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Rabbi Yona Reiss, cRc Av Beth Din
In Megilas Rus, we read about the persistent desire of Rus the Moavite woman to convert to the Jewish faith following the death of her husband Machlon. Rus is the paradigm of a righteous convert who took upon herself all the 613 mitzvot of the Torah with full faith and enthusiasm (see Yevamos 47b).
The Midrash (Rus Rabbah 2:16) notes that Naomi, the mother-in-law of Rus, tried to dissuade her from joining the faith of Judaism on three separate occasions, using the word שבנה – “return to where you came.” Finally, after seeing how Rus steadfastly continued to cleave to her – ותרא כי מתאמצת היא ללכת אתה- (Rus 1:18), Naomi gave up her efforts to talk Rus out of conversion – ותחדל לדבר אליה. From this exchange, the Midrash concludes that דוחין את הגר ג’ פעמים – that one should “push aside” a prospective convert three times before agreeing to accept his or her candidacy.
The notion of pushing away a prospective convert is a familiar one to Rabbis who participate in the realm of conversion. Often it is difficult to decipher the genuine candidates from the insincere or fleeting ones, and providing discouragement is an effective method of testing a candidate’s mettle. On the other hand, the Midrash (ibid) also derives from the verse בחוץ לא ילין גר – “no Ger [stranger] needed to lodge in the street” (Iyov 31:32), that לעולם יהא אדם דוחה בשמאל ומקרב בימין –the rejection of a convert should be a qualified one, whereby one pushes aside with the left hand and yet draws in the candidate with his right hand. The Radal explains that we learn from the Midrash that it is appropriate to at least “open the door” for the conversion candidate and not push aside the candidate entirely and thus permanently bolt the portal of entry to Judaism.
Similarly, the Yalkut Shimoni (Yisro 268) cites Rabbi Eliezer as noting that the approach of not closing the door completely emulates the way of Hashem who brought Yisro, the father-in-law of Moshe Rabbeinu, nearer to Judaism, and did not reject him – ואף אתה כשיבא אדם אצלך להתגייר ואינו בא אלא לשם שמים אף אתה קרבהו ואל תרחקהו – “so too when someone comes to you for the purpose of conversion and whose motivation is for the sake of Heaven, you should bring the person closer and not turn him away.” The Midrash concludes, consistent with the previously cited Midrashic passage (from Rus Rabbah), by noting ומכאן אתה לומד שיהא אדם דוחה בשמאל ומקרב בימין – that “from here we learn that a person should reject with his left hand and bring near with his right hand.”
Perhaps this explains why the Talmud in Shabbos (30b – 31a) statesלעולם יהא אדם ענוותן כהלל ואל יהא קפדן כשמאי – that a person should be forbearing like Hillel and not be unrelenting like Shamai – specifically in the context of how to treat conversion candidates. The Talmud recounts three stories of converts who approached both Shamai and Hillel with questionable levels of sincerity and commitment towards conversion. Shamai chased them away, while Hillel accepted their candidacy, ultimately plumbing their souls to find an inner spark of sincerity. While Shamai’s approach of rejecting the candidate certainly seems consistent with the requirement to rebuff a conversion candidate three times, Hillel demonstrated the need to perform a more balanced and nuanced approach that would leave the door open for truly sincere candidates, even those who are not fully suitable at first glance.
Interestingly, the Talmud does not seem to record the doctrine of requiring a three-time rejection rule for conversion candidates. The rejection requirement also does not appear in the Shulchan Aruch or the standard commentaries thereof in the codification of the laws pertaining to converts (in Yoreh Deah 268-269).
Nonetheless, in the Hilchos Gerim of Rabbeinu Gershon HaGozer (13th century, Germany), the author writes ממאנין בו ג’ פעמים ולבסוף מקבלין אותו – that prior to accepting a conversion candidate, one is in fact obligated to rebuff the candidate three times. Additionally, the Midrashic commentary Mesores Hamidrash cites the Talmudic passage in Yevamos (47a) as a source for the three-time rejection rule.
This citation to the Talmudic passage in Yevamos is somewhat puzzling since there does not seem to be an explicit requirement in that source regarding the need to reject a candidatpe on three occasions. The Talmud simply states that when a convert comes to convert, we point out to the convert that the Jewish people suffer persecution and exile nowadays. If the candidate then persists in wanting to convert, מקבלין אותו מיד – the Talmud states that we accept him immediately. Rabbi Gedalia Feder zt”l in his book Nachlas Tzvi explains that the word “immediately” should be interpreted as “after refusing the candidate three times.” However, this interpretation does not seem to be obvious from the text.
Perhaps the explanation is that the discouragement of the candidate based on considerations of antisemitism constitutes one stage of “pushing away.” The continuation of the Talmudic text records that after this initial encounter, we inform the candidate about some of the lighter mitzvoth and some of the heavier mitzvoth, and inform the candidate that there is death by excision for eating prohibited fat or violating Shabbos once a person has converted, while beforehand these are completely permissible activities for a non-Jew (we also share the reward for mitzvoth so as not to overburden the candidate), and only if he accepts these conditions, מלין אותו מיד – we circumcise him immediately. The explanation given is דאי פריש נפרוש – that we are happy to provide the candidate with an escape hatch to drop out of the conversion process, since קשים גרים לישראל כספחת – the existence of converts can be a hardship to the Jewish people (either because, inter alia, their lack of knowledge can serve as an obstacle for others, or because their punctiliousness to perform mitzvoth puts others to shame; see Tosafos to Yevamos 47b, and Tosafos to Kiddushin 70b). Thus, the emphasis upon the abundance of mitzvoth and possibility of punishment may constitute a second form of discouragement (with a certain amount of bringing closer as well). Finally, the Talmud concludes by noting that after the circumcision is performed, we once again inform the convert about a smattering of lighter mitzvoth and heavier mitzvoth, and upon his immersion, welcome him as a full-fledged Jew. We can suggest that the final dose of reminding the convert of all his new mitzvah obligations constitutes the third and final stage of discouragement, following which the conversion may be performed. Thus, the three stages of pushing away are really found in the Talmudic text after all.
Even though a female candidate does not undergo circumcision and therefore there is no second stage of discouragement associated with her process of conversion, the Talmud also indicates that all candidates also need to undergo an initial review to determine that they are not seeking to convert for ulterior motives (see Yevamos 24b; Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Biah 13:14; Mishneh L’Melech, ad locum, 14:1), and this careful scrutiny can be understood as a form of “pushing away” as well. Thus, taken together, there appears to be ample support for the notion of three separate sessions of discouragement for all candidates, albeit in a balanced and nuanced fashion, consistent with the Midrashic literature.
Additionally, the Talmud states (Yevamos 109b), based on a verse in Mishlei (11:15) that “misfortune upon misfortune will come upon those who accept converts.” Tosafos (ad locum) notes that this seems inconsistent with our celebration in Megilas Rus of Naomi’s acceptance of Rus as a candidate for conversion, as well with the fact that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) is critical of the patriarchs for not accepting the conversion candidacy of Timna, who eventually became a concubine to Esav’s son Elifaz and the mother of our arch-nemesis Amalek. Accordingly, the Tosafos explain that the criticism is only heaped upon those who seek to actively recruit converts or who accept converts precipitously. However, if a sincere convert approaches us, and there is a careful path of examination, investigation, and discouragement, then יש לנו לקבלם – it is then of course appropriate to perform the conversion. In fact, the Talmud refers to the acceptance of a worthy conversion candidate as a mitzvah (see Yevamos 47b) that should not be delayed. Rav Yerucham Perlow (commentary to the Sefer Hamitzvot of Rav Saadiah Gao, mitzvah 19) suggests that performing a conversion for a righteous convert is included in the mitzvah of Ahavas Hashem – of loving Hashem, just as Avrohom fulfilled this mitzvah by spreading the love for Hashem in this world amongst other people.
In fact, the very act of discouraging conversion candidates, to ensure that their motivations are steadfast and sincere, may very well be doing a favor to the candidates by enabling them to come closer to Hashem in the process. The Talmud in Kiddushin (70b) states that those who are born Jewish enjoy the benefit of Hashem reaching out to the Jewish nation to bring them closer to Him (based on a verse in Yechezkel 37:27), while converts need to bring themselves close to Hashem on their own initiative (based on a verse in Yirmiyahu 30:21; see Rashi s.v. “b’yisroel). By enabling this process of the convert demonstrating initiative through measured discouragement of the convert, with the right dose of keeping the door open, those who engage in this dual task of “the left hand pushing away and the right hand bringing closer” help the righteous converts develop their special relationship with Hashem.
Along these lines, the Chida explained that the reason a convert is called a גר שנתגייר – a “convert who converted, “ as opposed to a “non-Jew who converted,” is because all righteous converts were destined to become converts from the time that the Torah was given at Har Sinai (see the Ahavas Eisan’s explanation to the Talmudic passage in Yevamos 48a that suggests that converts are brought to task for not converting sooner based on the Talmudic passage in Shabbos 146a that states that the “mazal” of all future converts was present at Har Sinai). In this way the “pushing away” for three times should be seen as ultimately serving the purpose of bringing those who were truly destined to be Jewish closer to their destiny.
The Talmud in Pesachim (87b) states that Hashem sent the Jewish people into exile for the purpose of gathering all the worthy converts. May we fulfill our mandate in the diaspora faithfully to be worthy of returning to Zion speedily with all the requisite members of the Jewish nation in our midst.