In addition to celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, American Jews should celebrate Celebrate Converts Appreciation Day on Log B’Omer, or the Shabbat closest to Log B’Omer. After all Rabbi Akiba’s father was a convert to Judaism. Most Jews, and even most Rabbis, do not know that the famous Rabbi Akiba was the son of a convert. But Rambam in his Introduction to the Mishneh Torah, Seder HaDorot; tells us that “Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef received Torah from Rabbi Eleazar the great. Yosef, his father, was a righteous convert.”
And the plague that was killing Rabbi Akiba’s students because they disrespected other students who were converts themselves, or who had parents who were converts to Judaism, stopped on Log B’Omer.
Lacking the missionary impulse of more universalistic religions like Buddhism and Islam, Jews react to potential converts in varied ways, ranging from wariness to encouragement. Practical community concerns guided some of our sages like Rabbi Helbo who said that converts are an irritation like an itch, a sore or a scab.
Perhaps Rabbi Helbo felt that the enthusiasm and idealistic expectations of converts irritated too many born Jews, who take their Jewishness much more casually. Or maybe he agreed with Rabbi Isaac who said “Evil after evil comes upon those who receive converts”.
Both these Rabbis lived in the early 4th century when the Church was vociferously attacking pagans who choose to become Jews rather than Christians. Perhaps they feared Christian anti-Semitism if Jews were openly receiving converts. So Jews stopped encouraging non-Jews to become Jewish and the Anti-Semitism continued unabated.
On the other hand, Rabbi Simon ben Lakish proclaimed that a convert is more beloved to God than all the Jews who stood at Sinai.
Perhaps he was reacting to those Jews who claimed Jewishness was in their noble genes. Or perhaps he very much admired anyone with the courage to join a minority people.
Equally amazing were Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat and Rabbi Yohanan who both taught that the forced exile of the Jewish people among the Gentile nations was really a God given opportunity to influence many Gentiles to become Jewish.
And 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. A more practical view is hard to imagine. It should guide all rabbis today in the State of Israel who deal with potential converts.
Indeed, Rabbi Yohanan says 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 Yohanan.
The Talmud also says Jews suffered the great damage of being enslaved in Egypt because Abraham failed to give some non-Jews an opportunity to convert. (Neddarim 32a)
“Rabbi Abbahu said in Rabbi Eleazar’s name: Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years?… R. Yohanan said: Because he prevented people from entering beneath the wings of the Shechinah (converting to Judaism), as it is written, ‘The king of Sodom said to Abraham: Give me the people, and take the property for yourself’ (and Abraham agreed). (Genesis 14:21)
Thus. when Rabbi Yohanan says the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because Abraham didn’t try to influence some captives that he rescued to become Jewish; he means that even failing to encourage potential converts is wrong. These are practical, not theological, reasons to seek converts and not to push away those who might be interested.
Rabbis today should welcome potential converts and not discourage them. We may not be saving souls, but by rejecting people who want to be Jewish, we may be making them or their descendants into future enemies, at a potential great cost to our descendant’s.
When one encourages non-Jews to become Jewish one does a Mitsvah that can produce benefits for many generations to come. Welcoming non-Jews into the Jewish people is a Mitsvah that keeps on giving.
Log B’Omer would be a good time to honor people who have become Jewish and to plan activities encouraging Jews to promote conversion.
The plagues of modern Jewish life could also be reduced if more Jews encouraged open minded non-Jews to learn Hebrew and study Torah.