Rabbi David Walk
This week's Torah reading has some of those verses which are readily recognized by most literate Jews, and here they are: The Aramean wished to destroy my father; and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation - great and mighty and numerous. The Egyptians treated us badly and they made us suffer, and they put hard work upon us. The Lord took as out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with a great manifestation, and with signs and wonders. And we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our suffering, our labor and our oppression (Deuteronomy 26:5-8). These four statements are, of course, the heart of the recitation of the exodus story at our annual seders. Less well known is the actual role of these verses as presented in the Torah.
The verses were the declaration made by Jewish farmers in Israel when they brought their first fruits to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Torah felt that it was imperative that these humble workers of the fields understood the nobility of their calling. Coaxing the dirt of Israel to yield its bounty connects us to the land, to our history, and to our God. So, this yearly tradition helped us to maintain the chain of our heritage. The two most important jobs in Judaism are receiving the tradition from the previous generation (kabbalah, acceptance) and then passing this legacy on to our progeny (mesorah, transmission). We try to accomplish these goals through our many family traditions like the seder, sitting in the sukkah or Shabbat meals. We, sort of, do this in a symbolic or abstract way, while our ancestors in the Temple period performed these concrete manifestations of this duty.
In the Mishnah (Bikurim chapter one) there are detailed instructions about how to perform this ritual. When you get to the fourth mishnah an unexpected detail emerges. The convert is told that he can't make this declaration, because the instructions include the following description of the Land of Israel: Which God promised to your ancestors to give to us (verse 3). This statement precipitates a major argument between two of the most famous authors of the Tosafot commentaries on our Talmud. In tractate Baba Batra (81a), Rabbeinu Tam (R. Jacob ben Meir, 1100-1171, grandson of Rashi) uses this limitation on the proselyte to further prohibit a convert from leading grace after meals, because the leader used to read the entirety aloud. This would have this person born outside the religion to recite: We thank you, God, for having granted to our ancestors a desirable, good and spacious land. In the Shmoneh Esreh prayer, Rabbeinu Tam also was against converts using the formula 'and God of our ancestors.' Instead he would have them say God of your ancestors.
However, mercifully, his nephew Rabbeinu Yitzchak (R. Yitchak ben Shmuel, d. 1200, called the Ri HaZaken) is quoted as strongly disagreeing across the board on all these issues. The Ri bases himself on a statement in the Jerusalem Talmud (Bikurim 1:4) that proselytes may read the prescribed formula. The source of this ruling is the verse: As for Me, behold My covenant is with you, and you shall become the father of a multitude of nations. And your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:4-5). Avraham is the father of anyone who wants to join the covenantal community.
This ruling, which the Jerusalem Talmud states to be authoritative (and is cited as the law by Maimonides, Laws of First Fruits, 4:3), saves us from much grief. We are told repeatedly never to hurt or embarrass converts. When a convert sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him. The convert who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God (Leviticus 19:33-34). In our own Torah reading we are told to share our bounty with the stranger and convert (26:11).
I raise this topic not just because it appears in our weekly reading, but because of an emerging crisis in our own day. Even though the problem is world wide, it is most urgent in Israel. We must do something concrete and soon to help those who have sincerely converted to our faith and those who would like to. Orthodox rabbinic organizations have made conversion very difficult and have made life miserable for those whose conversions they don't accept. The worst example is the treatment of Rabbi Chaim Drukman. In 1990 Rabbi Drukman was appointed director of the newly created State Conversion Authority, that provides services to candidates for conversion to Judaism. He remained in that post until May 22, 2008, when he was fired. Earlier in that month a Jewish court had ruled that all conversions performed by Rabbi Drukman were invalid, leaving up to 15,000 Jews unsure about their religious status. Wow! Talk about making converts uncomfortable. A blanket erasure of thousands of conversions can destroy families and make a mockery of rabbinic authority. There are many other problems, but I'll only mention one more. There are over 300,000 Russians living in Israel whose religious status is uncertain. I'm not suggesting that we wave a magic wand and declare them all Jewish. But we must set up rabbinic courts to clarify their status, and compassionately convert those who want to.
The Talmud says that potential converts must be pushed off with the left hand, but drawn in with the right or stronger hand. Right now, the rabbis in power are pushing away with both hands. There is a mitzvah in the Torah to befriend the convert (Deuteronomy 10:19). May we merit to fulfill that mitzvah both individually and nationally.
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