Rabbi Ben Tsion Uziel’s Compassionate but Pragmatic Approach to Halacha

There is a tendency among most Jews to think that Halacha by definition must always lean toward conservatism. However, the historical facts do not support this hypothesis.

Modern Halacha examines an interesting question: Should we go out of our way to attract potential conversions?  There are serious circumstances where we should openly encourage conversion whenever possible– specifically when we have an intermarried couple. There is every valid Halachic reason to go out of our way to welcome the non-Jewish spouse and their offspring to Judaism. We have already examined Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman’s attitude and he certainly was not alone (see the previous thread for examples). Another great rabbinic scholar reflecting this liberal approach comes from Rabbi Ben Tsion Meir Hai Uziel, who later became the Chief Sephardic Rabbi Of Israel.

In 1943, the following case came before him requiring an important Halachic decision. The Chief Rabbi of Istanbul once wrote to Rabbi Ben Tsion Meir Hai Uziel, who was at that time the Rav of Rishon LeTzion. The Chief Rabbi asked Rav Uziel whether conversion for the sake of marriage is valid. Rav Uziel opened his Responsa with a citation from the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 268: 12) which states we must examine a potential convert to see whether his motives for accepting Judaism are sincere. Obviously, it would be wonderful that the potential convert for purely sincere reasons and certainly, the ideal is not to convert those who are insincere. Rav Uziel then goes on to state how intermarriages are common in the civil courts, and that we ought to convert the non-Jewish partner in order to free the Jewish partner from the problem of intermarriage. We should also do so that their children should not be lost to the Jewish fold.

But what do we do when the situation is less than ideal?

If we are faced with de facto case of mixed marriage, we are permitted to convert the non-Jewish spouse and the children whenever possible. If this is true when the couple is already married, it is certainly true before they have begun their forbidden marriage! Such a conversion could prevent future transgressions and religious difficulties.

What was the basis of Rav Uziel’s Decision?

Rav Uziel bases his decision on a famous Responsa authored by Maimonides that dealt with a Jewish man who was living with a non-Jewish maid-servant. The man was suspected of having a sexual liaison with this woman. The Beit Din found out about this–what was the man to do? Remove the woman from his house? In response to this question, the Rambam stated that technically according to the law, the woman should be forced out—period. After it learned of his wrongdoings, the Beit Din was required to exert all its power to have the Jewish master free her and then MARRY HER—but the Talmud tells us (T.B. Yevamot 24b) that if a Jewish man has an immoral affair with a gentile woman, he must free her and NOT marry her Maimonides said that nonetheless, he has judged in such cases that the man should free her and marry the maid.

Maimonides argues that the Halacha allows this kind of liberal approach since it is necessary to make things easier for those wishing to repentant (takanat hashavim). Maimonides then cited the verse: It is time for the Lord to act, for your law has been broken. (Psa 119:126). Maimonides realizes this was not the best solution, and he concluded, “May the Lord forgive our sins!”

Rav Uziel admits this approach is not the gold standard of Halacha with respect to conversions. Nevertheless, Maimonides’ Responsa offers a pragmatic solution. God will understand and be accepting –sometimes with such situations we must rely on God’s tender mercies—sometimes even the strict letter of the Halacha must yield to the spirit of the Halacha as well.

You might ask, “If the conversion is for the sake of marriage, is it considered Kosher?”

In support of the Maimonides’s position, Rav Uziel gives numerous other examples of how the Torah tries to avoid ultimatums when one must clearly choose the lesser of two evils. One such case is the law of the Yifat To’ar (the beautiful captive taken from war) is another example our Torah teaches: ‘When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her’ (Deut. 21:10-14).

Rashi, quoting the Talmud, wonders: “Why is such a relationship permitted? Surely the Torah made a concession because of man’s ignoble impulses—if he would not be permitted to take this woman as his wife, he would nevertheless marry her although she would be forbidden to him! Although her conversion is hardly in accordance with the highest standards of our Torah, nonetheless the Torah itself makes a concession to minimize the degree of the soldier’s sin—shema  ya’seena b’issur.

Rav Uziel’s Observations

Based on this approach, if a couple appears before the Beit Din asking for the conversion of the gentile partner, we MUST allow the conversion—we cannot take an arrogant attitude that this is a wicked person, who deserves to suffer the fate of transgressors. On the contrary—the fact this couple has appeared before a Beit Din, the couple shows that the couple has a sincere desire to avoid transgression. By being there, the gentile spouse proves that he wishes to be a part of the Jewish people.

Rav Uziel also maintains the prophetic literature supports such a reading. The prophet Malachi complains: ‘Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob anyone who does this–any to witness or answer, or to bring an offering to the Lord of hosts’ (Malachai 2:11-12).

In light of this stringent curse, Rav Uziel argues that it is better to convert the non-Jewish partner so that the Jewish partner may be absolved from this serious transgression. Rav Uziel also writes that it is better for the children so that they could be legally considered Jews. If it was a choice of intermarriage or conversion, Rav Uziel opted for conversion. Note that from Rav Uziel’s perspective one must distinguish between a theoretical problem from an actual problem.  Rav Uziel does state that the judges should do everything they can to break the marriage date, but if they do not succeed,  it is better to convert the gentile and pray that merciful God should forgive His people.

Considering the growing division that we are witnessing in the Jewish community, it seems to me that Rav Uziel’s approach ought to be seriously taken into consideration especially since it provides an important context for Orthodoxy Conservative and Reform to mutually explore together.

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