Everybody knows we read the story of Ruth who converted to Judaism on Shavuot, but what is even more remarkable is the impact of converts and their descendants on development of the Jewish people
This article will look at the impact of these great personalities.
Firstly, I want to quote from a recent article written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who wrote:
“One of the most striking features of the Torah is its emphasis on love of, and vigilance toward, the ger, the stranger:
Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be strangers, because you were strangers in Egypt. (Ex. 23:9)
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger residing among you, giving them food and clothing. You are to love those who are strangers, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt. (Deut 10:17-19)
The Sages went so far as to say that the Torah commands us in only one place to love our neighbour but 36 times to love the stranger (Baba Metsia 59b).
What is the definition of a stranger? Clearly the reference is to one who is not Jewish by birth. It could mean one of the original inhabitants of the land of Canaan. It could mean one of the “mixed multitude” who left Egypt with the Israelites. It might mean a foreigner who has entered the land seeking safety or a livelihood.
Whatever the case, immense significance is attached to the way the Israelites treat the stranger. This was what they were meant to have learned from their own experience of exile and suffering in Egypt. They were strangers. They were oppressed. Therefore they knew “how it feels to be a stranger.” They were not to inflict on others what was once inflicted on them.
The Sages held that the word ger might mean one of two things. One was a ger tzedek, a convert to Judaism who had accepted all its commands and obligations. The other was the ger toshav, the “resident alien”, who had not adopted the religion of Israel but who lived in the land of Israel. Behar spells out the rights of such a person. Specifically:From other Middle Eastern religions
So – we have a big mitzvah to love the Ger.
But, I have a few questions about this.
1. Why is so much of Jewish History influenced by decedents of Geriim ? – From David Hamelech to Rabbi Akiva and more
2. How hard or easy was it to convert to Judaism in the old days.
3. When did Judaism make it hard to convert to Judaism?
4. What is Judaism attitude to the Goyim
a. Who love the Jews
b. Hate the Jews
c. The descendants of the Nazi and The Europeans who killed so many Jews.
d. To the above who unjustly criticise Israel or side with our enemies
I do not know the answers, but I highlight a few examples of great personalities who were either converts or descendants from converts.
1. King David descended from the Ruth the Moabite . I will not write about this in detail, but suffice to say that King David’s Legacy defines the role of an ideal Jewish King, Nationhood . Mesiah and Tehillim (psalms) and much more.
2. Rabbi Akiva represents every man, so to speak. He did not descend from Jewish aristocracy or nobility (see Berachos 27a). He came from a family of converts. There is an opinion that his father was a convert. If not his father, then certainly his grandfather was. Not only that, but he descended from the evil general Sisera, who was the persecutor of the Jews at the time of Deborah. The rabbis tell us that the descendants of Sisera, Nebuchadnezzar and even Haman studied Torah and became prominent Jews. In our time also there are descendants of German officers and SS, as well as descendants of Communists, whose found their way to the Jewish people, and even in areas of prominence in the Torah world. Rabi Akiva essence is categorised by the message Love your neighbour as yourself was major figure in the Gemmora and was the teacher of Shimon Bar Yochai who is known as the author the Zohar,
3. Onkeles, Hadrian’s nephew, Onkeles, was in line to become Caesar. Onkeles was a well-educated young man with lofty wisdom who realized the truth of Torah. Anxious for the opportunity to escape his royal family and live among the Jews, this wise prince hatched a plan. He approached his uncle to ask advice in acquiring wealth. Hadrian recommended that his nephew seek a highly marketable product with few customers. “You will be able to explain its real value and make a nice profit,” he promised.
Armed with Hadrian’s “blessing,” Onkeles set off to seek his fortune: among the Jews. He immersed himself in learning and was soon able to mine the deepest riches of the Torah. That is how the Caesar-Prince became Onkeles, the Ger-Tzedek, righteous convert. He contributed greatly to our understanding of the Torah. In fact, his enlightening commentary which we simply call Onkeles is included in most chumashim until today. Onlekes can be described as the first and foremost Torah commentator.
Advice Well Taken
Of course, the Caesar Hadrian was furious when he heard of his nephew’s conversion. He sent three separate delegations charged with returning the prince to Rome in chains, if necessary. Each delegation was so overcome by the Torah wisdom Onkeles shared with them that the all converted! Finally, Hadrian swore his nephew no harm if he would report to Rome voluntarily.
Onkeles returned to stand before his uncle, the butcher of Jews. Hadrian asked why he chose to join the least of nations, a people persecuted by every generation. “I simply took your good advice, uncle. You advised me to seek a viable product for which there are few customers. I traveled throughout the world and found nothing of value so deeply neglected, nothing so precious that is considered lowlier or with fewer customers than the Nation of Israel. I invested heavily in this undertaking, and found that I have made an immensely wise bargain as its value will certainly rise.
The Jewish nation, promise the holy Jewish Prophets, will become a nation of princes. Kings throughout the world will be honored to serve them; and the righteousness of the holy Torah, will be recognized by all nations. Then Jerusalem will be home to our people and a beacon to the world.”
The Investment With Guaranteed Returns
Onkeles was rare in his generation because he recognized our treasure and presented it to a public who did not know its value. If Onkeles were alive today, would he realize a profit on his investment? So many of our fellow Jews are unaware of the royalty they have inherited. Their spiritual potential lies dormant and their share in our precious Torah is hidden.
We still wait for Onkeles’ investment to reach its potential. However, everyone of us can reap a dividend now by investing in the Onkeles business plan. How? By modeling the riches of a Torah life, smiling at everyone, judging favorably, speaking kindly, and sharing a Shabbos meal we touch the Jew who has not yet discovered her rightful inheritance. Every one of us can be as shrewd a merchant as the wise Onkeles and make a handsome profit
4, Avtalyon,and Sh’maya — Sage and Vice-President of the Sanhedrin, apparently from a Mideastern religion
What is remarkable is that both these direct converts became rabbinic sages in the early pre-Mishnaic period . They are known as one of the zuggot (“couples”): Shmaya and Avtalyon. Both Avtalyon and Shmaya were converts to Judaism and were both descendants of King Sancheriv of Assyria who laid siege to Jerusalem, where according to the Book of Kings, the Angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrian troops in one night.
Leaders of the Pharisees during the 1st century BCE and by tradition vice-president of the great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem. They were of heathen descent. Despite this fact, Abtalion, and, Shemaya, leaders of the Sanhedrin, were one of the most influential and beloved men of their time.
To Quote from Pirkei Avot
Shimon ben Shatach says, “Examine the witnesses thoroughly, but be careful with your words, lest from them they learn to lie.”
Shemayah and Avtalyon received from them. Shemayah says, “Love work, hate lordship and do not become familiar with the government.”
Avtalyon says, “Sages, be careful with your words, lest you become obligated in an obligation of exile and are exiled to the place of evil waters, and the students who follow after you will drink, and thus the name of Heaven is profaned.”
Hillel and Shammai received from them. Hillel says, “Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the creatures and bringing them closer to Torah.”
Very little is known concerning the life of Abtalion. He was a pupil of Judah ben Tabbai and Simeon ben Shetach, and probably lived for some time in Alexandria, Egypt, where he and also his teacher Judah took refuge when Alexander Jannaeus cruelly persecuted the Pharisees. This gives pertinence to his well-known maxim (Ab. i.12), “Ye wise men, be careful of your words, lest ye draw upon yourselves the punishment of exile and be banished to a place of bad water (dangerous doctrine), and your disciples, who come after you, drink thereof and die, and the name of the Holy One thereby be profaned.” He cautions the rabbis herein against participation in politics (compare the maxim of his colleague) as well as against emigration to Egypt, where Greek ideas threatened danger to Judaism. Abtalion and his colleague Shemaiah are the first to bear the title darshan (meaning “preacher”), and it was probably by no mere chance that their pupil Hillel was the first to lay down hermeneutic rules for the interpretation of the Midrash; he may have been indebted to his teachers for the tendency toward haggadic interpretation. These two scholars are the first whose sayings are recorded in the Haggadah (Mek., Beshallaḥ, iii.36, ed. Weiss.). The new method of derush (Biblical interpretation) introduced by Abtalion and Shemaiah seems to have evoked opposition among the Pharisees (Pes. 70b. Compare also Josephus, l.c., Παλλίων ό φαρισαιος, where a title is probably intended). Abtalion and Shemaiah are also the first whose halakot (legal decisions) are handed down to later times. Among them is the important one that the paschal lamb must be offered even if Passover falls on a Sabbath (Pes. 66a). Abtalion’s academy was not free to every one, but those who sought entrance paid daily a small admission fee of one and a half tropaika; that is, about twelve cents (Yoma, 35b). This was no doubt to prevent overcrowding by the people, or for some reasons stated by the Shammaites.
The tombs of Shmaya and Avtalyon are located in Jish, a Maronite Christian village in the Galilee
In conclusion, I have given examples of great people — Geirim or decedents of Geirim who not only had a major impact in their time, but their legacies continue to dominate our Judaism today.