At face value, this seems like a simple enough question. While not a proselytizing faith, we have long accepted converts to the religion and treated them as full members of the community.

A closer look, however, raises an interesting problem. Maimonides1 explains that the Israelites at Sinai “entered into the covenant” in three ways: circumcision, immersion in water, and by bringing an offering (animal sacrifice). He continues to explain that these three requirements apply to all later generations. The Torah2 states, “Like you, so the convert,” indicating that the means of entry for the new convert is to be the same as that of the original Israelites: circumcision, immersion in water, and bringing an offering.

Maimonides addresses the current reality when bringing an offering is not possible. “Nowadays where there are no offerings, [the convert] requires circumcision and immersion in water. When the Temple is rebuilt, he can then bring his offering.” This could imply that in the interim something is missing in the fullness of the conversion.

Indeed, Maimonides seems to be saying exactly this in another section of his code:3 “A convert who has circumcised and immersed, but has not yet brought an offering… the absence of the offering prevents him from being a complete convert.”

Despite these rulings, we find that Maimonides himself wrote a beautiful letter of encouragement to a unique individual, Ovadia HaGer (Ovadia the convert) who converted from Islam4 to Judaism.5 In the letter, Maimonides assures him that a convert is even greater than someone born Jewish. While the latter can trace his or her lineage to their ancient forbearers, a convert traces his or her lineage to the Almighty Himself.

Maimonides brings proof for this from the way the convert brings the bikkurim, the first-fruit offering in the Temple, in the same manner as any other Jew, even though the text references events that took place to the Israelites of previous generations. This clearly indicates that the convert is included as well.

Maimonides draws this comparison despite the fact that in those days the Temple obviously stood, so a convert could bring an offering as part of their conversion, while Ovadia could not. Suffice it to say that Maimonides would not have given empty platitudes to Ovadia. He would not have told him that he was an even greater Jew, unless he sincerely meant it.

To make sense of all this requires a change in perspective, which the Rebbe provides in simple and beautiful fashion.

Nowhere does Maimonides state that those three steps are all required in order to join the faith. Rather he says in the passive voice that when a person wishes to convert these three things need to happen. There is the key. Only two of the three steps – circumcision and immersion – are designed to enter the faith. The last – bringing an offering – is not designed as a means of entry but in order to cleanse impurities from the convert’s previous life.

One of the remaining obstacles that the offering is designed to clear away is the ability to partake of sacred foods in the Temple. As this is not pertinent in the absence of a standing Temple, it detracts nothing from the convert’s otherwise full entry to his new people. When the Temple is restored, the convert will have the opportunity to have that final obstacle removed and this last remaining issue will be resolved.

Given that the convert has no control over the fate of the Temple, as long as the Temple remains unbuilt, the convert is absolved of any responsibility.

In an allegorical sense, what we have just discussed not only applies to a formal convert, but to every Jew.

Just as we know that the Giving of the Torah is an ongoing act – we refer to G‑d as the Giver of the Torah in the present tense – likewise our entry into the Jewish people is not a one-off event. In the words of the sages: “Each day it should be in your eyes as if today you entered into a covenant with Him.”6

Our own entry to the covenant may feel imperfect, as we are not free of all obstacles and imperfections. We are therefore reassured that our part in the covenant is full and complete, even if we still have more to do to achieve full purification.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot vol. 26, Mishpatim III (pg. 160-166)