Our rabbis have long distinguished between Noah, a righteous man who, seeking to preserve his own and his family’s purity and piousness, did not try to reach out and influence any of the people around him; and Abraham and Sarah who did reach out to influence many souls in Haran to become Jewish.
Anti-convert rabbis in Israel today, who are suspicious of most potential converts, have fragments of Noah’s soul in their hearts; while pro-convert rabbis, who encourage most converts, have particles of Abraham’s and Sarah’s souls in their hearts.
Rabbi Moshe Alshich (16th century Safed) says that Noah was instructed to “Make for yourself an ark” because he remained aloof from others instead of trying to save them by improving their conduct.
The Zohar says that Noah’s failure to try to influence others is why the Prophet Isaiah refers to the flood as the “waters of Noah”. (54:9)
One may say that Noah did not have any obligation to convert others to good behavior and the worship of the one God because he was not a prophet.
But Ramban (Genesis 6:9) says that Noah was a prophet; and so too does the Qur’an (7:59, 10:71, 11:25 etc.)
And one of the reasons most Rabbis maintained that Abraham was more righteous than Noah is because he and Sarah made souls in Haran. How can any human make a soul?
Rashi explains “the souls that they made” (Genesis 12:5) by quoting a Midrash by Rabbi Eleazar ben Zimra (second century Israel), who says that “the souls that they made” refers to the 300 converts they (Abraham and Sarah) made.
Thus, pious rabbis today who seek to make it hard for non-Jews to become Jewish, may have a fragment of Noah’s soul in their hearts; while pro-convert rabbis probably have particles of Abraham’s and Sarah’s souls in their hearts.
The Talmud recognizes these two different kinds of rabbis as it contrasts the differences between the Hillel way and the Shammai way of treating perspective converts.
Once three converts to Judaism met and exchange accounts about their conversion experience. Each of them, it turns out, had first approached Shammai and told him of their own special conditions for conversion. Shammai scolded, repulsed, and pushed away all of them (two of them physically).
Then they went to Hillel. He accepted them, with their own special conditions; and converted them. Some time later when the three converts met and exchanged accounts of their experience they concluded that “Shammai’s irascibility sought to drive us away from the (Jewish) world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shechinah”. (Shabbat 31a)
Hillel and Shammai exemplify two very different approaches to problematic potential converts.
Should rabbis reject people who wish to convert quickly on their own terms, or to convert to a type of Judaism different from that of the rabbi who is only asked to process the conversion ritual, or for reasons that are clearly not idealistic?
Hillel said yes and drew these potential converts under the wings of Shechinah. Shammai said no and drove them away from the Jewish People.
The Talmud introduced this whole section with the following statement: “A man should always be as flexible as Hillel, and not as inflexible as Shammai.”
This lesson should still be applied by rabbis today whenever they encounter a potential convert, especially a problematic one.
An example of a Talmudic sage, who like Hillel, was very accepting of a problematic potential convert is Rabbi Hiya, a disciple of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi; who decided to convert a well known harlot who wanted to marry one of his students.
This student of Rabbi Hiya had heard about a harlot in a faraway city who charged four hundred gold coins for her services. He sent her the exorbitant fee and set an appointed time to meet her.
When, after many days of difficult travel, the lust filled student arrived at the appointed time …the prostitute unclothed herself and sat on a king size bed.
The student of Rabbi Hiya joined her on the bed. As he was undressing himself, his talit tzitzit slapped his face. He fell off the bed on to the floor, where he was joined by the woman.
“I swear by the Roman Caesar,” the harlot exclaimed, “I will not let you go until you reveal to me what flaw you have found in me!”
“I swear,” the student replied, “that I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. However, there is a mitzvah commanded by our God, called tzitzit. Concerning this mitzvah it says, ‘Look at them and remember all the Mitsvot’”. (When I saw the tzitzit I knew I should not do this. Keep the money and let me go.)
“I will not let you go,” the prostitute said, “until you provide me with your name, the names of your city, rabbi and the school in which you study Torah.” He wrote down all she asked for; handed it to her, and left.
The woman sold all her possessions. A third of the money she gave to the government (to pay her taxes, or so they would allow her to convert to Judaism), a third she handed out to the poor, and the remaining third she took with her — and she proceeded to the school the rabbinical student had named; the Yeshivah of Rabbi Hiya.
“Rabbi,” she said to Rabbi Hiya, “I would like to convert to Judaism.”
“Perhaps,” Rabbi Hiya responded, “you desire to convert because you want a Jewish man?” The woman took out the piece of paper with the information and told the rabbi what happened.
“Go and claim that which is rightfully yours.” Rabbi Hiya proclaimed. (Talmud Menahot 44a)
Some Rabbis would push away a woman who wanted to convert because she was interested in a Jewish man. But Rabbi Hiya did not push her away.
Many Rabbis would push away a woman who had gone astray as a prostitute, but Rabbi Hiya did not push her away.
Rabbi Hiya knew the Biblical narrative relating that when the two spies that Joshua sent to Jericho were in danger of arrest, a prostitute named Rahav hid them from the police, and then helped them escape.
According to rabbinic tradition (Pesikta Rabbati 40, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 22, 37), Joshua later married Rahav, and among her descendants was the prophet Jeremiah.
So Rabbi Hiya may have welcomed a seemingly reformed harlot not only for herself, but perhaps also for her future righteous descendants.
The examples of Hillel and Rabbi Hiya should guide rabbis today in deciding how to accept people with a blemished past and/or with mixed motives for conversion.
When Rabbi Hiya proclaims, “Go and claim that which is rightfully yours.” he asserts that just as every Jew who sins, has the right to repent; so too does every non-Jew, even a blemished non-Jew, have the right to convert, and to marry any Jew he or she loves.
The account in the Talmud thus concludes, “She ended up marrying the man. The bed which she originally prepared for him illicitly, she now prepared for him lawfully.” (Menahot 44a)