In the latest issue of Tradition (link), hot off the presses and available online, R. Michael J. Broyde publishes a review of Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar’s book about conversion, Transforming Identity: The Ritual Transition from Gentile to Jew—Structure and Meaning. This is the book that is supposed to make the case that someone can convert even without accepting observance of the commandments. R. Broyde’s conclusion is:
This book, while well-intentioned, ultimately fails in its reading of the rabbinic tradition and Jewish law. Its basic arguments—that the two Talmudic sources discussing conversion are in tension with each other, and that while some Rishonim accept one and require kabbalat ha-mitsvot, some accept the other source and do not require kabbalat ha-mitsvot—is without precedent and includes a glaring misunderstanding of the Jewish legal system.
I have been asked to say something about the current conversion controversy. The halakhic problems will be sorted out by the poskim, but let me make a few comments about the historical issue. There have been a number of people who have stated that the lenient approach often associated with R. Uziel is a singular opinion, or that this view was original to him. That this is mistaken can be seen by anyone who examines Avi Sagi’s and Zvi Zohar’s book Giyur u-Zehut Yehudit. In fact, throughout most of Jewish history a lenient approach to conversion was the mainstream approach.
Michael Makovi posts to Hirhurim:
Professor Shapiro indicates a misunderstanding on Rabbi Broyde’s part.
Rabbi Broyde says,
Taking all of the above into account, there is no denying that there is indeed a dispute amongst Rishonim and Ahronim concerning the nature of kabbalat ha-mitsvot. However, as we described above, the dispute is not the profound dispute Sagi and Zohar put forward as to whether kabbalat ha-mitsvot is actually necessary at all. Until the writings of R. Uzziel, there is not a single halakhic authority who states that kabbalat ha-mitsvot is not necessary.
But Professor Shapiro (ibid.) says,
Contrary to what has often been stated, the lenient approach, and this includes R. Uziel, always insisted on kabbalat mitzvot. The dispute concerns what "kabbalat mitzvot" means, and whether a formal acceptance, without inner conviction, is sufficient.
Also, Rabbi Broyde never grapples with the extensive shu"t literature which never requires the candidate to be observant. I recently read Rabbi Hoffmann’s, for example. Rabbi Hoffmann NEVER entertains the idea that the non-observant gentile spouse must pledge to accept the commandments or such. Apparently, her resolve to become Jewish is enough. Rabbi Broyde repeatedly notes that Rambam and Shulhan Arukh merely waived hoda’at haMitzvot (the obligation to inform), and that they retained the obligation of kabbalat haMitzvot, but Rabbi Broyde never seems to realize that Rambam explicitly said that King Shlomo’s wives are valid converts, even though they NEVER pledged to abandon idolatry!
So whatever kabbalat haMitzvot means, it cannot mean the convert has to have a lishmah acceptance of the mitzvot and Torah min haShamayim. If that’s what kabbalat mitzvot meant, then Yevamot 24b and the Rambam re: King Shlomo’s wives would be utterly incomprehensible.
Contra Rabbi Shmelkes, Yevamot 24b cannot mean that the candidate ALSO accepts the Jewish lifestyle, along with converting for marriage. For if so, then how did King Shlomo’s wives become valid converts even though they NEVER abandoned idolatry? And according to the Gra (see Rabbi Henkin in Hakira), King Shlomo even knew they were intent on remaining idolatrous!
And yet, their conversions were valid. According to Rabbi Broyde’s understanding, Rambam’s defense of King Shlomo is all smoke.
According to Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg, the Torah is only the form, not the matter; mundane life is the matter. According to the Haredim, however, Torah itself is to be our life; Torah is the matter according to them, and not only the form.
If Orthodox authorities can so disagree on what Judaism’s very essence is, what Torah itself really is, is it any surprise that they will differ on what giyur is?
As Rabbi Marc Angel has noted, Rabbi Shmelkes’s view, following Rabbi Nehemiah in Yevamot 24b, is that Judaism is only a religion. "Germans of the Mosaic persuasion", after all.
Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner rejects this view of Judaism (http://www.math.psu.edu/glasner/Dor4/ zionism.html):
It is clear, then, that anyone who does not believe in the future of the Jewish people in its historical homeland twists the Torah from its plain meaning. That is why when a Gentile comes to convert to Judaism he must first pledge solidarity with the Jewish people, as in the words of Ruth the Moabite: "Your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d" (Ruth 1:16). My opinion, then, is that the proclamation that it is possible to belong to the Jewish faith while also belonging to the Hungarian, German, or Slavic nationalities is absolute heresy and that the prohibition against such heresy is of such severity that one is obligated to be killed rather than to transgress (yei’hareig v’al ya’avor). I therefore cannot understand how our rabbis, the leaders of the Hungarian Orthodox Jewish community could have officially announced that the Orthodox Jews uphold Judaism as a religious community, but that they have nothing to do with the Judaism as a nationality, that they see themselves as Hungarians of the first rank and perceive no distinction between themselves and the ethnic Hungarians except their religion. In the annals of the Jewish people this proclamation will remain as a disgraceful, indelible stain on Hungarian Orthodoxy.
I read Rabbi Broyde’s essay; he attributes to Zohar/Sagi a denial of the requirement for kabbalat mitzvot. But in reality, the truth is as Professor Shapiro said: they require kabbalat mitzvot, but of a different sort than the Ashkenazim.
And again, Rabbi Broyde never grapples with how King Shlomo’s wives were kosher, when they never claimed they’d abandon idolatry. According to Sagi/Zohar, this is clear; they accepted the ritual of conversion. But according to Rabbi Broyde, what did these women do? He notes that Rambam and SA waive hoda’at haMitzvot, but he ignores that Rambam waived far more than this if he made these women kosher! Rambam did not merely waive the requirement to inform; he waived the requirement to m’kabel (at least as WE today tend to understand m’kabel).
And what of all the Sephardi rabbis in footnote 2, www.jewishideas.org. Did these rabbis forget to study Rambam and SA?
I also find it interesting that Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, in his discussion, takes it for granted that conversion only requires the candidate to pledge observance l’hatchila. Bediavad, he says, no observance is required.
Now, I realize that Rabbi Berkovits is not the first person people turn to as a posek. But one is struck by the fact that Rabbi Berkovits doesn’t even see the need to justify his claim. He devotes one SENTENCE to this claim, and moves on, as if he had said something as self-evident as "pork is treif". (You don’t start citing Rambam and SA to prove that claim.)
If matters were as clear as Rabbi Broyde presents them, wouldn’t Rabbi Berkovits have justified his novel claim more? Sagi and Zohar write a whole book, and Rabbi Berkovits writes ONE SENTENCE.
Rabbi Berkovits made MANY controversial claims, and even I don’t accept them all. But in all his controversial claims, he elaborated and explained them, citing his sources. In Not in Heaven, there is no lack of references to the Gemara, Rambam, and SA.
And yet for conversion, he blithely states that conversion without observance is valid, and moves on, as if he’s said the most obvious thing in the world. Is this not perplexing?
Moreover, Demai and Bekhorot 30b say we do not accept anyone who rejects a mitzvah. But what if he gets converted anyway? The lashon of Demai and Bekhorot seems to be only l’hatchila.
And as Rabbi Berkovits notes, a l’hatchila can be ignored in a case of dochek. Normally, we only accept observant converts, but in case of need (like non-Jewish Russians going to Israeli public school and speaking fluent Hebrew…), we can waive this. As Rabbi Shlomo Kluger says (cited by Rabbi Henkin), kabbalat mitzvot is a d’rabanan makhshir, and contra Rabbi Broyde, this opinion seems to mesh well with all the pre-Rabbi-Shmelkes opinions.