• ben-Avraham

On 'Reform Conversions'

"I thought it was an Aliyah blog?"

So did I - but apparently I have more to say on various topics than I thought - and so we're going to take a bit of a diversion down this rather bumpy road to give an opinion on the topic.

"Who's opinion?" I hear you asking - and not for the first time I question whether this pseudo dialogue I'm having with imagined readers is really a healthy thing or not - but perhaps that's better left for another, entirely different blog.

Im going to attempt, as always, to give a Torah opinion on the topic, and not my own opinion. I use the word 'attempt' in there because I'm not a Tzadik - or a Talmud Chachum - therefore I cant guarantee some of 'me' wont sneak into the answer, but I'll try my best. BezRat Hashem we'll come back to this a little later.

So where did this whole topic come from? Well it's been circulating 'around' on the inter-tubes for quite some time now [1] - and certainly is a controversial topic. More recently however someone brought to my attention facebook posts of an individual who performed a Reform conversion asking why they were not 'being accepted' by certain Jewish groups - and calling Jews who do not recognize their conversion 'racist'.

Given Im a convert, so I cant be accused of 'discriminating' against converts, and the extensive experience I have in the topic, I felt I do have the ability to comment on it.

Simply put - a 'Reform Conversion' is not a valid conversion. Full Stop.

Ever heard of a "Bark Mitzvah"? Yes, some "Rabbi's" perform them.

Why are they not valid?

There are a lot of reasons - but let's start with the most basic. In order for a conversion to be valid - it requires at a minimum 3 Shomer Shabbos Jews to preside over the main 'final' part of the conversion. Others strongly argue it needs to be a real Beit Din - 3 Shomer Shabbos Jews who are also Rabbi's/have Smicah - in either case - we need 3 Shomer Shabbos Jews, and they need to supervise the following:

The ritual requirements are (per R. Maurice Lamm, Becoming a Jew, p119):

  • Going before the beit din, a court made up of three observant adult male Jews. Usually the beit din is made up of rabbis. The beit din will question the would-be convert on motives, knowledge, secular/family impact, and other topics.

  • If accepted by the beit din: for men, circumcision or, if already circumsized, hatafat dam b'rit, drawing a symbolic drop of blood from there.

  • If accepted by the beit din: for everyone, immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath).

  • Sincere intent to accept the Written and Oral Torah. (Some would add: to the best of their understanding.)

(And add an animal sacrifice, back when those were doable.)

So what's this business about Shomer Shabbos over here? What does that mean anyways?

Shomer Shabbos simply means - Guards the Shabbat. In other words - they keep the Shabbat scrupulously. They. Do. Not. Violate. Shabbos.

Ok - that's interesting - why is that important?

In a nutshell - if a Jew does not keep Shabbos - their 'privileges' are suspended. That means - they cannot act as a witness in a court case or at a wedding, and they are considered as if they are an idolator. It's so critical in fact that non-mevushal wine must be discarded if opened and touched by a Jew that does not keep Shabbos.

Below is a quote from the Mishneh Torah - Chapter 30:15

"[The observance of] the Sabbath and [the prohibition against] worshiping false deities are each equivalent to [the observance] of all the mitzvot of the Torah. And the Sabbath is the eternal sign between the Holy One, blessed be He, and us.
For this reason, whoever transgresses the other mitzvot is considered to be one of the wicked of Israel, but a person who violates the Sabbath is considered as an idolater. Both of them are considered to be equivalent to gentiles in all regards. Therefore, our prophets praise [Sabbath observance], saying [Isaiah 56:]: "Happy is the man who does the following, and the mortal who holds fast to it, who keeps the Sabbath, without desecrating it...."

Ya that's a lot to swallow if you dont keep Shabbos according to the Talmud or you arent used to being told the truth or having it presented to you like that. Sorry about that - but I dont think the 'kid gloves' routine is having the returns it used to anymore. Sometimes people need it a bit louder and in da face.

So - back to our case at hand. Reform conversions. The chances of a Reform Jew keeping Shabbat is about 0.1%

Why is that?

This is because 'Reform Jews' do not believe in the authenticity or Divine origins of the Talmud. 'Reform Jews' believe that the Torah stipulates that we simply must 'Rest' on Shabbos - and that rest is not defined by the Torah, so we can do what we want. The Talmud they believe was not given by Hashem - but was rather created by 'normal Rabbi's' of the past who were more 'Orthodox' in contravention to the rest of society, and have tried to 'force' this strict interpretation on them.

I could spill a lot of 'digital ink' refuting this sad claim - but I'm going to keep it short. Keeping it short - obviously is not my forte - but I'll do the best I can.

Firstly - in the Talmud the rules of Shabbos - the 39 Melacha (Shabbat 49B), come after instructions relating to how to build the Mishkon or the temporary structure in which Hashem resided while the Jews were in the desert. This was done as it was a 'simple' way to tell the Jews how to keep Shabbos; "On Shabbos - dont do all of the things you do during the week - and here are the categories. Now extrapolate"

How do we know this? Im sure there are way better examples and proofs than the following - but this is what popped into my head.

The Prophet Hosea in chapter 12 verse 11 tell us that G*d commanded him to say "I spoke to the prophets, and I granted them many visions; and through the prophets appeared in many likenesses and spoke in metaphors [in order to ensure that My message would be understood by the people]" In essence, I made it so you could understand it. There is nothing 'happenstance' about the order of the Torah, or the order of the Talmud.

Similarly we find something interesting about the 'captive war bride' ( Deut. 21:1 ) and the rebellious son and how it is written. If the Parsha is read 'normally' in a straightforward manner we see it as a series of unrelated rules about how and when you can take a captive woman as a wife, and then on to the rules of a 'rebellious son'. King David - sadly found out from Hashem - that in fact the entire section is supposed to be read as one. "If you do this heinous thing of taking a woman of your enemy for your wife - while it is a mitzvah, know that you will have from her a rebellious son and nothing but pain and anguish will come from it." [2] And by the way - this pain and anguish is what happened to King David.

There are many many proofs that can be given - everything from the detailed instructions of Tefillin being only in the Talmud, when the 5 books of Moses tell us to make them - but doesnt tell us how (just like Shabbat), or to the fact that the Rabbi's who eventually added to and wrote down the Talmud were not 'ordinary people'. That would be like saying Rabbi Akiva was 'ordinary', or Reish Lakish was ordinary. These genius's were easily on the level of the Labuvitcher Rebbe (Rebbe Schneerson of blessed memory) or greater - and I dont know of anyone who would say that the Rebbe was simply an ordinary Rabbi or person. For example - during a meeting between the Rebbe and Ariel Sharon - the Rebbe warned Ariel Sharon not to get on a flight returning to Tel Aviv. Ariel Sharon wisely listened to the Rebbe; the plane he was to get on was hijacked by Arabs looking to take him hostage. When security forces asked the Rebbe why he didnt warn them about who was going to do it and when so they could capture the perpetrators - he simply said - I didnt know who was going to doing it or when - I just had a strong feeling and I've learned to listen to them. [3] There are hundreds of similar documented stories about the Rebbe, and equally as impressive, or more impressive stories about the Sages who expanded on, or initially contributed to the Talmud.

But let's move on because I could write about this all day long . I had a whole thing about the Sadduces planned out - but it's enough already. [4]

Let's go to the source itself. Who is the best known convert in the history of the Jewish people? Probably Ruth - so what does Megillas Ruth have to say about conversion?

The Talmud interprets Maggilah's Ruth in the following manner [5]

“‘We are forbidden,’ [Naomi told Ruth], ‘[to travel beyond the] Sabbath boundaries.’ ‘Whither thou goest, I will go‘ (Ruth 1:16).
‘We are forbidden to be alone with a man.’ ‘…Where thou lodgest, I will lodge.
‘We have been commanded 613 commandments!’ ‘…Thy people shall be my people.
‘We are forbidden idolatry!’ ‘…And thy, God my God.
‘Four modes of execution were entrusted to the Jewish court.’ ‘Where thou diest, there will I die‘ (Ruth 1:17).”

So who was Ruth? What was she like? If we're to use her as a guide to determine what a proper conversion is - perhaps we should ask those questions.

We see the following from Shabbos 113b:

"It was taught in a baraita: He saw a matter of modesty in her [Ruth] when she was collecting stalks. She picked stalks that were upright while she was standing, and stalks that had fallen she picked while sitting; due to her modesty she did not bend over to take them."

Some will ask - So what? What should this mean? What does it tell us? Excellent questions. Modesty for a woman is very difficult to achieve. There are many who can articulate this challenge far better than I can - but I would like to suggest that it is perhaps one of the hardest challenges faced by Jewish women. Here we see that the Talmud praises Ruth's modesty, and below her Torah knowledge.

"He saw in her a matter of wisdom and Torah, and that is why he asked about her. What he saw was that she collected two stalks, but she did not collect three stalks. She thereby acted in accordance with the halakha that three stalks lying together are not considered to be gleanings left for the poor; rather, they remain in the possession of the owner of the field."


The Gemara continues to discuss Shabbat. Naomi advised Ruth:

“And you shall bathe, and anoint yourself, and put on your robes, and go down to the threshing floor. Do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking” (Ruth 3:3). Rabbi Elazar said: These robes are Shabbat garments that Naomi told her to wear in honor of the occasion?"

So we see that Ruth prepared herself appropriately for the Shabbat. She bathed, she had Shabbat clothes. She was careful with Halachah, and very careful with modesty. I think we can safely conclude that Ruth followed the 613 laws of the Torah. She was, in other words, not of the 'Reform' school of conversion, where she simply called herself a 'Jew' and chose not to actually follow the Torah - including the Oral law.

The last argument I'll make is one of my own, and not tied to other writings I've read on this topic.

Some 'Reform converts' will say "I'm observing at the same level (not observing Shabbat or the main halachah) as a lot of the other Jews I know around me, and yet they are considered Jews and I am not? That's a double standard!"

Hmm except not quite.

Some Rabbinic authorities have in the past said that many non-observant halachic Jews may be considered as 'Captured by the Nations'. While that may be true in some cases - I dont see a way to apply that same concept to 'Reform Converts', and thus absolve them of their obligations under the Torah.

If we tried - their conversion might look something a little like this:

Reform Rabbi's: "Ok and then when you immerse in the Mikveh - you will accept the Torah, and once you come up you will be a Jew ok?"

Reform Convert: "Ok"

(Convert dunks into the Mikveh)

Reform Rabbi: "Do you accept the Torah and all of the laws incumbent upon you?"

Reform Convert: "Yes!"

Reform Rabbi: "You're now a Jew"

Reform Convert: "Great! Uhoh...."

Reform Rabbi: "What?"

Reform Convert: "The Nations just came and captured my heart!"

Reform Rabbi: "It took my family 3 generations - but whatever - you'll fit right in!"

It's preposterous. Either it's the case that the convert was not sincere in the first place in accepting the Torah - both the Oral and Written - or the above can be the only plausible explanation and course of events - which...is obviously silly.

As the tannaitic source Tosefta Demai 2:6 and others state, “A convert who accepts all of the Torah except for one word is not accepted. R. Yossi b. R. Judah says: ‘Even one small detail of rabbinic law"

And now we're coming to the end of our little journey here. I appreciate those that may have stuck it out and have read this far.

Last, but certainly not least. Bittul.

The Torah has many deep teachings which have been put there for our benefit. Some think that we're doing Hashem some sort of favor by following the rules laid out for us in the Torah. "Oh look Hashem, look what Im doing for You! You we me!"

Nothing could be father from the truth. The 613 Mitzvot are not for Hashem - they are for us. Every Mitzvah you do helps you. It makes you a better person. It makes you happier. It makes you more complete. It heals your wounds.

One of the lessons the Torah teaches us is Bittul. Nullification. Less of you. You make you unhappy. All of those desires, competing needs, all of those things pulling at you constantly that you think if you just have you'll finally be happy? They are eating you alive. Instead, what we're taught by the Torah is that we should be Bittul. Less of you, more of Torah, more of Hashem.

Did you know that if you're depressed or unhappy that helping others, and putting your needs aside makes you happier? [6]

And this brings us back to a 'Reform Conversion'. A 'Reform Conversion' is anything but Bittul. Bittul is putting aside your needs, your desires, your wants, and your interpretation of the Torah to accept what Hashem says. You serve Him, not you. A 'Reform Conversion' is the opposite, it's not keeping the Torah, or doing what Hashem says.

© 2018 by ben Avraham.