Dozens of ‘converts to Judaism’ Rabbis are celebrating Passover this year; as they have done ever since they became Jewish. No one challenges any such rabbi who is part of his own Jewish denomination. But what about a ‘convert to Judaism’ prophet, who acts as a spokesperson for the Holy One of Israel?
The prophet Obadiah was an Edomite convert to Judaism according to a statement of Rabbi Me’ir recorded in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b). The most important text in the Jewish mystical tradition, the Zohar (Genesis 1:171a), also asserts that the prophet Obadiah was a convert to Judaism who alone of all the prophets could comprehend what God intended for the descendants of Esau as well as the descendants of Jacob.
How did it happen that Obadiah became Jewish? Why did God choose a convert to Judaism to become a prophet?
Obadiah, a younger contemporary of Prophet Jeremiah, lived in the years before and after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. Jeremiah was unsure if a former non-Jewish idol worshipper could become a prophet of Israel.
After many months of doubt and uncertainty God said to Jeremiah: “Behold I am a God that brings near, says the Lord, not a God that repels” (Jeremiah 23:23).
Centuries later a second century midrash [Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Amalek] would claim that God had already told Moses the same thing: This God said to Moses: “I am One who welcomes, not One who repels.” As it is said: “Behold I am a God that brings near, says the Lord, not a God that repels” (Jeremiah 23:23).
The midrash continues “I am He who brought Jethro [the non-Jewish father-in-law of Moses who was a pagan priest] near, not keeping him at a distance. So also you, when a person comes to you wishing to become a convert to Judaism, as long as the person comes in the name of God for the sake of heaven, you do likewise: befriend him and do not repel him.” Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Amalek
Obadiah was born in Edom, present day Jordan, not far from the city of Petra, a few generations before the Persian period when the Nabataeans, an Arab tribe, migrated into Edom, forcing the Edomites to move into southern Palestine. Little is known about Petra proper until about 312 BCE by which time the Nabataeans had made it the capital of their kingdom.
No one knows exactly why Obadiah chose to become Jewish, but we do know that his words are found in his own book which is part of the Hebrew Bible, and no one challenged that.
Dearer to God is the convert who has come of his own accord than all the crowds of’ Israelites who stood before Mount Sinai. For had the Israelites not witnessed the thunders, the lightnings, the quaking mountain and the sounding trumpet (shofar), they would not have accepted the Torah. But [converts], who witnessed none of these things come, surrendered themselves to the Holy One, and accept upon themselves the Mitsvot. Could any be dearer than they are? Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 6
‘Dearer to God is the convert who has come of his or her own accord’ refers to the thousands of non-Jews (erev rav mixed multitude) who joined the Jewish people when they left Egypt, crossed the sea of reeds, traveled through the desert and also stood at Mt. Sinai. Most of them later became part of the Jewish people and celebrated Passover. Their descendants are still among us. This is a good time of the year to praise them.