Sunday, June 11, 2006

Understanding Proselytes

Essay One: Understanding Proselytes
The original Greek word proselyte referred specifically to one who converted to Judaism. Throughout history, many non-Jews have given up grand and powerful lives as non-Jews in order to cling onto the Jewish nation. Many were persecuted against, tortured and killed for doing so. While some force seems to drive certain gentiles to become Jewish, it seems that other converts are motivated by improper intentions for joining the Jewish nation. The seemingly disparaging comments made in the Talmud regarding some converts can aptly be applied to this type of convert, while the label Ger Tzedek (“Righteous Convert”) applies[1] exclusively to a proper proselyte. David Klinghoffer, himself a Jewish convert, compares[2] the mainstream (“frum from birth”) Jewish dependence on converts (whether not born Jewish, or Jews who not born practicing Judaism) to the dependence of Abram (a “Convert” in Klinghoffer’s nomenclature) on Malchizedek (a “Native” of monotheistic tradition), and vice versa. The former sometimes need the latter for revival and inspiration, while the latter need the former for a direct connection to the Masoretic tradition.

Beginning with Abraham, there has been a long-standing Jewish tradition of teaching non-Jews the truth about the world and its Creator. This is done through non-intimidating hospitality and kindness, which was personified, by Abraham and Sara. After being exposed to the good nature of monotheism and understanding the basic principles of the world, many are inspired to convert to Judaism. Indeed, Avraham and his wife, Sarah, themselves helped convert people in Haran[3]; the Scripture[4] considers those people as having been made or created by the couple –because a newly converted convert is like a newly born baby[5]. The maidservant of Sarah, Hagar, was the daughter of the most powerful monarch during that time, the Pharaoh of Egypt, yet she gave up her life of royalty to serve in the household of Abraham because she heard of the miracles performed on the latter’s behalf [6]. Five generations later, another daughter of a Pharaoh converted, Basya[7], Bithiah also gave up a life of riches in order to serve as a secondary wife to Moses’ brother-in-law, Caleb[8]. A third Egyptian princess, Na’ama, converted to Judaism in order to marry King Solomon[9], as one of his thousand wives[10]. Rechav was a prostitute and innkeeper, who was visited by the most important dignitaries and leaders of her generation[11], yet after being exposed to the greatness of two Torah giants, Caleb and Phinehas, who were on a reconnaissance mission to Canaan[12], she converted and married Joshua[13]. Counted among her descendants are priests and prophets including Chuldah the Prophetess, Yirmiyah, Baruch, Neryah, Sharya, Chilkiyah, and Chanamel[14].

During the period of the Judges, following Yehoshua’s death, a princess of the Moabite royal family, Ruth, married a son of the prominent Hebrew migrant Elimelech. The Talmud[15] explains that her grandfather, Eglon and his father, Balak, were Kings of Moab. Despite the infamous Moabite hatred for Jews, she still converted[16] and married a Jew, eventually becoming the wife of the leader Jewry in her time, Boaz—another name for Ibzan, the judge from Judges 12:8[17]. Ruth gave up a life of royalty, despite her extremely anti-Semitic upbringing, in order to become part of the Jewish nation. Even the greatest enemies of the Jewish nation and their descendants converted to Judaism after they recognized the great truths. The sons of the Assyrian King Sennacherib, who exiled the nation of Israel and warred against the nation of Judah, converted to Judaism[18] and from him descended Shmaya and Avtalyon[19]. Nevuzardan—the commander-in-chief of the Babylonian army under King Nebuchadnezzar[20]—converted to Judaism after destroying the First Holy Temple[21]. The Talmud[22] also tells that the sons of Haman, who sought to destroy global Jewry[23], converted to Judaism and taught Torah publicly. Emperor Nero of the Roman Empire, the man who sent future-Emperor Vespasian to destroy Jerusalem and the Second Holy Temple therein, realized the truths of the Torah (through divinely sent messages) and converted to Judaism[24]. Rabbi Meir, an important Tanna mentioned quite frequently as an anonymous rabbinical authority in the Mishna, and supporter of the anti-Roman Bar Kochba revolution, is numbered among his Jewish descendants[25].

Onkelos, a nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus who actually destroyed the Second Temple, converted to Judaism after seeking the truth from Balaam, Yeshu, and his imperial dead uncle[26]. He achieved fame in the Torah world as the author of the famous translation of the Bible into Aramaic (Targum Onkelos), which is still extant and is learned by many contemporary scholars[27]. In addition to Onkelos, many other converts achieved fame and greatness both spiritually and in Torah knowledge. Eliyahu HaNavi (himself a descendant of converts, assuming that he is identical with Pinchas, see below) greatly influenced Ovadiah the Edomite (author of the Book of Obadiah and minister to Ahab, the Israelite King), who eventually became a convert[28] and prophet. In addition, a famous convert with the same name corresponded with the Rambam, Rabbi Ovadiah HaGer. In Tannaic times, Joseph, a simple farmer, converted to Judaism. Although he was merely a simple farmer, his son grew up to be Rabbi Akiva, arguably the greatest sage of the Oral Torah[29]. Other converts mentioned in the Oral Torah include Queen Barzilla[30], Bloria[31], Minyamin[32], Yehuda the Ammonite Convert[33], and Rabbi Avraham the Convert[34]. Additionally, the Talmud tells of converts who were helped by Hillel[35] and were thus known collectively as “Hillel’s Converts”[36]. The Jewish Encyclopedia[37] recorded a list of Roman converts from Antique times (s.v. Proselyte) based on secular sources, including Titus Flavius Clemens, a nephew of Emperor Domitian, the royal family of Adiabene—Queen Helena and her sons Izates and Monobazus, and Fulvia, the wife of Saturninus, a Roman senator. Titus Flavius Clemens, consul of the Roman Empire, was converted by Rabbi Akiva (a son of a convert himself), Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria, and Rabbi Yehoshua, who traveled all the way to Rome from Yavneh and Bnei Barak. Emperor Antonius of the Roman Empire, a close associate of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (redactor of the Mishna) also converted to Judaism[38].

During the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the mass conversion to Judaism at Mount Sinai, one man was noticeably absent and only joined the nation later: Yisro. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moshe was a well-respected Midianite priest, who converted to Judaism after discovering the truisms of monotheism. As a result, he was ostracized from the Midianite communities and his daughters were harassed by the local Shepards[39]. As a member of the Jewish nation, Yitro achieved greatness: His plan for a multi-person judicial system in accordance with Torah law was accepted by G-d Himself[40], and his offspring became great leaders within Jewry. Pinchas, the Kohen Gadol/High Priest was a descendant of Yisro[41], as was Yehonadav ben Rechev the Kenite[42]. The Midrash explains that no proselyte ever loved the Torah as much as Yithro did[43]. It is for this reason that his descendants merited to learn Torah directly from the leader of their generation, Yabetz—another name for Osniel ben Kenaz, the half-brother of Caleb, and successor to Joshua[44]. Yisro is a figure revered by Jews, Christians, the Druze, and many other groups because of his great commitment. A more modern-day example of a convert similar to Yisro is the story of Avraham ben Avraham. He was originally known as Count Valentine Potocki, a Polish nobleman. When he was affected by the great Torah sage, the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Kramer, 1720-1797), he converted, adopting the name Abraham after the father of all converts. The Vilna Gaon revered Avraham ben Avraham and even visited him while he was incarcerated. In the end, he was branded an apostate and burned at the stake (on the second day of Shavuos) by the Roman Catholic Church in Vilna[45]. Contemporary examples of important proselytes include the Swazi prince Rabbi Natan Gamedze from Swaziland and the Polish Ger Tzedek married by a Bobover Rebbe (in April 2006).

The Talmud[46] asks why tragedy and hardships befall converts in present days[47]. Rabbi Chanania son of Rabban Gamliel initially answered that it was because they did not keep the Seven Noahide Commandments in their gentile state. However, said Rabbi Yose, a newly converted convert is like a newly born baby[48], and therefore should not be held liable for acts done prior to conversion. Consequently, the Talmud answered in the name of Rabbi Yose that converts are not experts enough to observe properly the particularities of halakha. Abba Chanan said in the name of Rabbi Elozor that converts perform their commandments out of fear as opposed to out of love. Others—Acheirim, i.e. Rabbi Meir, a descendant of the converted Emperor Nero, who was a student of Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah who is called Acher, “the other one”—explain that converts are punished for delaying their conversion. From the glosses of Rabbi Elazar Moshe HaLevi Horowitz, Chief Rabbi of Pinsk (and father-in-law of Rabbi Baruch Epstein from Novarodok, 1860-1941), it appears that all gentiles have some requirement to convert without delay; however Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (1697-1776) points out[49] that such a requirement simply does not exist and cannot be the problem. A general rule within Judaism is that Jews do not actively seek out converts, but have institutions and means should one seek to convert; Jews, unlike many other religions, do not proselytize. Rather, he explains that once a convert makes the decision to convert and verbalizes that decision, he is obligated to do all that he can to speed his conversion process without procrastination because doing anything less can be considered a violation of a semi-effective verbal vow.

Rabbi Ya’akov Lorberbaum from Lissa (1760-1832) wrote[50] about the driving force, which tells every potential convert to convert. He writes that this force is a spark of holiness, which can be present even within the body of a gentile. A contemporary of Rabbi Loeberbaum, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841) elaborated on this concept and wrote[51] that HaShem gives a gentile many chances to have this spark ignited to initiate adoration for the Jewish people and the prospect of converting to Judaism. With this, he explains why Rabbi Meir said that a proselyte is punished for his delay in conversion: He did not properly utilize his initial messages from G-d to convert, and instead ignored them until the point when he actually converted. A similar meta-physical concept regarding the soul of a convert is found in the Talmud[52], which exegetically understood[53] that even the yet-to-convert souls of future proselytes were present at the Revelation of Mount Sinai.

Despite all the accomplishments in Judaism made by proselytes, Rabbi Chelbo[54] has some harsh words concerning converts: “Converts are as difficult to [the collective nation of] Israel as a sapachas (a type of Tzara’as).” Furthermore, the Talmud asserts that tragedy after tragedy befalls those who accept converts[55]. Although simply put, this can refer to converts like Luke Ford who are a disgrace to Judaism, the early Rabbinical commentaries offer seven different ways to explains this enigmatic passage in the Talmud. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzchack Yarchi (“from the moon” i.e. Lunel) explains[56] that converts are not experts in the particularities and nuances of Jewish law and others can mistakenly learn improper laws through converts’ mistaken actions. Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Min HaHar (“from the mountain” i.e. Montpellier) explains[57] that Jews might mistakenly learn from a convert’s previous deeds as a gentile and accept them as permitted. Tosfos Yeshanim explain[58] that converts sometimes justify their bad deeds by claiming that other Jews also do them; this brings punishments upon the Jewish nation. These three explanations follow the opinion of Rabbi Yose (see below). However, Rabbi Avraham HaGer[59] offers[60] a converse explanation: Since converts are so particular in their adherence to the commandments, they make the other Jews look bad, which causes punishment for the entire Jewish nation. Tosfos HaRosh, compiled by Rabbi Asher Ben Jechiel (1250-1328), introduces[61] a fifth understanding, which is that converts lack a certain genealogical pedigree, which causes the holy presence to distance itself from them. Tosafos explain[62] that a Jew has a grave obligation not to verbally harass converts because of their status[63] (and to love them[64]), and this obligation is so difficult that many people transgress it and cause great punishments to be brought upon the Jewish nation. The seventh understanding is that of Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, 1135-1204), who writes[65] that converts are like a skin disease because they do not always convert with proper intentions.

Even according to the Rambam, a conversion with an improper intention is still a legally valid conversion (provided everything else is perfect in the conversion); it just yields trouble for the Jewish nation. The Gemara[66] says that a conversion is not valid if it was with the intent for marriage, for being a slave of King Solomon (whose servants were treated to a rich lifestyle), for fear of lions (e.g. Kings 2 17:25 ff), or because of the interpretation of a dream which told one to convert. However, a dissenting opinion, which is codified in practical Halacha by the Rambam himself[67], feels that although optimally a convert should not have these types of intentions, such a conversion is nonetheless valid. During certain times of prosperity, converts were not allowed to join the Jewish congregation because of suspicion that their motives were to take part in Jewish riches and not to fully devote themselves to a life of Torah. The Talmud assumes[68] that two such times were during the period of King David and King Solomon’s[69] reigns and after the surprising victory of the Jews of Shushan[70]. A third time will be[71] in the future Messianic Era. One may ask, however, does not the verse say[72] that after the Jewish victory, many of the locals converted, or Judaized themselves? During times when new converts were not accepted, those wishing to convert became “dragged proselytes” meaning that they forced Judaism upon themselves by practicing its tenets without actually becoming Jewish. They wore Tefilin (phylacteries) and Tzitzis-fringes on their four-cornered garments and affixed Mezuzahs to their doorposts, but never formally became Jewish halachikly. These same “dragged convert” are destined to crop up during the Messianic Era.

An eighth understanding of the reason why converts are so detrimental to Jews-by-birth is that the Talmud elsewhere says[73] that the Jews are only in exile because so that they may add converts from amongst the nation. Perhaps the reason why converts are so painful to the Jewish nation is that had the concept of conversion been non-existent, there would be no exile. It can be implied from the Talmud that G-d only sent the Jews into various places all over the globe so that they can influence the local populace and teach them the truths of the monotheism and the Torah, if not to convert them, then at least to create Noahides. Indeed, the Talmud says[74] that converts block the arrival of the Messiah. This should not be understood that the acceptance of converts block the arrival of the Moshiach, but rather that a lack of their acceptance lengthens the exile. The Maharsha, Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi Eidels (1555–1631), explained[75] that had G-d merely wished to punish the Jews, He did not have to exile them from their homeland; the fact that He did exile His nation shows that He intended for another outcome, namely, the amalgamation of proselytes into the Jewish nation. Rabbi Yoshe Ber HaLevi Soloveitchik (1820-1892) added[76] that without the punishment of exile, all those gentile souls who were destined to convert would have come to Israel on their own seeking spiritual enlightenment, just as Jethro and Rehab came on their own. Because of the exile and its scattering of the Jewish nation, Israel will be there when converts from all over the world will seek the truth. May HaShem completely redeem His nation and end the exile from the four corners of the Earth with the coming of the Messiah, speedily and in our days: Amen.

[1] Yevamos 48b
[2] In his book, The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism
[3] Midrash Rabbah Genesis 39:14
[4] Genesis 12:5
[5] Yevamos 22a
[6] Midrash Rabbah Genesis 45:1
[7] Sotah 12b
[8] Chronicles 1 4:18
[9] Megillah 10b
[10] Kings 1 11:3
[11] Zevachim 115a
[12] See Joshua Chapter 2
[13] Megillah 14b-15a
[14] Ibid.
[15] Sanhedrin 105
[16] See Ruth 3:3, “washing” there is a euphemism for immersion into the Mikvah, a crucial element in a proper conversion.
[17] Bava Basra 91a
[18] Gittin 57b
[19] Torah leaders mentioned in Avos 1:10 as the predecessors to Hillel and Shamai.
[20] Kings 2 25:8
[21] Gittin 57b
[22] Ibid.
[23] See the Book of Esther
[24] Although secular scholars deny this claim, it is explicitly written in the Talmud. Roman and modern historians would rather have had the Roman Emperor go crazy and commit suicide than to have had him converted to Judaism.
[25] Gittin 56a
[26] Gittin 56b
[27] Megillah 3a
[28] Sanhedrin 39b
[29] Pesachim 49b
[30] Gerim 2:3
[31] Yevamos 46a
[32] Yevamos 76b, Sotah 9a
[33] Yadayim 4:4, Brachos 28a
[34] Cited in Tosafos to Kiddushin 71a, See below
[35] Shabbos 31a
[36] Avos D’Rabbi Nosson 15:3
[37] Published in America between 1901 and 1906
[38] See Tosafos to Avodah Zarah 10b
[39] Exodus 2:16-22
[40] See Exodus Chapter 18
[41] Sotah 43a
[42] Keni is another name for Yisro
[43] Sifri to Parshas Behaaloscha
[44] See Judges 1:3 and Temurah 16a
[45] Predictably, many secular and Catholic historians deny the entire story of Avraham ben Avraham. The Chofetz Chayim had a custom of telling over the story every year on the anniverssary of Avraham ben Avraham, which only furthers its place in Jewish tradition.
[46] Yevamos 48b
[47] Apparently, the Talmud understood that such punishments befall “Jews by birth” because of the sins of their forefathers, but expressed wonderment as to why “Jews by Choice” are also afflicted. See Ritva to Yevamos 48b.
[48] Yevamos 22a
[49] In his glosses to Yevamos 48b
[50] Imrei Yosher pg. 10
[51] Yismach Moshe, Parshas Emor
[52] Shevuos 39a
[53] Based on Deuteronomy 29:13
[54] Yevamos 47b, 109b, Kiddushin 70b, and Niddah 13b
[55] Yevamos 109b
[56] Yevamos 109b
[57] Yevamos 47b
[58] Ibid.
[59] Or Rabbi Shmuel HaGer, according to the version of the Tosafos of Rabbenu Peretz ben Eliyahu of Corbeil.
[60] As cited by Tosafos to Kiddushin 70b
[61] Yevamos 47b
[62] Ibid.
[63] Leviticus 19:33
[64] Deuteronomy 10:19
[65] Maimonides, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions, 13:18
[66] Yevamos 24b
[67] Maimonides, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions, 13:4
[68] Yevamos 24b, 76b
[69] Concerning Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) and his foreign wives, there are a few answers given. Tosafos explain (Yevamos 76b) that he only “loved” them but did not “marry” them, so his relationship with them was permitted. However, that assumes that only “marriage” with a “wedding” to a gentile woman is forbidden while mere relations with her are permitted; this assumption is disputed by many opinions. Others explain that he converted his wives, and even though normally converts were not accepted during Solomon’s reign, all his wives were princess of foreign dignitaries so there was no suspicion that they married him for his riches, because they lived royally anyways. Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner (1749-1821) explained (Likutei Mamaarim §1) that Solomon planned to transform the root of the evil in those gentile women into good because he believed that that was needed to be done in order to usher in the Messianic Era, however, he was mistaken and the time for that Era had not yet arrived. Therefore, the opposite occurred, instead of him influencing his wives for the good, they influenced him for the bad, and “turned his heart” as is said in Kings 1 11:4.
[70] As recorded in the Book of Esther and celebrated on Purim
[71] Avodah Zarah 3b
[72] Esther 8:17
[73] Pesachim 87b
[74] Niddah 13b
[75] Chiddushei Aggadah to Pesachim 87
[76] Beis HaLevi to Parshas BeShalach


Reuven Chaim Klein said...

My personal view of Proslytes is not relevent, but in your assertion that Rabbis abandon their converts spiritually after their conversion, you have obviously never been to the shul that I attend. :) I have seen some many people come in knowing nothing and grow some much in a few years become Jewish and continue growing. I'm very close friends with many of the converts in my synagouge.The same Rav who helped teach these converts before they became Jewish is there at all the major conjectures of their life, when they get married, have children, and other such occasions. He is like a father to those "newly-born" Jews.

Tzvee Zahavy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

You might mention the honorable role of Jews who converted to other religions, starting (probably) with Elisha Ben Avuya all the way to Heinrich Heine, Jaques Offenbach, Fritz Haber, Gustav Mahler and beyond. Some demographers estimate that without assimilation the Jewish people could number 200 million people.

Reuven Chaim Klein said...

How is that honorable?

Anonymous said...

tosafos in avoda zara say's that the earth is round .they bring a yerushalmi to that effect . Perek kol hatzlomim

Reuven Chaim Klein said...


Anonymous said...

The Problem is most Jews do not let G-d do the sorting and try to do it themselves which is to their own detriment.

Anonymous said...

Shkoyach. Very, thorough erudite and informative. Check out the post that went up today on v'timtsa nachas.

Have you ever heard of Warder Cresson?

Anonymous said...

I'm a JBC. I wish you would have quoted some scriptures and other quotes... and in my case this one came to mind when I first decided to convert a year ago:
"Dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai is the convert. Had the Israelites not witnessed the lightning, thunder, and quaking mountain, and had they not heard the sounds of the shofar, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the convert, who did not see or hear any of these things, surrendered to God and accepted the yoke of heaven. Can anyone be dearer to God than such a person?"

Tanhuma (ed. Buber),
Lekh Lekha 6:32

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