“The Torah’s Attitude Towards Converts”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s Torah portion, parashat Beha’alotecha, continues the narrative of the Jew’s wanderings in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

In the first month of the second year since the Exodus from Egypt, G-d speaks to Moshe in the Wilderness of Sinai to tell the people to prepare for the celebration of Passover. Scripture relates that among the Israelites were men who had been contaminated by contact with a human corpse and were rendered ineligible by their defilement to offer the Pascal sacrifice on the Passover holiday.

The men approached Moshe to tell him how disappointed they were to have to miss the celebration of Pesach. Moshe responds 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 noon, they should celebrate a “quasi” Passover, together with matzoh and marror (bitter herbs).

Numbers 9:14 reads: “V’chi ya’gur it’chem ger, v’ah’sah Pesach la’Hashem,” and if a convert, a stranger, shall sojourn with you, that stranger shall make a Pascal offering to G-d, “K’chu’kot ha’Pesach u’ch’mish’pa’to, kayn yah’ah’seh,” he shall make the Pascal offering to G-d according to the appropriate laws of the Passover offering. “Chu’kah ah’chat yee’yeh la’chem, v’la’ger u’l’ez’rach ha’a’retz,” there shall be only one law for you, for the stranger and for the citizen of the land.

Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) points out in his commentary that we might have thought that “strangers,” (which we mean in this context to be 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 of not only the Passover rituals, but in all of the commandments.

In a similar context, the rabbis have asked: How is it possible for a convert to Judaism to pray every day and say in the Amidah, “Eh’lo’kaynu vay’lo’kei a’vo’tay’nu,” our G-d and G-d of our fathers, “Eh’lo’kay Avraham, Eh’lo’kay Yitzchak, vay’lo’kay Ya’akov,” 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 towards converts–gayrim. On the one hand, the Talmud comments on the verse, Exodus 18:9, “Va’yee’chad Yitro,” explaining that Jethro got 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) says, “Ka’shim gayrim l’Yisrael k’sa’pah’chat,” 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 civilizations 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 Judaism became anti-evangelical.

In the biblical Book of Ruth, in order to ascertain that Ruth is sincere, Naomi tries three times to dissuade Ruth from converting to Judaism. Future generations begin to consistently discourage non-Jews from converting to Judaism, since a Jew is more liable to heavenly punishment than a non-Jew, who is obligated to keep only the seven Noachide Principles.

Some of the commentators point out that prospective converts are considered like a “scurvy” upon the Jewish people because they are so sincere, when 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 are descended from converts. Rabbi Meir–the anonymous author of the Mishnah, Rabbi Akiva–the great sage of the Talmud, Onkelos–the foremost translator of the Bible into Aramaic, who, even now, is commonly referred to as Onkelos Ha’ger, Onkelos the Convert.

The bottom line, as is amply demonstrated from this set of verses in Parashat Beha’alotecha, is that Jews have to treat “strangers” (that is, converts) with great sensitivity. There is also, of course, a special mitzvah to love strangers.

Perhaps the most defining statement about converts comes from the Midrash, which states that at Sinai the souls of all Jews, past, present and future, were present. This Midrash is meant to be inclusive of all future proselytes. The truth of the matter is that when one meets a Ger Tzedek, a righteous proselyte, one quickly realizes that no matter the convert’s racial or religious background, they were there at Sinai and are the equivalent of the spiritual children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! It is very likely 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 Judaism. As it says in the Bible, Deuteronomy 10:19, “V’ahav’tem et ha’ger,” Love the stranger.

May you be blessed.