What is Jewish Conversion? | Emor 5784

If someone asked you to study any aspect of Jewish law, where would you begin?

I’m not just talking about how you would introduce someone to Judaism, but which area of in-depth Torah study would you begin with?

It is always a fascinating question because it forces people to consider how Torah moves them and shapes their own Jewish identity. I remember asking this question to Rabbi Eliezer Brietowitz, Rosh Yeshiva of Darchei Torah in Toronto, and he said, “The laws of lashon harah, negative speech.” It was a fairly unexpected answer but I’ve come to appreciate it more and more. Some outreach programs deliberately begin with the laws of damages, which nicely highlight the rhythm and internal logic of Talmudic discussions.

I would begin with the laws of geirus, conversion. Not because I think people should convert to Judaism or have some sort of plan B if they fall in love with a non-Jew, but rather because I think the laws of conversion most clearly express what Jewish faith, law, and family are all about. It is also fairly easy to explore. There are three major passages in the Talmud that form the basis for nearly all laws of conversion.

(1) The longest is the discussion in Tractate Yevamos (46a-49b), where the Talmud outlines the basic procedure for Jewish conversion: circumcision (for males), immersion into a mikvah, a ritual bath, and finally a special sacrifice that was offered in the time of the Temple. (I wrote about the more intrinsic connection between Tractate Yevamos, which discusses levirate marriage, and the laws of conversion in my ongoing Talmud essay series for Tablet, you can read it here.)

(2) There is a short discussion in Kesubos (11a) about how young children are converted to Judaism.

(3) In Tractate Kerisus (9a) there is a foundational discussion that explains that all of the laws of Jewish conversion are derived from the experience of the Jewish People at Mount Sinai.

There is one other essential rule for conversion and this is the one that has made conversion so tricky to navigate, namely, that conversion must take place in front of a beis din, a formal Jewish court.

The Talmud derives the requirement for a beis din at Jewish conversion from a verse in our parsha. The context is important. In the course of discussing whether a prospective convert has agency to perform their own conversion (a term known as b’yado, בידו, meaning within their hand or agency), the Talmud explains that conversion is not a status that people are considered to have agency over because of the requirement for a beis din. If a beis din is required for conversion, the Talmud reasons, “Who says that those three will be available to him?”

Really? This is why conversion is not considered something one can perform on their own? Because it may be too difficult to assemble three Jews to serve on the beis din? Why does the Talmud assume this will be such a challenging condition for conversion? A smart convert could just put up a sign that says “free food” outside a mikvah and wait for Jews to gather—once they do, just jump in and there’s the beis din! Who says you can’t convene a beis din without their knowledge or consent? Just jump into a mikvah in front of 3 Jews! Instead of saying “Canonball!” just shout “For the sake of Jewish conversion!”

To understand the nature of conversion and the requirement of a beis din, let’s explore some of the history of Jewish conversion.

Read the rest on Substack, and listen to the full shiur above!