Can a Conversion to Judaism be Revoked?

A Fresh Look at a Highly Controversial Topic

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For converts to Judaism, one of the most pressing topics is the risk of having the conversion revoked, canceled, or retracted after the fact. There is a lot of hype and misinformation on this topic, especially in recent years as Israel and Diaspora rabbinic courts vie for control over the difficult, confusing, and mysterious world of conversion to Judaism. 

What is Conversion?

There are a multitude of paths for conversion to Judaism, whether an individual decides to convert to Judaism through one of the main movements (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox).

Some of the many reasons individuals are drawn to Judaism on their own accord include influence or inspiration by Jewish friends or family, through having grown up in a heavily Jewish area, through marriage to a Jew, or through having a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother (patrilineal Jews are not considered halachic Jews in Orthodox Judaism and in some Conservative circles). 

No matter what draws an individual to Judaism, there are basic practical steps to complete the conversion process:

  • Learning (studying the laws, traditions, holidays, observances of Judaism based on whichever movement an individual chooses to convert within)
  • Beth Din (meeting with a rabbinic court whose members' statuses vary from movement to movement, as some require three Shabbat-observant men while others simply require three individuals be they men or women)
  • Brit Milah or Hatafat Dam Brit (for men, an actual or symbolic circumcision is required by some movements and not by others)
  • Mikvah (a dip in the ritual bath is standard among all movements)

When the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, conversion also included an animal sacrifice (Keritot 8b-9a)!

The Controversy

Among the many difficulties with conversion to Judaism are the realities that Orthodox Judaism does not accept as halachic (legally binding) those conversions that take place in Reform, Conservative, or other movements within Judaism.

The reasoning behind this is that conversion to Judaism, according to Orthodoxy, requires the basic commitment to the mitzvot (613 commandments of the Torah). Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism do not adhere strictly to following the mitzvot, so Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Yaakov Ariel have argued that they are halachically unacceptable. Because of this, an individual who converts in a non-Orthodox movement with a non-Orthodox rabbinic court is never considered Jewish in Orthodox Circles. 

There are also many complexities involved with the Orthodox conversion process as well, with standards varying from community to community. Some Orthodox rabbinic courts will accept conversion for marriage, while others will turn away an individual based on the desire to convert to marry a Jew (this goes back to the Talmud, Yevamot 24b). 

For all intents and purposes, an individual who converts with an Orthodox rabbinic court (beth din) is fully and completely Jewish from the moment they visit the mikvah at the culmination of the conversion process. The individual is even considered Jewish if it turns out they did marry strictly for marriage or strays from Judaism. In the latter case, the individual should be treated as any other sinning Jew (Bechorot 30b).

 

However, in recent years there have arisen many cases in which a conversion or a series of conversions performed by a certain beth din or rabbi are called into question. In these cases, an authoritative body has gone through the process of "reviewing" the conversion to determine whether they are, in fact, halachically valid. 

The problem with this, unfortunately, is that -- according to halacha (law) -- only in very specific cases can a conversion be questioned and revoked. In many of these investigations, there is no grounds for an investigation, let alone talk of revocation. 

Modern Cases

Up until Emancipation and well into the 20th century, conversion to Judaism was rare and largely unheard of because in many places, it was illegal to convert to Judaism. Following the Holocaust, conversion to Judaism blossomed and has continued to gain steam well into the 21st century, especially within Orthodox Judaism.

 

The entire issue of modern conversion nullification has an interesting background that stems from a revocation of a conversion 30 years after the fact so that two individuals with questionable Jewish legal status could legally marry. (Read more about the Rabbi Goren case ...)

Then, in the 1970s, Rabbi Betzalel Zolty nullified a conversion after the rabbinic court discovered that a certain group of individuals were Christian missionaries trying to move to Israel under the Law of Return. Rabbi Yisrael Rozen nullified a conversion after the Israel Interior Ministry found out that a convert was romantically involved with a non-Jewish woman during and after his conversion process.  

In 2008 in Israel, a senior rabbinic court headed by Rabbi Avraham Sherman nullified a single conversion performed by a different Israeli rabbinic court. This nullification called into question thousands of conversions performed within the context of the Israeli army and began an investigation into conversion courses established by Israel and overseen by Rabbi Chaim Druckman.

Conclusion: The Reality

Ultimately, the law on conversions and annulment are quite simply stated:

  • If an individual converts under non-ideal circumstances (e.g., for marriage), he or she is still Jewish and the conversion is valid (Yevamot 24b). 
  • If an individual converts and sins or strays from the path of Judaism, he or she is still Jewish and the conversion is valid (Bechorot 30b,Yoreh De'ah 248:2).
  • If the rabbinic court fails to investigate the intentions of the convert or even failed to give the individual a proper education prior to the conversion, he or she is still Jewish and the conversion is valid (Yoreh De'ah 248:12). 

The precedence for nullifying conversions falls largely under the category of fraud. In these types of cases, the individual converting knowingly misleads the rabbinic court regarding their intent to convert. Usually, these types of cases involve Christian missionaries attempting to convert for nefarious reasons (moving to Israel under the Law of Return to do missionary work).

 

Although there are plenty of terrifying cases that have created uncomfortable situations for converts around the world in recent years, it is very rare and, in fact, highly unlikely that a conversion will be revoked. 

That being said, plenty of conversions are questioned very regularly by individuals who do not know the laws of conversions and how to treat a convert to Judaism. In these cases, an individual may stray from Judaism following a conversion or do something that calls their knowledge/commitment to Judaism into question. 

Questioning a conversion and nullifying a conversion, however, are two very different things. 

Find Out More

For more about the topic of the nullifying of conversions, check out Shlomo Brody's A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates and read Rabbi Gil Student's article "Conservative Annulments."