“A Concise Code of Jewish Law for Converts” Book Review

Review by Lawrence Kobrin on Lookstein Bookjed Digest

Jewish Law for Converts

Conversion to Judaism, once relatively rare, has now become something encountered in many circumstances and families. There has been considerable “politicization” and controversy concerning the process and requirements. In all of the controversy, the needs and strivings of the sincere individuals who seek conversion are sometimes overlooked. Historically, some works for this purpose were published, but are primarily in Hebrew and not generally available. It is to the needs and concerns of contemporary converts that a fascinating recent book is addressed.

Rabbi Michael Broyde’s work, A Concise Code of Jewish Law for Converts is what its title suggests, but much more. Drawing on many years of experience in the process and procedures of conversion in the United States, R. Broyde sets out for the reader, rules for halachic behavior of converts, as they become Jewish. He organizes this initial material in an interesting way, by following the categories of organization of the Shulchan Aruch, and relating specific discussion to the specific relevant section of the Shulchan Aruch.

The nature of the questions raised will mean that no convert can make use of the work without the guidance of some experienced and knowledgeable advisor. In any of the instances for which statements are made, historic development of the halacha in this area necessarily requires that the author note that there are variant or opposing views and not necessarily one definitive position.

The book, however, goes far beyond the details of religious or ritual performance for a convert. In both the footnotes and in supplemental essays, it includes extensive analysis of some of the issues surrounding the conversion process from a historic and halachic perspective. As a result, it should be of interest not only to converts and their rabbinic advisors, but for others interested in the halachic process itself.

Thus, following the Shulchan Aruch list, essays are included of broader issues related to converted Jews: may they serve as dayanim, how is lineage determined, just who may a Kohen marry, and the history and dynamic of the so-called identity berachot which we recite each morning.

It is the inclusion of these essays and sources that prompts the suggestion of the use of the work “off label,” so to speak. Just as medical practitioners may often prescribe or use a drug beyond the purpose for which it was originally intended or marketed, this book can be an interesting addition to the works which a teacher of the halachic process may find useful. (For that reason, a review in Bookjed seems appropriate.)

In the essays, Rabbi Broyde demonstrates how competing lines of understanding and interpretation develop and how the poskim seek to reconcile them or reach a consensus conclusion. This kind of process is one which students often find difficult to understand and which this book illustrates in several cases. The reports of halachic development carry the reader down to contemporary times (even included footnoted recent personal conversations with recognized authorities) and for many students counter the notion, sometimes or not expressed, that there is little development or change in halachic psak today.

There is relatively little work in English which provides detailed halachic analysis. The periodic essays by Rabbi David Bleich in Tradition serve as an outstanding exception, and other online postings by Eretz Hemdah or occasional articles in Hakirah may provide such material, but these are usually focused on specific topics. It is for that reason that a well written and authoritative work such as this might be considered by teachers for use in illustrating and teaching the halachic process as we now experience it.
Lawrence Kobrin is a practicing attorney in New York, active in various Jewish organizations and an occasional contributor to Lookjed.

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