Posts Tagged ‘convert’

Embracing the stranger…

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Naso - Embracing the stranger...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

Naso: Numbers 4:21-7:89

"A man or a woman…" (Numbers 5:6)

The leap from the problem of the verse to the midrash seems quite distant, at first. The question is why call out both man and woman in the phrase having to do with committing a wrong against another person. In Hebrew, it would have been sufficient to say ish and have it mean a person, as both genders are implied. In this case, though, the text calls out both ish and isha, raising the specter of why it is necessary to specify a woman. The leap will become clear later; for now, let’s listen:

This bears on the Scriptural text, The Lord loveth the righteous; the Lord preserveth the proselytes (Ps. 146:8 f.)

To what may this be compared? To a king who had a flock which used to go out to the field and come in at even. So it was each day. Once a stag came in with the flock. He associated with the goats and grazed with them. When the flock came in to the fold he came in with them; when they went out to graze he went out with them. The king was told: ‘A certain stag has joined the flock and is grazing with them every day. He goes out with them and comes in with them.’

The king felt an affection for him. When he went out into the field the king gave orders: ‘Let him have good pasture, such as he likes; no man shall beat him; be careful with him!’ When he came in with the flock also the king would tell them, ‘Give him to drink;’ and he loved him very much. The servants said to him: ‘Sovereign! You possess so many he-goats, you possess so many lambs, you possess so many kids, and you never caution us about them; yet you give us instructions every day about this stag!’ Said the king to them: ‘The flock have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in at even to sleep in the fold. The stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into places inhabited by man. Shall we then not account it as a merit to this one which has left behind the whole of the broad, vast wilderness, the abode of all the beasts, and has come to stay in the courtyard?’

In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind him his family and his father’s house, aye, has left behind his people and all the other peoples of the world, and has chosen to come to us?

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers VIII:2

Let’s begin with the simple meaning of this midrash, for it is very sweet on its own: it teaches us, in the most pragmatic of terms, of the special relationship between the Eternal One and the convert, of the intense love the convert must feel to leave what is familiar and attach him or herself to this new people, this new culture, this new geography of both land and spirit, and how the Eternal One reciprocates that love. It is a quiet lesson also to those who wonder whether a convert is "fully" Jewish, but that is a topic for another time.

Looking a little more deeply, notice that there is an equivalence set up at the beginning, in the proof-text between the righteous and the convert: it implies that that same special relationship is available to everyone, whether a Jew by choice or by birth: through a passionate dedication to righteousness, that same attachment can be found. And let me hasten to note that this is a dedication to righteousness, not judgment.

But the deepest meanings come when we look more closely at the language, and how we have adjusted its meaning over time. The word that is translated as "prosylete" (convert) is ger – which actually means "stranger."

You see, originally we were speaking about what we might call today the ger toshav – the stranger within our gates. Not a convert at all – converts, after all, are fully Jewish, and require no special status. A ger toshav is someone who chooses to attach themselves to the Jewish people without converting, yet loving us still to live among us and by our laws. These were the original objects of this terms, and of all the laws regarding the stranger; it was only later in history that the term was "adjusted" to mean convert. Why was this done? Again, a topic for another time, but simply put, there have been times when the need to isolate ourselves from other societies was far more pressing.

Today, however, we have the opportunity to consider the original intent: how do we welcome someone into our community who does not convert but desires attachment nonetheless? Who has no desire to change from stag to goat, but nonetheless loves the herd?

Oh! And what is the connection with the original question – the naming of both woman and man? Because far too often, it is the woman who has been seen as the outsider, the other – and this midrash reaches out to all.

When we discover the way to open the gates of our hearts to the gerim among us – the "other," however we view them – then we will discover yet another gate to the love of the Eternal One for us all.


Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Vayikra - Roots...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

Parashah Vayikral: Leviticus 1:1-5:26

"If any man of you brings an offering to the Lord…" (Leviticus 1:2)

This seems to be a midrash about converts to Judaism, and indeed it has an important message in that matter. I believe we can also take this to a deeper level about spirituality in general. I’ll address both after the midrash; for now, listen:

R. Abbahu opened his discourse with the text, They shall return, dwelling under his shadow (Hosea 14:8). These, he said, are the converts who come and take shelter under the shadow of the Holy One, blessed be He. They shall make corn grow (ib.) means, they become the root just like Israel, even as thou sayest, Corn shall make the young men flourish, and wine the maids (Zech. 9:17). And they shall blossom as the vine (Hosea loc. cit.), even as thou sayest, Thou didst pluck up a vine out of Egypt; Thou didst drive out the nations, and didst plant it (Ps. 80:9).

Another interpretation: They shall make corn grow (Hosea loc. cit.) speaks of Talmud, And they shall blossom as the vine speaks of Aggadah and Halachah (laws). The mention of shall be as the wine of Lebanon suggests: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘The names of converts are as pleasing to Me as the wine of libation which is offered to Me on the altar.’

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus I:2

Converts to Judaism know a special challenge: having been drawn to this ancient religion, they know the privilege and honor of joining this people. And yet there are many born Jews who have a difficult time accepting the convert, as this midrash alludes. Why else would we need a teaching about how valuable converts are, especially since proselytizing is actively discouraged! This is only one of many instances in midrash, Talmud and halachah (Jewish law) in which the matter of converts is addressed. Indeed, it is forbidden by numerous laws to identify a convert as such, or even speak of their pre-Jewish days!

And yet there is a real value that the convert brings: other experiences, other contexts, other perspectives, all of which are somehow "digested" into klal Yisrael – the Jewish people. It is this "foreign fertilizer" which, in the proper proportion, allows the religion to flourish. For Judaism, like any other religion, cannot survive if it becomes stagnant or too insular. Yet it must, especially in light of its small numbers, be careful about change. What a paradox!

So yes, it is the role of the convert to become one with the people and help it to grow like corn – tall and strong. Simultaneously, the convert must be invisible, indistinguishable from other Jews – become part of the root itself, knowing he or she is as sweet to G!d as wine.

Now, onto the deeper issue. Traditionally, "Jews by Choice" are seen as Jewish neshamot – souls – that happen to have been born (or reborn) into non-Jewish bodies. At a first glance, this view could be seen as even more insular: "Converts were never really not Jewish, so we don’t allow any outsiders in at all." Nothing could be further from the truth.

What this view acknowledges is the deep, visceral pull that our spiritual selves feel towards Ein Sof – That which is without limit or definition. Whatever religious or spiritual practice one has, once you have felt that tug, it is hard to ignore it.

And it is a tug that pulls you in a particular direction, even though the path or process is often unclear. Usually, the path has familiar elements to it, but inevitably our journey will require something new from us: some fundamental change.

This view – that converts are Jewish souls, no matter what their physical lineage – acknowledges the strength of that pull, and how it must uproot one from one’s "comfort zone." How important is this pull?

Consider that the Messiah is taught will be a descendant of Ruth’s – a convert! And that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Talmudic scholars, was also a convert!

The point is that the power of this pull to the Eternal One is formidable, if we give ourselves to it. It will change our lives, and, G!d-willing, make us a force for good in this world – no matter what our path.