“Loving the Stranger”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, the Torah boldly pronounces the positive mitzvah of loving the stranger.

In Deuteronomy 10:19, the Torah states, “Va’ah’hahv’tem et ha’ger, kee gay’reem heh’yee’tehm b’Eretz Mitzrayim,” You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. This verse is one of 36 times in which the Torah admonishes the People of Israel to love and care for the stranger and treat them properly. It is the most oft-repeated mitzvah in the Torah, cited more often than even Shabbat, kashrut, or circumcision.

Xenophobia (fear of strangers) is a hallmark of most close-knit communities, and certainly of most ancient societies. Even the United States of America, whose citizenry is comprised of every conceivable ethnic and racial group, is presently beset by immigration issues. The U.S., built on the back of immigrants, has, throughout its history, frequently cut off immigration to outsiders and strangers.

The Torah admonishes the Jews: You of all people, who were yourselves strangers in Egypt, must be particularly sensitive to the needs of strangers.

Most often, strangers are treated with suspicion because they are different. Sometimes, they do not speak the native language fluently, and, at times, they are resented because they are particularly industrious and enterprising. Immigrants are frequently willing to perform menial jobs for lower compensation than natives or long-term citizens. This often leads to the perception that the immigrants are “stealing jobs” from the natives, and threaten the socioeconomic security of the earlier immigrants.

If attitudes of antipathy and xenophobia are often directed at mere strangers, how much more so to strangers who wish to convert to Judaism, who are neither members of our families, nor of our people. Consequently, the Torah laws regarding the proper treatment of converts are rather extensive and quite detailed.

One who comes under the wings of the Divine Presence to become Jewish is called a Ger Tzedek, a righteous proselyte. A righteous proselyte must accept the entire body of the Jewish faith, belief and practice, including the important mitzvot as well as the seemingly less important ones. A potential convert may not say, “I will accept the entire Torah, with the exception of a single law.”

It is quite common for the background of the candidate for conversion to be carefully scrutinized, to ensure that the conversion is being pursued for the proper reasons. Those who come to convert are asked why they wish to convert. At the time of their conversion, they are asked if they are aware that the Jewish people are a hated and persecuted people who endure much suffering. The Talmud in Yevamot 47a and 47b states that candidates for conversion are taught the basics of Judaism–unity of G-d, the prohibition of idolatry, some of the more lenient and more severe laws, and punishment and reward for mitzvot.

Many interesting rules regarding conversion to Judaism have already been explored and discussed in B’ha’alot’cha 5761-2001.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch asserts that since those who enter the Jewish faith often do so at the expense of their familial and former social relationships, they roundly deserve to be accorded our love, acceptance and regard. Maimonides regards the convert with ambivalence. He attributes G-d’s greater love for Israel to an inherent superiority of the people of Israel. Even so, Maimonides maintains that a Jew must love the convert to Judaism regardless of any superiority or inferiority that may exist.

The Kli Yakar rejects Maimonides’ notion of a superior birthright. He contends that the Al-mighty created the world to serve all of humankind and that being born Jewish is meaningless, unless a Jew’s actions also merit G-d’s love. Thus, a convert who follows the laws of the Torah must be loved, just as one must love any Jew.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of teaching and guiding many converts to Judaism. Most of them are truly exceptional individuals. Their devotion to Judaism is unquestionably sincere. In fact, it is often embarrassing to witness their extraordinary commitment, especially when compared with naturally born biological Jews, who are often casual about their commitment. The converts’ mastery of the fine points of Judaism is often astounding, again shaming the biologically born Jews, who are frequently satisfied with their own limited Jewish knowledge.

Over the last decade, at least in my experience, there has been a small, perceptible increase in the numbers of non-Jews who seek to convert to Judaism. They are often highly accomplished individuals, who have grown disenchanted with the religion into which they were born. They come from all backgrounds, nationalities, races and creeds. They are an inspiration to say the least.

One of the recent converts to Judaism with whom I’ve had the privilege to study, is a lovely, highly intelligent Chinese woman, whose studies for conversion to Judaism took almost five years. Although she had been married previously to a Jewish man, she had never converted. Only when she divorced did she formally begin the conversion process. She enjoys pointing out the confluence between many of the Chinese alphabet characters with Judaism and the Bible. So, for instance, the pictogram for a boat in Chinese consists of three symbols, a vessel, a human being and the number eight, reminding us that the first vessel, Noah’s Ark, contained eight human beings. Before she converted to Judaism, she would identify herself proudly as a “M-O-T-I-T,” Member of the Tribe in Training. After her conversion, a little over a year ago, she announced that she was now an “F-S-T,” Frum (religious) Since Tuesday.

The history of our people has been bountifully enriched by converts, including Shmaya and Avtalyon, the famous teachers of Hillel and Shamai. Both Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva were descendants of converts. The primary translator of the Bible to Aramaic, Onkelos, was a convert. The Talmud tells us that the Babylonian General, Nevuzradan, was a convert, as were the grandchildren of Siserah, Sancherev, Haman and the Roman Emperor, Nero. And, of course, King David descended from Ruth the Moabite.

The mitzvah that is enumerated in this week’s parasha, of loving the proselyte, cannot be overemphasized. These “strangers” surely deserve our warm welcome and heartfelt love.

May you be blessed.