Loving the convert

The Torah commands us to love three objects of affection: our fellow man (Vayikra 19:18), God (Devarim 6:5), and the ger (Vayikra 19:34, Devarim 10:19).  Although the biblical word ger can refer either to a full convert or to a gentile resident in the land of Israel (i.e. in Devarim 14:21), we will follow Hazal in assuming that the command to love refers to the full convert.  Remarkably, our tradition contains an explicit command to love the convert.  What is the nature of this extraordinary mizva?

Rambam elucidates this command with an intriguing formulation:

Loving a convert who has come to nestle under the wings of the Shekhinah [fulfills] two positive commandments: one for he is included among the “neighbors” [whom we are commanded to love] and one because he is a convert and the Torah states: “and you shall love the converts.”  [God] has commanded us concerning the love of a convert just as He has commanded us concerning loving Himself as it states: “and you shall love God, your Lord.” The Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, loves converts as it states: “and He loves converts.” (Hilkhot Deot 6:4)

Why does Rambam compare loving the convert to loving God, a comparison he does not make regarding love of other Jews (Deot 6:3).  One aharon (Bnei Binyamin) offers a linguistic explanation.  Regarding both love of the convert and love of God, the Torah commands an ahava et; in reference to other Jews, the Torah speaks of ahava le.  Of course, we should analyze the different implications of the two formulations but the solution per se holds up.  In our exploring towards another answer, let us investigate the Torah’s concern for the convert.

The Torah both commands us to love the convert and forbids oppressing the convert and the context of these mizvot may prove helpful.  “And you hall not wrong a ger, nor shall you oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  You shall not afflict any widow or orphan” (Shemot 22:20-21).  The juxtaposition between the convert, the widow, and the orphan makes sense.  All three of them lack power and influence and may be taken advantage of by the “haves” in society.  Devarim 10:18 apparently makes the identical point: “He does execute justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the ger, in giving him food and clothing.”

A different juxtaposition opens up an important alternative.  “You shall rise up before the elder, and honor the old man, and you shall fear you God: I am the Lord.  And if a ger sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong” (Vayikra 19:32-33).  Here, the Torah places the convert adjacent to the elderly.  Ibn Ezra explains that the elderly also often lack strength and require compassion.   Indeed, nursing home horror stories reveal how easily the elderly can be mistreated.  If so, the comparison to the elderly mirrors the comparison to the widow and orphan in referring to those in need.

However, another possibility exists; perhaps we honor the elderly for their accumulated wisdom and accomplishments.  There is something to be said for the insight gathered in a long lifetime and it behooves the young to pay attention to and honor their elders.  Thus, the aged are not just people in need or protection; they generate our admiration.  We can apply the same idea to the convert.  Someone who radically transforms their life in the pursuit of the true and the good deserves tremendous respect.  In addition to feeling sorry for the convert, we revere him.

R. Yizhak Hutner (Pahad Yizhak Pesach 8, 29) utilizes this idea to explain Rambam’s striking formulation. We certainly do not love God because He is weak and requires our protection. Equating love of the convert with love of God means that we demand a love of admiration and not only a love of sympathy. R. Hutner goes so far as to say that someone who loves the convert purely out of sympathy does not fulfill this commandment.   He adds a clever reading of Devarim 10:18.   “He does execute justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the ger, in giving him food and clothing.”  The biblical juxtaposition should not obscure substantive differences in expression.   The widow and the orphan depend on God to “execute justice” as a result of their weakness.   In contrast, God “loves the convert” due to his idealism and commitment.

The strongest depiction of this idea may be Rambam’s letter to Ovadia the convert.  Ovadia had argued with his teacher who taught that Islam was an idolatrous religion while Ovadia asserted its monotheistic character.  In the heat of argument, the teacher called Ovadia a fool.  Rambam harshly criticizes the teacher for his anger and for insulting a convert, especially since the convert was correct about the point under debate.  Rambam notes how the Torah does not command us to love prophets or parents but does so for the convert.

The last section ends with a resounding crescendo.

That he called you a fool is astonishing.  A person who left his family, his birthplace, and his kingdom with their outstretched hand (their power) and understood with his discerning heart, and attached himself to a nation that is today “abhorred of nations, a servant of rulers” (Yeshayahu 49:7)…and he desires God’s mizvot and his heart is uplifted to come close to divinity…Someone of this quality he calls a fool?  God does not call you a fool (kesil) but rather a person of intelligence (maskil).  (my translation, Shilat edition, Vol. 1 p. 240-241)

While it can thankfully no longer be said that converting to Judaism means joining the losing team in terms of political and social standing, it remains an act of courage, difficulty, and significant idealism.  We should love converts with both the love of sympathy and the love of admiration.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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