Jul 23, 2010

Shabbat Thoughts.

I want to stress to the readers that when the Tanakh talks of the ger, it is not referring to the "convert." Rather, ger means "stranger" or "sojourner" in the midst of the nation of Israel (גר is the Hebrew, which is used even today as the verb "to reside"). In the Tanakh, there is little conception of a convert, and I think that this concept might have been very foreign to the people of Biblical times. Throughout history, conversion to Judaism has been outlawed, and the danger of converting meant low numbers converting to Judaism. It is only over the past 60 years or so that conversion has become the booming "business" that it has, with new freedoms and new nations allowing this possibility to really flower.

That being said, the rabbis spend much time about the ger and how to treat the ger, because, for the rabbis, the term came also to refer to proselytes (converts) to Judaism. The terms used by the rabbis throughout the literature, then, are ger tzedek and ger toshav (toshav means "resident"). Thus, today when we see that blasted word, we assume it always refers to converts, when, in fact, it doesn't -- especially in the Torah. 

Okay, now that that's out of the way, I wanted to impress upon my readers and all those worried converts out there, as well as all of those born Jews who don't know how significantly the rabbis impressed upon born Jews to make Judaism work for the gerim (referring specifically to proselytes). These are bits taken from my D'var Torah from Parshah Sh'mot, which actually can be found in full on the righthand side there (it was largely about Rahab, my tour de force, but got into the discussion of the rabbis and converts).
Numbers Rabbah 8:2 says, “Why does the Holy Blessed One love the righteous (referring to a discussion of converts being loved as the righteous)? Because they have neither inheritance nor family. Priests and Levites have an ancestral house, as it says, “House of Aaron, praise the Lord. House of Levi, praise the Lord” (Psalms 146:19). If someone wants to be a kohen or levite, one cannot because one’s father was not. But if someone wants to be righteous, even a non-Jew can, since that is not dependent on ancestry.” The midrash continues with a parable about the stag that attaches itself to the king’s flock. Daily, the king instructs his shepherds to take care of the stag, and they ask the king why he cares so much abvout this one animal:
"The king responded, 'The other animals have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in to sleep in the fold. Stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into places inhabited by man. Is it not to a sign of this one's merit that he has left behind the whole of the wilderness to stay in our courtyard?' In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind his family and his relatives, his nation and all the other nations of the world, and has chosen to come to us?"
This parable responds to the unvoiced question/critique of the native Israelite: "Why does the Torah provide all of these protections for the convert? Does God care more about them than about me?" The midrash responds, "Consider what the convert has given up."
This section of the midrash concludes:
"Accordingly, God has provided the convert with special protection, warning Israel to be very careful not to do any harm to converts, and indeed, it says, 'Love the convert' (Deuteronomy 10:19) … Thus God made clear safeguards so that converts might not return to their former ways [which God fears they might do if native Israelites treat them poorly]."
Although some tannaitic midrashim voiced suspicions that the convert might fall back or that the convert might not entirely abandon his past beliefs, this later text places responsibility for backsliding converts squarely upon the native Israelites – that means YOU! Born Jews! 
... I think that many people today could learn much from the rabbis discussion of Rachav and other converts – our great sages viewed these converts as truly magnificent, unique, and key to the future of the Jewish people. 
So, my diverse readership, take to heart these words that the rabbis wrote for a reason. Why do we so readily ignore these words today? Why is the weight of the world placed on the convert, in the crossfire of politics? I don't know. I can't be sure. Paranoia, fear, a tumultuous world in which trust is something people know not of. Think on this over Shabbat, speak about it with your table guests, discuss your fears and what you don't know and then go out and educate yourself!

Shabbat shalom, friends!


Daniel Saunders said...

Good post.

Why is the weight of the world placed on the convert, in the crossfire of politics?

I think as well as seeing the subject by itself, it needs to be seen in the context of an Orthodoxy that is increasingly insular, especially in terms of the Charedi world, but perhaps even Modern Orthodoxy to some extent (and you know that I say this as a dedicated, passionate, paid-up Orthodox Jew). Converts, like ba'alei teshuva, come from outside the boundaries placed around the community, and I think some people have a fear of what they might bring with them, in terms of heterodox ideas and practices. Hence the fear of backsliding and the desire to keep their distance.

Holy Hyrax said...

I agree on what ger originally meant, but I am not sure people did not convert. Or at least, in the sense that we think of. Did Rivka or Rachel convert to Judaism? Did any woman taken as a wife in the midst of a war convert? Its not so much of an official conversion as merely taking the life of your husband. As you take the husband, so do you take his god. If I remember correctly, King Herod comes from a people that were forcibly converted.

BTW, how does this apply to law that in the Torah says are both for the Ger and the Israelite when in fact, chazal made distinct rulings that you treat a non Israelite differently in matter of courts.

Suburban Sweetheart said...

All I really know is that watching this bill proceed has been so, so painful for the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist communities. To be presented with a bill like this that further illegitimizes our denominations - & then to have MK Rotem say that we are trying to blackmail/guilt him - is devastating. I, for one, am glad to see it tabled. I hpe there's a way to open up the bottleneck of conversion for Russion olim - but not at the expense of so much of the rest of the Diaspora.

David Tzohar said...

Chaviva- There are two exceptions to
your correct statement that the gerim in the tanach are gerei toshav and not gerei tzedek. One is Yitro who after worshipping every form of avodah zarah, came to the conclusion that Hashem is the true god after learning of the parting of the sea and the battle against Amalek.
The other is Naomi of whom it is said"May Hashem reward you who has come to take shelter under his wings" It must be strewssed however that when the people of Israel were in Eretz Yisrael Judaism was the national religion and one of the conditions of being a ger toshav was accepting "the Gd of Israel" and forsaking all other gods. For a full treatment of this subject see my post "who is a ger?" on tzoharlateiva.blogspot.com

ger toshav was

David Tzohar said...

I meant of course Ruth not Naomi

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@DavidTzohar I'm pretty sure that RUTH is the *only* accepted convert from the Tanakh without rabbinic understanding and influence in the midrash. Ruth, of course, is a unique case.

The point here is that there was no prescription for her conversion, there was no process, there was no mention of mikvah, there was no EXPECTATION. She just joined in.

YC said...

re Throughout history, conversion to Judaism has been outlawed

What does that mean? From Moses until 1948? or at times it was outlawed?

Talmud says during days of David and Solomon and at the end of days no converts were/would be accepted. But there were converts in-between including some famous ones

Jewish Ideas Daily said...

To toot our own horn briefly, Jewish Ideas Daily has a great summary of the whole conversion bill issue. It's at http://www.jidaily.com/Ilta

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