For Converts, ‘Rely On Me’ Is A Dangerous Message
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For Converts, ‘Rely On Me’ Is A Dangerous Message

The tension between the Hillel and Shammai approaches to conversion still persists today. Who wins?

The sage Hillel is one of the heroes of Jewish tradition. He is the author of pithy quotes like “If not now, when?” and “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others; the rest is commentary — go learn it!” He was willing to accept converts that his rabbinic interlocutor and foil, Shammai, rejected.

His approach to Jewish law is deemed more permissive and closer to life as it is lived. And as a result, his name is borne by schools, organizations and campus community centers that view him as a paradigm of Jewish leadership, while there are no self-titled Shammai Houses or Shammai Academies in the contemporary Jewish landscape. Shammai is always the wrong side, the hardliner, the overly stringent approach.

But recent events regarding the Washington, D.C., arrest of a rabbi accused of spying on women in the mikveh have caused me to reconsider some aspects of Hillel’s approach. Consider the following story, which appears in the Talmud as the first of three stories about Hillel, Shammai and prospective converts:

A gentile came before Shammai and asked: “How many Torah’s do you have?” [Shammai] replied, “Two. A Written Torah and an Oral Torah.” [The gentile] said: “I trust you regarding the Written Torah, but I do not trust you regarding the Oral Torah. Convert me on condition that you teach me the Written Torah.” [Shammai] admonished him and angrily removed him. [The gentile] came before Hillel. He converted him. The first day, [Hillel] taught him “Alef-bet-gimel-daled.” The next day, he reversed the order. [The convert] said to him, “But yesterday you did not say that!” [Hillel] said to him, “Didn’t you rely on me? Rely on me regarding the Oral Law as well.” (Shabbat 31a)

Hillel’s desire to work with the prospective convert and accept him despite his initial unwillingness to conform to normative belief and practice contribute to our positive image of Hillel. And Hillel’s motives are doubtlessly pure. Yet after the latest news out of the Georgetown synagogue, Hillel’s “Rely on me” has a frightening ring.

The Hebrew word for convert is “ger” and literally means “migrant” or “sojourner.” In Judaism, conversion is not an instantaneous process, like what Paul of Tarsus experienced on the road to Damascus. Rather, the “giyur” process is more akin to an immigrant arriving in a new country. Just as Hillel’s ger was illiterate of the language of Judaism, prospective converts are unfamiliar with the new culture and language and lack the context and support network that would alert her when something is amiss or when someone is taking advantage of her.

Hillel’s “Rely on me” helped assuage the ger’s natural reluctance to place his trust in human authority, and no doubt, most rabbis in Hillel’s position are indeed worthy of the ger’s trust. Nevertheless, a system that places prospective converts in a position that requires them to place their trust in an individual rabbi is a system that will eventually be exploited by someone who preys on precisely this type of trust. Without minimizing the violation of any others whose privacy was stolen by the lens of a hidden camera, it is converts who are particularly defenseless against a rabbi’s breach of trust.

Shammai’s approach to converts is impersonal. He does not try to meet the prospective convert where he is. According to the same passage in the Talmud, another prospective convert wished to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel responds with his famous dictum about hatefulness; Shammai pushes the man a way with a measuring stick — quite literally, he pushes him away with his standard. This approach is at great risk of becoming a cold, alienating encounter with a judgmental rabbis. On the other hand, it makes clear precisely what it demands of the convert. Its standards are clear and its rules brook no special pleading.

In these stories, Hillel and Shammai reflect the acute tension between an approach that favors standardization and an approach that responds to each prospective convert individually.

Though Hillel is the hero of the stories, Jewish law mainly follows Shammai’s approach. The codes of Jewish law offer grounds for rejecting conversion candidates as Shammai did. Hillel’s approach appears in the margins of the codes, invoked by commentaries that allow for a certain degree of discretion if the conversion court deems an exception warranted. Yet when the commentaries validate the rabbis’ right to waive formal protocols on the basis of their close familiarity with the prospective convert, they use words that seem particularly chilling today: “It all depends on what the rabbinical court sees with their eyes.”

The tension between the Hillel and Shammai approaches to conversion still persists today. The debates about conversion policy in Israel and the United States, which have been raging for almost a decade, hinge on the same axis: should conversion be standardized and objective, or should every rabbi be empowered and trusted to administrate his own conversion process? Should we take Shammai’s approach, or Hillel’s?

The truth is, we need both approaches. We need Hillel and Shammai to serve as checks and balances on one another to ensure that the conversion process does not exacerbate the vulnerability of the prospective ger by putting her at risk of exploitation but does not drain the process of meaning by transforming it into a soulless encounter with officialdom. 

When the Rabbinical Council of America published its “Geirus [Conversion] Policies and Standards” (GPS) in 2007, I hoped that it would balance these two approaches. The heart of the GPS is a division between two distinct roles — the role of the mentor who guides the prospective ger through the process, and the role of the rabbinical court judges who dispassionately and professionally assess the candidate and perform the actual conversion. At the heart of the current crisis is a man who was invested with a judge’s power but who took on the mentoring role as well. There were no checks on his power, and now we are faced with the awful consequences of his abuse. Fortunately for the future, the RCA seems committed to ensuring that never again does one rabbi have so much power over a prospective convert.

Hillel remains our hero and primary role model. We will continue to share his wise sayings and try to emulate his attentive approach. Yet we also need our Shammaites to remain critical and vigilant, keeping Hillelites from their occasional excesses. After all, Shammaites came up with some great quotes of their own, like the one in Mishna Yevamot 13:1: “Jewish women must not be abandoned.”

Elli Fischer, a frequent contributor to these pages, is a Hebrew-English translator in Israel.

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