversion convert’s social skills (unless of course “Mazal Tov on Your Conversion”
candidate without delay as soon there is a deficiency in terms of midos cards, much in the same fashion that
as the convert demonstrates his or — the essential character traits that people send such cards on a birthday,
her readiness to accept the yoke are part of a Torah Jew’s personality) anniversary, or birth of a new baby.
of commandments and the Jewish if the convert has the requisite The Talmud in Pesachim (87b)
faith. The commentators debate commitment and wherewithal to teaches:
the nature of this mitzvah, but one fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah. While
‫לא הגלה הקב”ה את ישראל לבין האומות‬
explanation is that this is a fulfillment part of the conversion process is an
‫אלא כדי שיתוספו עליהם גרים‬
of the commandment v’ahavtem es assessment by the Beth Din that a
Hashem did not exile the Jewish people
hager — to love the convert (see Rav candidate belongs in the community amongst the nations of the world except
Yerucham Perlow’s discussion in his of Israel, the Beth Din also has a for the purpose of adding converts to our
commentary to the Sefer Hamitzvot solemn responsibility to facilitate the people.
of Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, Mitzvah 19, conversion of any sincere individual
in the name of the Ri Arbargaloni). who is genuinely prepared to assume Hashem put us in exile to attract
While others are of the opinion that the commitments and responsibilities the sincere converts who are
the mitzvah of loving a convert only that define membership in the Jewish scattered throughout the earth. We
kicks in at the time that the convert community. can suggest that this task carries a
has joined the Jewish people, the twofold purpose. On one level, we
Our rabbis teach that ger she’nisgayer have a responsibility to bring into
Tosafos HaRosh (Shabbos 137b) states
k’katan shenolad dami — a convert the fold the sincere converts, such
that the mitzvah of loving the convert
who converts is like a newborn child as Ruth, the great grandmother of
is in existence even at the time that
(Yevamos 22a). Conversion is not King David, who have so much to
a bris milah is performed on a male
only a halachic process, but is a birth, contribute to the continuity of the
conversion candidate who still needs
a moment of celebration. It is our Jewish people. But on another level,
to undergo conversion in order to
custom at the Chicago Rabbinical the very process of working together
become a member of the Jewish faith,
Council, and the practice of many with conversion candidates serves as a
and that this is the reason why the
other rabbinical courts, to have growth opportunity for the character
blessing recited at such time includes
the convert recite the blessing of traits of Jews from birth, to learn how
the phrase ‫אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו למול‬
Shehechiyanu on a conversion. It is a to inspire, to instruct and to embrace
‫ — את הגרים‬Who has commanded us
happy occasion, a momentous event. those, like Ruth and even like Timna,
to circumcise the converts. We can
There is even a custom (see Mishnas who want so much to join the Jewish
understand this approach very well
HaGer 8:4, Teshuvos VeHanhagos people and adopt the Jewish faith.
based upon the explanation that every
3:307) to have a seudas mitzvah This can happen if we are prepared to
convert was destined from birth to
— a festive meal — following the open our hearts and minds, like Hillel,
convert to Judaism, and therefore is
completion of a conversion. It is to work with them earnestly and
already viewed as a convert on some
vital to remember that conversion compassionately.

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Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777