Contemporary Halachic Issues - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Contemporary Halachic Issues

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When dealing with conversion, one must also consider a number of Halachic issues. The following section contains a number of articles that deal with the history and legal thought behind a number of the most important (and often controversial) halachic issues such as patriarchal decent, circumcision, and the need for rituals like the mikveh.

To view movement policy on many of these click here.

Issues of decent / Adoption

Cohen, Jack Simcha. “The Conversion of Children Born to Gentile Mothers and Jewish Fathers” Tradition 22, 4 (1987) 1-17.

Abstract: Traces the issue of conversion of children with non-Jewish mothers throughout time, spending much of his energy on Orthodox responsa from the late 19th C and early 20th C.

Cohen, Shaye J.D. "The matrilineal principle in historical perspective." Review, 2001.

Abstract: This essay focuses on the history of the idea of matrilineal decent. Looking at texts both pre and post Rabbinic Cohen seeks to trace the roots of this idea and helps to paint a more holistic view of the issues surround decent.

Fessler, Michael. Adoption and Jewish Families: A Proposal. Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA), Fall 2001

Abstract: The author argues that adoption has unique qualiti es that deserve attention in a Jewish context. In Jewish law (halakhah), an adopted child's status follows that of his or her biological parents- not that of the adoptive parent(s)- which has profound implications for the status of a non-Jewish child adopted into a Jewish household. Adoption is not transformative of lineage as it is in the Western legal system. The author argues that the creation of a Jewish adoption ceremony would give Jewish ritual affirmation to an important life transition, reject the paradigm that adopted children are not lineally connected to their adoptive families, and affirm that Western culture's model of adoption has something to teach the Jewish community.


Jacob, Walter. “Prospective Convert who fears Circumcision” Conversion to Judaism in Jewish Law (1994) 171-173.

Abstract: In depth responsa on whether one's fear can preclude circumcision. For other responsa click here.

Sandel, Margaret. Brit Milah : An Inscription of Social Power. Reconstructionist. 61 no 2 Fall 1996, p 49-58.

Abstract: This article seeks, "to explore the relationship between power and the brit milah as well as the function of brit milah within Jewish communities." Tracing the history and anthropology of the ritual, the author seeks to better understand its implications for the modern world. Note: this article speaks of brit milah in the larger sense and does not limit it to conversion.

Polish, David. Covenant-Jewish Universalism and Particularism. Judaism; Summer85, Vol. 34 Issue 3, p284, 17p

Abstract: Examines the Jewish universalism and particularism views on covenant. Deterrence to personal Jewish redemption; Views on brit milah; Theme of the command of God; Ethnicity of brit milah.


Zohar, Zvi M. Retroactive annulment of "Giyyur" (conversions)? Conversations 2 (2008) 73-84

Abstract:  "There is no justification for anyone to hold, that halakha enables retroactive annulment of giyyur based upon the proselyte’s future conduct. This determination is based upon several grounds. One is that the normal position of halakhic tradition is, that ritual acts (in general) and ritual acts affecting an individual’s personal status (in particular) are valid, irrespective of the subjective intent of the parties involved and irrespective of their subsequent conduct. Another is, that the central and major halakhic sources go out of their way to stress the point, that giyyur is valid immediately and irrevocably, however the proselyte subsequently chooses to conduct himself."

Ellenson, David. “Retroactive Annulment of a Conversion: A Survey of Representative Halakhic Sources” Conversion to Judaism in Jewish Law (1994) 49-66.

Abstract: A number of Orthodox legal authorities in both Israel and the Diaspora have declared as "null and void" conversions involving non-observant people who enter , the community of Israel for the sake of marriage to a Jew. The issue addressed in this paper is neither simply theoretical nor exotic. It analyses and describes a matter that is of genuine concern to the practical life of our people.


Yeres, Moshe. Burial of Non-Halakhic Convert. Tradition 23,3 (1988) 60-74.

Abstract: Author examines many of the responsa of important Orthodox thinkers such as Moshe Feinstein, Greenwald, and Shapira to trace this history of the orthodox view of burial of non-halkhic converts in Jewish cemeteries

Bet Din:

Eliezer Ben Porat. Boundaries of the bet din during conversion Hakirah 7, 2009 (Hebrew Only)

Abstract: Examines the questions practice among the convert. How necessary is accepting the commandments and when is a beit din allowed and not allowed to perform a conversion.


Goldstein, Elyse. "Mikveh as spiritual therapy" CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly, Winter/Spring 1995

Abstract: Traces the history of the mikveh as well as looks at its place in the Reform movement. Why has the Reform movement re-embraced the mikveh and what is the spiritual place of the mikveh today for liberal Jews.

Bleich, J. David. “Permitting Use of a ‘mikveh’ for non-Orthodox conversion” Tradition 23, 2 (1988) 88-95. (UP AS TEST, NEED PERMISSION)

Haught, Nancy. Some Jews see mikvah as rebirth. National Catholic Reporter; 12/16/2005, Vol. 42 Issue 8, p12a-12a, 1/2p

Abstract: The article presents information on mikvahs, an ancient Jewish tradition of bathing, and its spiritual aspects. This tradition is still practiced in the modern world because it is required by Jewish law and for some other more contemporary reasons. The word mikvah is Hebrew for a "gathering" of mayim chayim, or "living water." As per traditional Jewish law, women immersed themselves before their weddings and after their menstrual periods. Only then they resumed physical contact with their husbands. Jewish men immersed themselves, sometimes as part of their daily spiritual practice and before Jewish holy days. The Jewish consider mikvahs as ritual immersion for conversion to Judaism and, ritual purification and rebirth.

Embracing the Person of Other Faith Background

Simon, Charles. “When Conversion is Not on the Agenda: Developing Direct Support Strategies for Mixed Couples” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought: Summer-Fall 2006 v55 i1-2p99(8).

Abstract: "KERUV IS A HEBREW WORD THAT MEANS "TO DRAW near." It is often used to describe the process of "outreach," that is to say, to draw Jewish people who are not necessarily synagogue members closer to Jewish life, or as "inreach," which necessitates focusing on our existing membership. In light of the climbing intermarriage rate in the past two decades, as reconfirmed by the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) of 2000-2001, (1) a broadening of the term keruv clearly is warranted and even necessary. Today, keruv needs to encompass both Jew and non-Jew because this reflects the increasing composition of the Jewish family."

Questions of Observance and Dedication

Bleich, J David. “Observance of Shabbat by a Prospective Proselyte and by a ‘ger she-mal ve’lo toval’” Tradition 25, 3 (1991) 46-62. (UP AS TEST, NEED PERMISSION)

Cohen, Shaye J.D. “Can Converts to Judaism say ‘God of our fathers’?” Judaism 40, 4 (1991) 419-428.

Abstract: Looks at the tension between converting to a religion and accepting the covenant and entering into the line of the historical people. Looking at selections from the Mishnah and the Yerusalmi, Cohen looks at this tension as talmudic commentators wrestle with these rulings.

Washofsky, Mark. “Halakhah and Ulterior Movies: Rabbinic Discretion and the Law of Conversion” Conversion to Judaism in Jewish Law (1994) 1-47.

Abstract: Washofsky examines the idea of "discretion" both from a historical, legal, and jurisprudence lens. Looking at the dispute of Jewish legal thinkers around this issue he asks: Does the dispute stem from the fact that, as the positivists would have it, there is no one "correct" answer and that the rabbis, like it or not, are constrained to create new law to fill the gap? Do we say, with Dworkin, that a correct answer exists and that the rabbis are arguing over interpretation rather than seeking to legislate according to extralegal considerations? Or do we follow the realists and conclude that what appears to be halakhic argumentation simply masks the policy choiceswhich are the ultimate cause of the rulings the poskim hand down? The Conclusion, in addition to a summary of the findings, will offer some comments as to the application of this kind of study in our efforts at delineating liberal halakhah.

Zlotowitz, Bernard M. “Sincere Conversion and Ulterior Motives” Conversion to Judaism in Jewish Law (1994) 67-81.

Abstract: Examines the issue of the "candidate's sincerity and ulterior motives as a determining factor in their admission to the Jewish faith and people."

Kleinberg, Darren. Getting pluralism back on track: conversion and the challenge of Jewish peoplehood. Judaism 55,3-4 (2006) 84-96

Abstract: Looks at the efforts though out all movements of Judaism to encourage conversion. Furthermore, it looks at the need to join forces across movement divides, in order to succeed in this endeavor.

Mordechai A. Brailey. Does Failure to fulfill the Mitzvot invalidate a conversion? Hamayan, 49:4, 2009 (Hebrew Only)

Abstract: Examines the halachic concept, "Hochiach Sofo Al Techilato" as a way to understand the implications of failing to filfill the mitzvot. This article examines heavily the responsa of many important orthodox rabbis.