Everyone knows the very important mitzvah to: “Love your Neighbor as Yourself” (Leviticus 19: 18). But few know that thousands of Rabbi Akiba’s students died, because they failed to follow the equally important mitzvah that appears just 15 verses later:
“When a foreigner (Ger) resides among you in your land, do not mistreat him. The foreigner residing among you (a Ger Toshav) must be treated like your native-born (Jew). Love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19: 33-4)
The Babylonian Talmud records that: “Rabbi Akiba had 12,000 pairs of disciples, who died between Pesach and Shavuot because they didn’t treat each other with respect.” (Yevamot 62b)
How do we know that Akiba’s students died because they disrespect their fellow students whose parents were converts to Judaism, and whose conversion process they judged negatively.
Rav Sherira Gaon, the tenth century leader of the Babylonian Talmudic Academy in Pumbedita, explained that Akiba’s students did not die in a plague, but in a “shamda,” a (Roman) government sponsored persecution, (shamda appears in the Spanish versions of Yevamot 62b).
By being very suspicious, restrictive and unwelcoming of almost all converts converted by all rabbis; they alienated thousands of Gentile families, who felt that Jews were clannish, exclusive, and looked down on all non-Jews. So these thousands of non-Jews who would have opposed the shamda because it hurt one of their own family members; instead supported it.
Did Rabbi Akiba’s students not know that the full name of their great teacher was Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef HaGer: Rabbi Akiba son of Yosef the convert. Yet even today most Jews are ignorant of this fact.
It is stated in Rambam’s Introduction to the Mishneh Torah; Seder HaDorot that Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef received Torah from Rabbi Eleazar the great. Yosef, his father, was a righteous convert.
Although most of the Talmudic sages are referred to as X ben Y; Rabbi Akiba is never quoted by his full name: Akiba ben Yosef HaGer.
Perhaps Rabbi Akiba’s students did not know Rabbi Akiba’s father was a convert because there is a tradition that one should not bring up a convert’s non-Jewish past.
This did not mean that you should not be proud of the many people who become Jewish, and whose descendants enrich the Jewish people for generations to come.
It meant only that you are not to refer to a convert’s past in a negative way, or to think that a person born to Jewish parents was a better Jew, than a Jew who had no, or only some, Jewish genes.
Rabbi Simon ben Lakish reacted to anti-convert rabbis and their students by proclaiming that a convert is more beloved to God than all the Jews who stood at Sinai.
Perhaps he was over-reacting to those who claimed Jewishness was in their noble genes. Equally amazing were Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat and Rabbi Johanan who both taught that the forced exile of the Jewish people among the Gentiles, was really a God given opportunity to influence Gentiles to become Jewish.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) condemns those who push potential converts away by relating that Isaac and Jacob pushed away Timna the sister of Lotan who wanted to become Jewish. She then married a son of Esau. One of her descendants was Amalek who attacked Israel shortly after they escaped from Egypt.
If, instead of being pushed away, Timna had become Jewish, Amalek would have been on our side, and not one of our enemies.
And Rabbi Johanan goes so far as to say the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because Abraham didn’t try to influence some captives that he rescued to become Jewish. Even failing to encourage potential converts is wrong according to Rabbi Johanan.
Let us learn from the anti-convert mistakes of the past and not repeat them in our generation.