The path of the Jewish convert can be strenuous and taxing on the soul. The processes that have been established over centuries have acted as both bulwark and entry way to a life of keeping the commandments and devoted to Torah learning. But how are we doing, as a collective Jewish community, in taking care of our brothers and sisters who seek to become part of the ways of the Torah and mitzvot and intertwine themselves with our fate and destiny?
Based upon recent events emerging from the office of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, however, one would think that the Torah’s attitude towards converts would be something along the lines of: “Exercise extreme caution with those who want to convert” or “Act with spite toward all those who want to join the Jewish People.” After all, when rabbis create lists to arbitrarily invalidate other rabbis performing conversions, all the while making the standards of what makes a Jewish convert “legitimate” more stringent and opaque, they bring needless suffering and unwarranted shame to those who have dedicated months, sometimes even years, to accepting the covenants of Judaism.
Sadly, shame might be the standard feeling based on the events of the current moment; what other conclusion might one come to? One might think the guiding text for the obstinate members of the Chief Rabbinate is the unusual one that states: “Proselytes are hurtful to Israel as a sore on the skin” (Yevamot 109b). One without the knowledge might be surprised to learn that the Torah time and time again vigorously commands us to love and protect converts. As one example, Maimonides taught:
Loving a convert who has come to rest under the wings of the Almighty [fulfills] two positive commandments: one for the convert who is [also] included among the “fellows” [whom we are commanded to love] and one because they are a convert, and the Torah states: “and you shall love the convert.” God has commanded us concerning the love of a convert just as God commanded us concerning loving God, as it states: “and you shall love God, your Lord.” God loves converts as the Torah notes “and God loves converts” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot 6, 4).
Admittedly, there will be certain individuals who become angry or jealous that “outsiders” who enter the Jewish people are actually to be given more honor and protection but also that overcoming these negative emotions is their spiritual work. Consider how the midrash explains this phenomenon:
A king has many flocks of sheep, and one day a stag appears and joins the sheep. The stag grazes with the sheep and returns with them at night, as if he were a sheep. When the shepherds tell the king of the stag, the king takes great pride and interest in it and ensures that the shepherds treat the stag with special care. The shepherds question the king, asking “you have thousands of animals over which you take no personal interest, so why do you care so much about one animal?” The king answers them, “My sheep have only one flock to join, and cannot leave, but this stag has the whole world to choose from, yet he chose my flock. He surely deserves my special attention and cares” (Bamidbar Rabba 8:2).
Elsewhere in Jewish thought, we find sources that demonstrate that there is a moral imperative to love and protect converts. This is partially due to the fact that they are far more vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation. But, concomitantly, this can also be due to the fact that converts can be viewed as courageous, spiritual journeyers who have overcome great obstacles. Sources point to the figure of Yitro (Jethro), Moses’ father-in-law, as a paragon for Jewish conversion. Spending most of his life as an idol-worshiping shepherd in Midian, Yitro later became drawn to the miracles of Torah and the God of the Israelites. Indeed, expanding on this point, there is an explication in the Talmud that God seeks out individuals with unique spiritual attributes to join the Jewish people (Gittin 56a). Through this lens, every convert is specially chosen by the Divine to actualize their potential at a point later in life. The kabbalists explain that converts already had the sparks of a Jewish soul within them. The holy sparks were just waiting for discovery and elevation.
The Ba’alei Ha’Tosafot explain the burden put upon those born Jewish. Firstly, they must do all they can to be accepting of converts and prevent any suffering and secondly that since converts tend to be particularly careful in their observance, those born Jewish may feel implicated since they do not reach the same level (Yevamot 47b; Kiddushin 70b-71a). And, to be sure, Rav Saadia Gaon, teaches that this mitzvah does not begin once one has converted to Judaism but once one beings that conversion journey (the Ri Barcelona is quoted in the Sefer HaMizvot of Rav Sadya Gaon in Rabbi Perlow’s commentary Mitzva 10). Even before one begins the delicate process, support has to be present and gentle. We don’t distress those in the process only to embrace them once they’ve rigorously jumped through all hopes. Rather the Torah commands for love and justice begin at the beginning.
The Sefer HaChinuch reminds us that the mitzvah is not merely to love, but also to prevent gratuitous anguish and suffering:
We are commanded to love the convert: In particular, we are directed not to cause converts to suffer in any way, but rather to do them good and act as charitably as they deserve. The converts are all those who have joined us from other nations and abandoned their religion and joined outs. About this group, the Torah [Devarim 10:19] says, “Love the stranger [convert] since you were strangers (Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 431).
So, how are doing? There is undoubtedly much room where we can improve on both the individual, communal and national levels. But even more so, the monopoly of who is and who can be a Jew must be decentralized. While the Chief Rabbinate stumbles to consolidate its bureaucratic power, peoples’ dignity and lives are at stake.
Being the leaders of a new and compassionate vanguard that welcomes converts and greets them with open arms, rather than suspicion, has to be the path forward for Judaism to thrive. It is a spiritual call to arms. Converts should never be used as pawns in internecine temporal battles within their transformative moments of spiritual import. Ensuring that all those who seek the beauty of mitzvot become full-fledged members of the community with love and care is a holy task we can accomplish.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.