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Jewish history is rich in the stories of righteous gentiles who converted to Judaism and made tremendous contributions to Jewish life, culture and scholarship. Unfortunately, there have also been many instances when the convert was insincere in the conversion process to Judaism and great problems, both personal and national, resulted. Judaism views insincere conversions as personally damaging to the prospective convert. Judaism is not an exclusivist religion. One need not be Jewish to achieve immortal life after death. Thus, becoming Jewish places greater obligations on the person than before conversion. Jews are held liable for the non-observance of Shabbat, kashrut and other matters of ritual Jewish life. But non-Jews are not. A convert who becomes Jewish but is not observant of Jewish law and ritual, is in far worse spiritual condition. It is because of the incidence of insincere and/or improper conversions over Jewish history that the rabbis have been consistent in their scrupulous examination of prospective converts. Judaism is not a proselytizing faith (this is one of the many important differences between it and Christianity and Islam) and does not actively seek converts. As such, it is usually only the sincere convert that overcomes the traditional Jewish hesitancy to convert people simply for the sake of personal convenience and temporary problem solving.

In the time of the Mishna (250 BCE to 200 CE) there were many Greek and Roman converts to Judaism. Shmaya and Avtalyon, the teachers of Hillel, were converts. Rabi Akiva was descended from a father who was a convert. In fact his "pedigree" in the Talmud traces itself back to Sisera, the Canaanite general slain by Yael in Devorah the prophetess' war against Yavin, the Canaanite king of Chatzor. Rabi Meir was descended from the Roman emperor Nero and Onkelos, the great translator of the Bible from Hebrew into Aramaic was also descended from the Roman royal family. Other great rabbis of the Mishna are mentioned as being descended from converts. On the other hand, the Idumeans, who were forced into conversion to Judaism by the Hasmonean kings, produced Antipater and Herod - cruel and vicious people who served Rome well and wholeheartedly in subjugating the Jewish land and people to Roman rule. The Talmud also records that a certain Yehuda ben Gerim - descended from converts - and was in reality a Roman spy and an informer against his rabbinic colleagues. In the Bible, we find that King David felt that King Saul was betrayed by an Amalekite convert. Thus a spirit of ambivalence is always present when dealing with the question of conversions and converts. The Torah bids the Jew to be kind and welcoming to converts - in fact, it does so thirty-six times, more than any other commandment in the Torah. Thus, the Torah places a great burden on the Jew as well as on the non-Jew when it comes to conversion issues. Hence the traditional circumspection in the matter.

In the Middle Ages, some of the renowned scholars of the Tosafists (twelfth to fourteenth century German, French and English Torah scholars) were converts or descended from converts. The Church soon made conversion to Judaism a capital offense, punishable with burning at the stake. A Jew who proselytized or helped convert a non-Jew was also liable for the death penalty. Nevertheless, in all ages and times there were righteous and sincere converts to Judaism, many times at the risk of their own lives. In eighteenth century Vilna, a famous Count Potowcki, converted to Judaism and was executed by the Church for so doing. His grave was in the famous old Jewish cemetery, later destroyed by the progressive, tolerant Soviet Union. In the old cemetery, a great oak tree grew from his grave and it was in fact the landmark of that burial ground. He was buried adjacent to the grave of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu. A number of decades ago, Rabbi Pinchas Teitz of Elizabeth, New Jersey was successful in reburying the remains of the Gaon and of the "righteous convert," Count Potowcki, in a new cemetery in Vilna, as well as the remains of a number of other famous personages. Judaism treasures the sincere and righteous convert and deems them to be heroic and holy. But it is watchful to prevent personal tragedy and national harm that often result from apparently well meaning but ill-conceived conversions that are not in consonance with Jewish tradition and history.

Berel Wein

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