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B’ha’a’lot’cha 5780-2020

The Torah’s Attitude toward Converts
(Revised and Updated from Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha 5761-2001)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald.

This coming week’s Torah portion, parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, continues the narrative concerning the Jews’ wanderings in the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land.

The Torah records (Numbers 9:1-5), that in the first month of the second year since the Exodus from Egypt, G-d spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai to tell the people to prepare for the celebration of Passover.

Scripture relates (Numbers 9:6-8), that among the Israelites, were men who had been contaminated by coming in contact with a human corpse, rendering them ineligible by their defilement to offer the Pascal sacrifice on the Passover holiday together with the rest of the nation.

The men approached Moses and informed him how disappointed they were to have to miss the celebration of Pesach. Moses responded (Numbers 9:10-12), by informing them that once they are purified, they can observe a “make-up date” for Passover. On the second month of the year, the month of Iyar, on the fourteenth day at dusk, they should celebrate a “quasi” Passover, together with matzah and marror (bitter herbs).

The Torah, in Numbers 9:14, continues with additional instructions concerning the Second Passover: וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּכֶם גֵּר, וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַהשׁם , and if a convert, a stranger, shall sojourn with you, that stranger shall make a Pascal offering to G-d, כְּחֻקַּת הַפֶּסַח וּכְמִשְׁפָּטוֹ, כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה , he shall make the Pascal offering to G-d according to the appropriate laws of the Passover offering. חֻקָּה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם, וְלַגֵּר וּלְאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ , there shall be only one law for you, for the stranger and for the citizen of the land.

Nachmanides points out in his commentary, that we might have thought that “strangers” (which, in this context, mean proselytes) who’ve converted to Judaism and whose ancestors did not share in the Exodus, should not bring a Pascal offering to commemorate the event. The fact that the Torah specifically underscores here that converts do participate in this Passover ritual, teaches us that converts participate equally in the performance not only the Passover rituals, but in all of the Torah’s commandments.

In a similar context, the rabbis have asked Teshuvot haRambam: How is it possible for a convert to Judaism to pray every day and say in the Amidah, אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ וֵא־לֹקֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ , our G-d, and G-d of our fathers, אֱ־לֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱ־לֹקֵי יצְחָק, וֵא־לֹקֵי יַעֲקֹב , the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and the G-d of Jacob. After all, converts are not descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

Clearly, Jewish tradition reflects an ambivalence toward converts—גֵרִים , gayrim. On the one hand, the Talmud comments on the verse, Exodus 18:9, וַיִּחַדְּ יִתְרוֹ , explaining that Jethro (considered to be the first convert to Judaism), broke out with gooseflesh when he heard about the splitting of the sea and the drowning of the Egyptians. This teaches us, say the rabbis, that one should not remind converts of their background, since they may be embarrassed of their ancestry.

On the other hand, the Talmud (Yebamot 47b) declares: קָשִׁים גֵרִים לְיִשְרָאֵל כְּסַפַחַת , converts are as difficult for the Jewish people as scurvy. Very literally, it probably meant that converting non- Jews to Judaism endangered the Jewish communities, since the non-Jewish authorities where the Jews lived forbade Jews to convert anyone to Judaism, and violation would result in wholesale punishment (perhaps even death). This caused a turnabout in the Jewish attitude toward conversion, which was originally evangelical–seeking out converts. Now normative Jewish practice became anti-evangelical.

In the biblical Book of Ruth (Ruth 1:8-12), in order to ascertain whether Ruth is sincere in her intentions, Naomi tries three times to dissuade Ruth from converting to Judaism. Based on this narrative, rabbinic authorities have consistently discouraged non-Jews from converting to Judaism. One of the reasons proposed for this practice is that Jews, who have an obligation to abide by many more Mitzvot (613), are more liable to heavenly punishment than a non-Jew, who is obligated to keep only the seven Noahide Principles.

Some of the commentators on the Talmud’s seemingly anti- conversion statement found in Yebamot 47b, point out that prospective converts are considered to be like a “scurvy” upon the Jewish people because they are so sincere, compared to biologically-born Jews. Because of their sincerity and their commitment, the converts make “born Jews” look insincere and far less committed.

There is, of course, an illustrious history of converts to Judaism. In fact, some of the foremost leaders of Israel were descended from converts. Rabbi Meir, the author of all the anonymous Mishnahaic statements, Rabbi Akiva –the great sage of the Talmud, Onkelos –the foremost translator of the Bible into Aramaic, who, even now, is commonly referred to with pride as Onkelos Ha’ger, Onkelos the Convert.

The bottom line, as is amply demonstrated from the verses in parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, is that Jews have to treat “strangers” (that is, converts) with great respect and sensitivity. There is also, of course, a special mitzvah to love strangers.

Perhaps, the most defining statement about converts comes from the Talmud, Shavuot 39a. Based on Deuteronomy 29:14, the rabbis declare that the souls of all Jews, past, present and future, including the souls of converts, were present at Sinai.

Truth is, that often, when one meets a גֵּר צֶדֶק , Ger Tzedek, a truly righteous proselyte, one can quickly sense, that no matter the convert’s racial or religious background, they were there at Sinai and are indeed the spiritual children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! It may very likely be that most of today’s converts are descendants of Jews who were assimilated over the millennia, and whose souls are now being welcomed back to the Jewish fold.

As it says in the Torah, Deuteronomy 10:19, וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר , Love the stranger.

May you be blessed.