The Conversion Factor

parshat vayishlach – genesis 36

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on clubhouse on December 8th 2022. An innocuous reference to a princess named Timna teaches us a profound lesson regarding the potential of converts to positively affect Judaism. We explore the lenient opinion of conversion in Rabbinic texts with one of its leading practitioners…. our very own Rabbi Adam Mintz.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach.  An innocuous reference to a Princess named Timna teaches us a profound lesson regarding accepting potential converts and how critical such a choice can be to the future of Judaism. We are oh so fortunate to be able to explore the lenient opinion of conversion in Rabbinic texts with one of its leading practitioners…. our very own Rabbi Adam Mintz. So join us for The Conversion Factor.


Usually before we start Rabbi, I ask you how was your week and you say, oh, it was a great week, I converted three people or it was a slow week, we had no conversions this week. But this week, I didn’t ask you that in the pregame show, because I wanted to focus on exactly that amazing service you are providing to our Jewish people and the model that you’re setting. But we’re hopefully going to get into some of the Talmudic. Rabbinic and even biblical source material that I believe in a very, very strong and powerful way, supports what you’re doing. So I’m gonna let you do most of the talking, but I am going to tie it in to the parsha. And I must say that we have a faithful listener or two who are privy to these pregame conversations. And they begged me one day, you’ve got to tie into the conversation, an interview of Rabbi Adam Mintz explaining his position on conversion. So here we are, in Genesis 36, is in innocuous reference to Timnah. And it comes in the middle of one of those rambling genealogies of this one begat this one and this one begot this one, and it says Timnah was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz. Those were the descendants of Esau’s wife Adah. And the Talmud in Sanhedrin 99b recounts that there was once a very evil king of Israel named Manasseh. And he was explaining why he rejected the Torah, and as prime evidence of the irrelevance and the lack of import that he gave to the Torah. He quoted our verse and the list of genealogy that he said had absolutely no meaning at all. And the rabbis came back and they said, actually, there’s a hell of a lot of meaning to this text. And they taught based on this one innocuous text, a whole Midrashic story. And the Midrashic story says as follows that timidness sought to convert. She came before Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and they did not accept her. She went and became a concubine of Eliphaz, son of a Esau and said, it is preferable that I will be a maidservant for this nation, and not be a noble woman for another nation. So, this princess married “down” and she married into the Jewish people see, so much wanted to join us. And ultimately, of course, those of you who are in tune to Jewish history, listen to that word of Amalek. And you know that he is the nemesis of the Jewish people. And the rabbi’s learned that therefore, because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not accept Timnah as a convert. That Amalek was the punishment; he emerged from her and afflicted the Jewish people. And what is the reason? Because the Jewish people were punished by Amalek due to the fact that they should not have rejected her. So here you have it, Rabbi, we are commanded to accept the Convert. And if we don’t we do it at risk of creating a terrible nemesis, and I assume you can make the converse argument and say that if we do, we have the potential of having an amazing addition to our people. So now let me turn to you and ask you to give us a sense of your journey into what you are now doing, which is really converting so many people. Describe what your journey was, and are what you’re doing at this time.

Adam Mintz  05:15

Okay, thanks a lot. That’s a great, a great story. The Timnah story, we’ll come back to that. And I’ll tell you that I began my rabbinic career, really, as the assistant rabbi in KJ (Kehilat Jeshurun) , to Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. And Rabbi Haskel Lookstein the rabbi of KJ, and the principle of Ramaz, he was very forward-looking in terms of his attitude towards the entire Jewish people. And he understood even back in the early 1990s, that conversion was something that really needed to be addressed. Generally, Orthodox rabbis didn’t address conversions. In the 1990s, we we’re still living in a generation where there weren’t that many Orthodox Jews who married people whom they wanted to convert. So, it was something that happens all the time, but it did happen. And in KJ, they had something called the beginners service, which was founded started by George Rohr. And actually, the beginner service was a service for people who didn’t have background. And the beginner service turned out to attract not only people who were exploring a path to conversion, but also people who are exploring a path to conversion, that was a good introductory kind of service for them. So, I learned from Rabbi Lookstein really the importance of conversion and I would study with a convert and then Rabbi Lookstein would lead the conversion Bet Din that we would have at the at the Mikveh on the Upper West Side. And I continued that kind of on and off over the years. And when I was a rabbi in Lincoln Square Synagogue, they had less conversion, interestingly, for whatever reason. But then when I founded my own shul Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim for a reason that I can’t exactly put my finger on, other than the fact that orthodoxy does not have a good conversion kind of official conversion program. People were seeking out ways to explore Judaism and potentially to convert. And I began to convert people…  first slowly, and then over time, and then for whatever reason, over COVID, the number of conversions really exploded. So, what did I do this week? This week, I didn’t do much. Because next week, next Tuesday, we’re converting 17 people, that’s a pretty amazing thing. That means 17 people who studied and I’m going to tell you a story, just to kind of put it all in perspective, something that happened just today 17 People who studied who came to Judaism, whatever it is, they are going to come to the mikvah. Why do I say whatever it is. Today, I was actually riding in an Uber to a wedding. And someone texted me and then I called them up. It was a woman who was born in Soviet Russia. And she left in 1989 when she was four years old. She came here, she’s an MD. She’s an ophthalmologist. And she called me because now that she’s, you know, she that she’s considering getting married. She said that she always grew up as as, as Jewish, and so much so she actually when she they came to the United States, she went to a Jewish school in Los Angeles, a Conservative Day School in Los Angeles. She became to realize over time, that her mother’s mother, her grandmother, which is the side that that matters, that there was no record about whether or not she was Jewish. Part of the issue in Russia is that they didn’t have proper documentation. And she’s concerned that she’ll have a problem. But most importantly, their children someday would have a problem because they can’t prove that their maternal side is completely Jewish. She wanted to convert. Now, here’s a woman who grew up Jewish, she’s always thought she was Jewish. She practiced Judaism. She observed Shabbos. She goes to a conservative shul, she is part of the Jewish community. But there’s a little technicality that she grew up in Russia. So, on Tuesday, she’s joining the group that’s going to convert and that’s like an amazing thing that here this woman, I mean, this morning, I didn’t know her, she got my name from someone else I converted. But there are story after story after story of different kinds of situations of people who you know, who want to join the Jewish people who really are a part of the Jewish people. There are so many different kinds of stories. And need to be well documented, lacks community. I mean, that’s, that’s really for another discussion. But I think that, you know, within each denomination, there are certain, you know, requirements about what it means to be become part of the Jewish community. But once you become part of the Jews, we know, but once people express that desire, I think we need to be much more welcoming to it’s a kind of urge that has been the tradition over the over the generations, very much in the spirit of that membership.

Geoffrey Stern  10:38

That’s amazing. So when I told you the subject matter, I knew that you gave the tikun Leyl Shavuot class at the JCC of Manhattan. And I do want to hear maybe a little bit later what you’re doing at the JCC of Manhattan. But I asked you for your source sheet and you have a source sheet, Conversion: Is it good for the Jews, and in it, you quote, a Rabbi Eliezer Malamud. And I went ahead and googled him. And there’s an amazing article. And I implore all of you who are interested in the subject; In the source sheet on Sefaria that I’ve linked to our clubhouse, there are many amazing sources that all relate to the issues that we’re going to be discussing. But in it was a translation of an article written by this Eliezer Malamud who looks as Hasidic and religious and Haredi, a Jew as you’d ever want to see. And it’s called the Lenient Opinion of Conversion. So, I mentioned that in our intro, and I said, you were a practitioner of same. So maybe you can sketch out for us what the basic requirements are. And then where there is an opportunity to be lenient, assuming that you agree with the term.

Adam Mintz  11:54

Good. So I do. And I think this is a very important discussion. So, someone who wants to convert to Judaism needs to go to the mikvah. And for a male, they need to be circumcised. Now, many people in the Western world, many men are circumcised already. So, then they just need a ceremonial, just taking a little a little drop of blood. But those two things are requirements. And that’s why we do the conversions always at the mikvah. In addition, the Talmud says, they need to accept Judaism. And the question is what that means to accept Judaism. So, the traditional orthodox view has always been and this is one of the sources on the source sheet that you sent around says that converts are problematic, they’re like a scab, right? You know, hey fester. And because they don’t really accept Judaism, they kind of accept it only halfway. And that’s a serious problem. But I don’t believe that that’s so. I think what the Talmud means is that you only accept people for conversion, who are willing to embrace Judaism. And people embrace Judaism in different ways. And the journey of Judaism is something that people embrace in different ways. And I want to include, I want to give people the opportunity to become Jewish, as long as they’re willing to participate in the journey of Judaism. I think we’re all part of that journey, right? Anybody who tells you they’re not on a journey. That’s a big problem. Every Jew needs to be on a journey.

Geoffrey Stern  13:40

Absolutely. So, I think it’s safe to say that that the where the wiggle room is, is in that third requirement, the Mikvah that’s easy anyway, it’s purifying, it’s a rebirth. The circumcision is our branding; our sign, but it’s the acceptance of the commandments, correct me if I’m wrong, where you really have something that’s open to interpretation, and even the text that you quoted, that compares converts to a Tzorat to a blemish, there are explanations that say because they take it too seriously. That’s one explanation.

Adam Mintz  14:22

There are seven different explanations of what that means, what the blemish means. And basically, half of them say a blemish is bad, and half of them say a blemish is good. So, whatever you want that line to say you can find someone who explains it that way.

Geoffrey Stern  14:37

So I looked at the Hebrew and it says שֶׁרֻבָּן חוֹזְרִין בִּשְׁבִיל דָּבָר that converts are difficult for the Jewish people to bear as a leprous blemish and then the English translation is “for most converts convert for an ulterior motive”  בִּשְׁבִיל דָּבָר because of something and one of the things that I was always brought up as kind of being beyond question is that you can’t convert for an ulterior motive. And of course, the most important, the most typical ulterior motive is a couple falls in love. And one of them is Jewish and the other isn’t. And they decide that they want to have a house where the children are raised in one culture, one religion, there’s love there, all of those different things could be construed as ulterior motives, but the Talmud doesn’t say, and therefore they’re not converts. It says, that every convert converts funnel to your motive. So, the truth is, it is almost baked in that we’re not expecting some person to come who’s walking on the road and has a vision… an epiphany

Adam Mintz  15:52

Like Paul of Tarsis.

Geoffrey Stern  15:52

and converts to Judaism. For no reason other than the sublime. I think that’s fascinating, a fascinating diyuk, a fascinating insight into בִּשְׁבִיל דָּבָר, that everybody has got a reason for joining our people. And there’s nothing wrong with that reason,

Adam Mintz  16:11

There’s nothing wrong with that, I’ll even go further than that, I can just tell you, that it’s the people who have an ulterior motive that people who are in relationships or have families already, those are the conversions that tend to be more committed to Judaism. Because if you have an ulterior motive, if you have a family, if you have a partner, whatever the case may be, that just makes it better. Now, it is ironic, and any rabbi who deals in conversion will tell you that what happened, what often happens is, is you have somebody who, you know, is kind of marginally traditional, you know, and their partner is going through a conversion process. What often happens is, is the partner who’s going through the conversion process ends up more Jewishly traditional than the Jewish partner, because they spent a year studying and all those things, and they get excited about it. So, they tend to make the Jewish partner even more religious. So, you know, having an ulterior motive actually works in a very interesting kind of way these days.

Geoffrey Stern  17:12

Absolutely. And then the truth is, like everything else in Judaism, the more you look at the sources, the more you see that it’s all there. In other words, there is a very famous source in Yevamot 47b, which says that, when a potential convert comes in front of the judges, who say to him, what did you see that motivated you to come to convert, and they inform him of some of the lenient Mitzvot and some of the stringent Mitzvot? What is the reason to say this to Him so that if he is going to withdraw from the process, let him withdraw already at this stage. So, the way this Talmud translated to me in my youth, was this myth of tell them three times to go away, push them away, and make it sound like this is the worst religion to join. what it’s really saying here is in a very kind of subtle way, you want him to be self-qualifying, you give them a sense of some of the smaller Mitzvot, some of the larger ones, you don’t overwhelm him with 613. But that’s all that it really says. And then the Convert shall join himself with them. And so, cleave to the house of Jacob. And this gets to something that I think is fascinating. The punch line is the Mitzvot are one thing, but the real accents of conversion is joining our people, are these two different pathways that we have somehow focused on keeping the commandments and less focused on what Ruth the ultimate convert says, which we say never said anything about keeping the commandments. She says, wherever you go, I will go Your God is my God.

Adam Mintz  19:08

So, the truth is, that it really depends like a lot of things in life. what your perspective is, before you start, if you want to accept a convert, or converts generally, then the model for accepting the Convert is what Ruth said,כִּ֠י אֶל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֵּלְכִ֜י אֵלֵ֗ךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּלִ֙ינִי֙ אָלִ֔ין עַמֵּ֣ךְ עַמִּ֔י וֵאלֹהַ֖יִךְ אֱלֹהָֽי your people are my people, and your God is my God. If your tendency is to be afraid of converts, and you know that tendency is a kind of old-fashioned tendency, which says that Orthodoxy is fine where it is. Orthodoxy has enough people that we what we would rather is quality over quantity, I would rather have a fewer number of really solidly Orthodox people than a lot of people who are kind of wishy washy about their orthodoxy. Now that sounds kind of silly, especially you and I We were brought up by Rabbi Riskin, I mean Rabbi Riskin would either laugh or be angry at that description that, quality over quantity. Of course, that’s not true. That’s not what we believe. We want as many people to be Jewish, you know, who want to be Jewish, we’re not, you see, we’re not a proselytizing religion, this is a, it’s a little bit of a nuance, but it’s an important point to make, we don’t go out and look for people to convert, these people come to us. And that’s, of course, true. I never, ever send out an email and say, if you want to convert, you know, here we here we go, you know, we joined the Jewish people were, were the ones were the chosen ones, I would never do that. But people come to you the question is, are you embracing? Or do you push them away? So, the traditional orthodox view has been to push them away, I’m telling you, that this is not so well known that I work in this and I can tell you that within the more right-wing Orthodox world, slowly, there is there is a need for conversion. And you’re not surprised to hear that you have plenty of very orthodox people who have jobs, you know, in the financial world and the legal world, in the medical world. And every in every field in the computer world, every field and you’re going to meet people who aren’t Jewish. That’s just what happens. And sometimes it’s going to lead to a relationship that needs a conversion. I believe that 20 years from now, every family is going to somehow be connected to a conversion.

Geoffrey Stern  21:36

If we’re not already, I mean, how many Jews coming out of Egypt had blue eyes and freckles? That’s what I want to know.

Adam Mintz  21:43

You know, what my wife would say is that I’m not really being fair, because I say 20 years, but that’s I don’t really believe that what I really believe is five years from now, every family will have a connection to going to a conversion. And that’s probably right. Because if you assume that we’re converting, let’s say, so this month, December, we will have converted 25 people. So that’s about 300 people for the year, it without taking it from the year of 2022, we’ll take it from September to September, because kind of the conversion classes work from you know, from holiday to holiday. So that’s about 300 people convert not 300 people, let’s assume that most of those people have a partner, let’s assume that of those 300 people 200, that people have a partner. And that means that they’ll have a partner and they’ll have a family. So all of a sudden, let’s imagine again, it just making things up just making up data, because it’s easy to do that, right? You have someone who converts who marries a Jew, they have two children. So all of a sudden from those 300 people who convert in, you know, women between 2022 and 2023, you now have 4 members of a Jewish family. And you know, so that’s already, that’s already, you know, 800 people, and then take it from there and see what the numbers are gonna be over the course of time everybody’s gonna be connected to a convert.

Geoffrey Stern  23:05

So, we started by talking about this concept, this this traditional phrase that says that converts are like a leprosy and the Talmud goes on to say, just to here’s the prime example, the, the sin of the golden calf, they worshipped an idol, because they had accepted idol worshipers, whether it was the עֵרֶב רַב this mixed multitude, or simply other converts. And one of the sources that I bring is by Shai Cohen, who talks about the origins of conversion and Matrilineal descent, and he writes:, “The foreign woman who married an Israelite husband was supposed to leave her gods in her father’s house, but even if she did not, it never occurred to anyone to argue that her children were not Israelites. Since the idea of conversion to Judaism did not yet exist …it never occurred to anyone to demand that the foreign woman undergo some ritual to indicate her acceptance into the religion of Israel.” And that just brought me back to last week’s Pasha. When Rachel brought the household gods the Terraphim of her father, here we have a prime example of Jacob going to the land of a more and bringing this this beautiful wife with him, that became a role model, a beacon for the Jewish people, but she might have had a little Christmas tree in the back of the closet type of thing. His point is that the rabbi’s understood that when you take somebody from a totally different tradition as well, meaning as they are, there’s always going to be a little bit of baggage, but that was never disqualifying. And that too, is baked in to that statement that says that converts I have that baggage, they have a little bit of scare tissue, but it doesn’t say they’re not converts. So, it really is very understanding that we all come with our baggage. And I think the way we started with Timnah said that maybe that baggage is good…  the potential for….  and there are the rabbis who take our lesson that we started with that said, because we did not accept Timnah, she created a Amalek. They flip it on its head, and they said, and therefore when we do take in a convert, they might have a little residue, but their children and their grandchildren might be the next Onkelos, might be the next translator, who can translate the Torah for a new generation of Jews.

Adam Mintz  25:47

So that something that we haven’t discussed yet, and that is what the converts bring to our community. That’s something that the sociologists are just beginning to think about. But think about it, right? You don’t have people from different backgrounds. It creates a really rich Jewish community. You know, the rabbi of central synagogue, Rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl I don’t know exactly what her story is. She’s half Korean, is that correct? Is she a convert her mother’s a convert? Whatever the case may be. There’s there is some conversion in that family. And look what she brings. She was America’s rabbi, right. She was the rabbi who the guy from Texas called, you know, when they were taken hostage. But she’s, she’s an extremely important rabbi, she leads, you know, hundreds, if not 1,000s of congregates in central synagogue in New York. And she comes from a Korean family. So, it’s interesting to consider what they bring to the table, which is exactly your point about who the next Onkelos is going to be.

Geoffrey Stern  26:56

And it’s not as though so many times when we look at our tradition, as moderns, as children of the 22nd century, we have to really say, are we projecting Oh, are we not projecting? Was it there? Was it not there? But I believe if you look at the sources, if you look at the early sources, obviously there was a very small gene pool. So besides not marrying the Canaanites, there had to be intermarriage. But there are so many tribes, the Kutim and the others that joined it’s just full of these stories. But in the Talmud, itself, it goes out of its way to really show that this discussion, the lenient or the stringent approach to conversion lived in the School of Shammai in the School of Hillel, you know, the famous story in the tractate of Shabbat 31a, where A non-Jew comes to Shammai, and he says, convert me on condition that I only believe in the written law, not in the oral law, and Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. He came to Hillel and gave the same condition. And Hillel accepted him and started teaching him the Torah Aleph beit gimel. dalet and obviously when they got to actually reading the text, and it came to a loss, such as the Mezuzah, and Hillel says, so what do you do you write it on the doorpost? Or do you write it on a scroll? And the convert says, well, how do you know he says, Well, that’s where tradition comes in. And then of course, the more famous story is where another convert comes to Shammai. And he says, Teach me the Torah on one foot. And you could say he was almost mocking Judaism. And that’s certainly the way Shammai took it. But Hillel took it in a totally different way. And he took it as a challenge. And he gave him back a peyrush, an interpretation of Love thy neighbor as thyself. He said, Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want done to you. And the rest is commentary. It makes us stronger. It makes us more insightful and more profound when we are exposed to other traditions, at least in the house of Hillel.

Adam Mintz  29:21

Yeah, well, I mean, that those stories are more about, you know, Hillel versus Shammai. They use conversion as an example of it. But it shows that Hillel was the embracer while Shammai pushed people away, and you know, and of course, that’s an important point when it comes to conversion. And it’s important point when it comes to a lot of things. But I think that model of Hillel, and that model of Timnah, or the lesson that you get from Timnah, I think that that has to really be our approach. I’m one of the sources that you included in the source sheet was a discussion they had in the 1,800s in Germany, you know, in Germany, the assimilation rate intermarriage rate was very high because Jews had become citizens for the first time they were exposed to the German world, obviously was long before the Holocaust long before the Nazis. And the Jews wanted to become Germans. They wanted to intermarry with Germans. And what you had was you had situations where Jewish men were married to non-Jewish women. So, the children were not Jewish. But the fathers wanted the boys circumcised. And they went to the rabbis and they asked, can we have the boys circumcised? That’s an interesting question, because the boys aren’t Jewish. And there were some rabbis and I quote those rabbis there Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer. But there were others who said, yes, you should circumcise the boys, because give them a chance, who knows what will be if they’re not circumcised at birth? So the idea of circumcision, when you’re adult is very difficult, and people are not going to want to do that. But if you circumcise them at birth, so then there’s a chance maybe they’ll come around, that was such a modern view that he took in the 1,840s. Can you imagine that mean, today, they would argue about whether that view is acceptable or not, and Rabbi Kalischer who was willing to accept that view, and 1,840, which is really an amazing thing.

Geoffrey Stern  31:07

And it and it really speaks to this sense of Timnah. You never know as Shlomo Carlebach used to say, you never know what happens when you plant the seed. You never know when you when you plant a tree. And I think that ultimately is also part of this question of being able to accept converts, you’re able to accept a future that you might not know totally what’s going to happen. I mean, I think at the end of the day, to me, the real discussion is not between so much leniency and stringency, as much as it is between status and identity, you know, so many of us. You can maybe put this into Shammai’s mouth, he wasn’t interested in converting in the sense of changing something moving forward, he was interested in identifying, he was interested in determining Is this someone who will get the status or not, and I think more and more of who we are today is identity. And that in a sense, is very much in line with all of these conversations that we come in the Talmud that have less to do with accepting all 613 commandments, but identifying with a people, when I went to Cuba on a JDC trip, I was amazed because it was a communist country, they were very sensitive about proselytizing, about using religion to try to bring people in. Community was very big, there was the Catholic community in the Jewish community. So, if somebody went on that road to Tarshish and had an epiphany, they would not accept them. But if someone fell in love with a member of the community and wanted to join it, that was actually the only appropriate way to convert. And I think that kind of identified the real paradigm shift that we need to make in terms of what conversion is, it’s people that want to identify with the Jewish people. And, boy, we need as many people who want to identify with us and help us identify and grow ourselves, I think,

Adam Mintz  33:22

I think you’re 100% Right. It’s really, thank you so much for identifying that Midrash about Timnah and to have this conversation about conversion. It really Geoffrey has been a conversation that’s been waiting to happen because w we’ve kind of talked around it so many times. It’s nice to really talk about it. And obviously this is just the first step we maybe will be able to find a Midrash somewhere else that will be able to take it to the next level. So, thanks for bringing this up. Thanks for everybody for joining us. As always enjoy the Parsha, Parsaht Vayishlach, have a Shabbat Shalom and next week we move on with Parshat Vayeshev. Be well everybody

Geoffrey Stern  33:57

And normally Rabbi, I thank you for being part of Madlik. But today I thank you for being you and for doing what you’re doing in on the ground and making the Jewish people richer for it. So Hazak V’ematz. Thank you all for being a part of the Madlik community. If you listen to us a podcast share it, give it a star, write a nice comment. See you all next Shabbat. Okay, everybody’s Shabbat Shalom and look forward to seeing you all next week.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to last year’s vayishlach podcast: Arguing with God and Man

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