The Torah lacks a concept of conversion. Foreigners could join the people of Israel by residing in our land. They were bound by many negative commandments: no work on Sabbath, no idols, no leaven on Pesach, and so on. For the time of their residence, they came very close to being Jewish, but they could leave anytime because the Torah bars them from owning Israeli land; Leviticus 25 does not even discuss gerim when speaking of the Jubilee year’s land redemption. Gerim, landless tenants, are welcome to stay but also free to go.

Ruth did not become a Jew but merely joined us, “Your people will be my people.” The Torah says, “For you also were gerim in the land of Egypt,” implying that ger in Israel assumed only the basic customs of Jewish life rather than the entire yoke of Heaven. Ancient sources relate of a class of God-fearers who embraced major Jewish tenets, but not all of them. On other hand, a Jewish husband who took a pagan wife had to ensure that she observed all Jewish rituals. The Torah’s position on conversion seems to be that converts are not required to lead a fully Jewish life unless they join a Jewish family. So the converts were “attached to the Jewish people,” while children of mixed marriages were fully Jewish.

The theory was never fully practiced as Leviticus enjoins Sabbath was only mandated for those gerim who lived “in your gates,” in walled towns. Jews did not enforce their law on the entire Land of Israel under their control, and allowed pagan settlements. Later on, things changed altogether. When Jews lacked sovereignty over their land and plenty of pagans settled there, residence was no longer equated with quasi-conversion. Rabbis formalized conversion: rather than residence per se, adherence to Judaism became required. That approach also allowed conversions in the Diaspora, which were inherently disconnected from residence. Judaism turned from national life into a religion. On one hand, that allowed Jews to survive without the country. On other hand, Torah Judaism was disfigured and Jews did not care to move back to their land. A vivid national way of life which the Torah prescribes gave way to abstract religious practices.

In our times, residence in Israel also does not imply living a Jewish life. On the surface, that makes continuing the rabbinical conversions the only approach. But the proper solution is to enforce the ger laws in Israel. Rather than arguing about simplifying conversions, politicians should make them unnecessary by making life in Israel inherently Jewish, at least in its basic aspects.