A topic that is regularly addressed in Massechet Yevamot which, as those currently studying it have come to discover, is a Massechet that examines various simple and not so simple relationships, is conversion.
In today’s daf (Yevamot 22a), reference is made to the relationship of converts to their families, and it is here where the Gemara makes the oft-cited statement that גר שנתגייר כקטן שנולד דמי – ‘someone who has converted is like a newborn child’.
In terms of the context in which this statement is made, we are being taught that a convert ceases – in the most part – to maintain legal kinship to their biological family and is, in some ways, ‘born again’.
However, it is important to pay attention to the precise wording of this statement, because the Gemara doesn’t say that ‘someone who has converted is the same as a newborn child’. Instead, it says that they are כקטן שנולד – ‘like’ a newborn child, meaning that there are ways that a convert is ‘born again’, but also ways that they are not. For example, we are taught in our daf that while paternal brothers, where one or both have converted, may testify together (because they are not considered to be related and because there is a lack of certainty if they are born of the same father), nevertheless maternal brothers may not (because, notwithstanding the fact that they have converted, we still acknowledge their kinship). As Rabbi Michael Broyde explains: ‘the convert does not have to wait thirteen years to become a bar-mitzva, or twelve years to become a bat-mitzva. The convert has to repay any money that they owed at the time of conversion, and continues to own any property that they owned prior to their conversion. In short: the convert is not a newborn child for most matters of Jewish Law’ (The Concise Code of Jewish Law for Converts p. 22).
Unfortunately, there are those who have undergone conversion, as well as those who have made significant changes in their religious practice (eg. Ba’alei Teshuva), who have interpreted and applied this teaching far more literally than it was ever meant to mean, and as a result, they have completely severed ties with their biological family.
Yet, as should be clear from our daf, as well as from numerous other sources on the topic (see for example R’ Broyde’s discussion about ‘Honoring One’s Biological Parents’ on p. 59 of his ‘The Concise Code of Jewish Law for Converts’), this is not only a flawed interpretation of the true meaning of this passage, but it can also lead the biological family of the convert, or the family of a Ba’al Teshuva, to have contempt for the convert or for the individual who has increased their religious practice because that individual has failed to show their biological family the kind of ‘courtesies and gestures of respect’ deserving of their family.
What we learn from here is that while Jewish law does assert that a convert ceases to maintain legal kinship to their biological family and is, in some ways, ‘born again’, nevertheless great care should be shown not to overstretch this claim, because, fundamentally, the convert is not a newborn child for most matters of Jewish Law.