Ask the Rabbi - Basic Concepts

Souls and conversion

Q: Why does the Tanya speak about two souls? Why are Orthodox rabbis so stringent about conversion?


— Questions by Mattitjahu; replies by Rabbi Oury Sherki in bold type.

1. Why does the Tanya speak about two souls, and the kabbalah about three levels of the soul? (That is: why does the Kabbalah divide the nefesh into nefesh and ruach ?).

A: The Tanya is concerned only with the moral applications of the wisdom of the Kabbalah, and from this point of view the  important thing is the duality nefesh-neshama

2. Can I say that also the kabbalah describe two souls, but by looking at tow levels in the nefesh (nefesh and ruach) it speaks about three souls. A: Right.

3. Or have we to speak about one soul with three levels ? A: This too is a valid statement.

4. Yesterday I read an interesting article about giyyur (conversion). See:

I quote from the article:

Since the classic halachic sources allow so much leeway in the acceptance of converts, why have important 19th and 20th century halachic authorities adopted stringent positions that are so antithetical to these sources? Indeed, why has the stringent view become so prevalent within Orthodoxy?

One possible answer has already been suggested. The Orthodox rabbinate has been vastly influenced by the rise of Reform and Conservative Judaism and by the increasing number of Jews who have defected from the halachic way of life. In seeing Orthodoxy as a bastion of Torah-true Judaism, Orthodox sages have insisted on policies that clearly distinguish between “us” and “them”. “We” are the ones who demand scrupulous observance of halacha. “They” are the ones who have betrayed Torah tradition by undermining mitzvah observance. This attitude carries into the area of acceptance of converts. “We” only want converts who will be like us-truly dedicated to Torah and mitzvoth. “We” don’t want to create more non-observant Jews in our communities.

Another possible answer is that some in the Orthodox community have a mystical view of Judaism that deems it quite difficult for a non-Jew to become Jewish. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, for example, believed that the act of conversion requires the convert to join the soul of Kenesset Yisrael, a metaphysical representation of the congregation of Israel. This can be accomplished only through a total acceptance of the mitzvot-since mitzvot are the essence of the Jewish soul. This is not an easy transition, according to Rabbi Kook, since Jewish souls and non-Jewish souls are ontologically different. For a non-Jew to transform his soul into a Jewish soul requires a tremendous connection to Torah and mitzvoth. Without belaboring the point, Rabbi Kook’s line of thinking can be used to buttress feelings of Jewish “superiority” as well as latent xenophobic tendencies.

I want to ask you if you have any reaction to this.

A: This analysis is possible but doesn’t matter. In fact it depends on the decision of the beit din.  

5. We as Jews are special, because G-d chose us to do His mission on earth. But can you imagine that I afraid to define our specialty in the concept of a Jewish soul? why?

Let me for that purpose give a quotation from Rabbi A.J.Heschel in his book  “The insecurity of Freedom”, chapter 10  “see mishna Sanhedrin 4:5 “so that nobody can say that his father is greater than yours”.


For me it seems that our specialty is not our soul but our mission. The jetsiat Mitsraim and mattan Torah at Sinai we experienced have had a deep impression in our souls. Those experiences we carry with us from then to now.

A: It’s a semantic problem. The mission creates souls.

Rabbi Oury Cherki

Rav Oury Cherki was born in Algeria in 1959 and grew up in France, and he made Aliyah in 1972. He studied at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, which was founded by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. He performed his military service in the artillery branch of the IDF. He studied with Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), Rav Shlomo Binyamin and Achlag. Rav Cherki heads the Israeli department of Machon Meir, and he is the Director of Brit Olam - the Noahide World Center. He teaches in many places throughout Israel. Rav Cherki is the spiritual leader of the "Beth Yehuda" community in Kiryat Moshe (Jerusalem). He has written many books on Jewish thought and philosophy.

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