Rabbi Helbo said that converts are an irritation like an itch, a sore or a scab. Rabbi Helbo might have felt that the enthusiasm and idealistic expectations of most 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 Catholic Church was vociferously attacking pagans who choose to become Jews rather than Christians. Perhaps Rabbi Helbo and Rabi Isaac feared Christian anti-Semitism if Jews were openly receiving converts.
Or maybe they were just irascible and grouchy individuals like Shammai.
On the other hand, Rabbi Simon ben Lakish (who in his unorthodox youth was a bandit and a professional gladiator) proclaimed that a convert to Judaism is more beloved by God than all the Jews who stood at Sinai. This seems rather extreme; but it does fit in with the statement of Rabbi Abahu ‘Where Baalei Teshuvah stand, people who have never sinned cannot stand!” (Berachot 34b)
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.
Some Rabbis tried to test the sincerity of potential converts by making great demands of time and effort from them. Opposing this, Rabbi Johanan advises that you should push potential converts away with your left hand and draw them close with your right hand. Since most people are right handed if you actually push away more than a few you are being too negative.
Rashi, the greatest of our Bible commentators, taught that Jews started seeking converts from the very beginning, when he interpreted a verse that states that Abraham made souls in Haran, to mean that Abraham and Sarah made converts.
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.
Indeed, Rabbi Johanan 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 Johanan.
Actually several of our Rabbis felt that discouraging converts in the past had brought troubles upon us. 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 their souls, but we should not be making future enemies by rejecting people who want to be Jewish.
The attempt by some Haredi Rabbis in Israel several years ago to retroactively dejudiaze thousands of Jews who were converted according to Halakah is an shameful example of what not to do.
The Talmud informs us about three converts to Judaism who met one day and exchange accounts of their conversion experience. Each of them, it turns out, had first approached Shammai with their unusual special conditions for conversion. Shammai scolded, repulsed, and pushed away all of them (two of them physically).
Then they went to Hillel who accepted them, even with their special unorthodox conditions, and converted them. The three converts concluded that “Shammai’s irascibility sought to drive us away from the (Jewish) world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shechinah”. (Shabbat 31a)
The Talmud had introduced this discussion with the following statement: “A man should always be as flexible as Hillel, and not as inflexible as Shammai.” Good advice for Rabbinic conversion courts today.
This lesson should be applied by rabbis today whenever they encounter a potential convert, especially an unorthodox problematic potential convert. An example of a Talmudic sage who followed Hillel’s guideline concerning problematic potential converts is Rabbi Hiya; who decided to convert a well known harlot who wanted to marry one of his students.
This student of Rabbi Hiya had heard about a harlot in a faraway city who charged four hundred gold coins for her services. He sent her the exorbitant fee and set an appointed time to meet her. When, after many days of difficult travel, the lust filled student arrived at the appointed time …the prostitute unclothed herself and sat on a king size bed. The student of Rabbi Hiya joined her on the bed.
As he was undressing himself, his talit tzitzit slapped his face. He fell off the bed on to the floor, where he was joined by the woman. “I swear by the Roman Caesar,” the harlot exclaimed, “I will not let you go until you reveal to me what flaw you have found in me!”
“I swear,” the student replied, “that I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. However, there is a mitzvah commanded by our God, called tzitzit. Concerning this mitzvah it says, ‘Look at them and remember all the Mitsvot’”. (When I saw the tzitzit I knew I should not do this. Keep the money and let me go.)
“I will not let you go,” the prostitute said, “until you provide me with your name, the names of your city, rabbi and the school in which you study Torah.” He wrote down all she asked for; handed it to her, and left.
The woman sold all her possessions. A third of the money she gave to the government (to pay her taxes, or so they would allow her to convert to Judaism), a third she handed out to the poor, and the remaining third she took with her — and she proceeded to the school the rabbinical student had named; the Yeshivah of Rabbi Hiya.
“Rabbi,” she said to Rabbi Hiya, “I would like to convert to Judaism.”
“Perhaps,” Rabbi Hiya responded, “you desire to convert because you want a Jewish man?” The woman took out the piece of paper with the information and told the rabbi what happened. “Go and claim that which is rightfully yours.” Rabbi Hiya proclaimed. (Menahot 44a)
Most Rabbis would push away a woman who wanted to convert because she was interested in a Jewish man. But Rabbi Hiya did not push her away. Most Rabbis would push away a woman who had gone astray as a prostitute, but Rabbi Hiya did not push her away. Rabbi Hiya knew that when the two spies that Joshua sent to Jericho were in danger of arrest, a prostitute named Rahav hid them from the police, and then helped them escape.
According to the rabbis (Pesikta Rabbati 40, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 22, 37), Joshua later married Rahav, and among her descendants was the prophet Jeremiah. So Rabbi Hiya welcomed a seemingly reformed harlot for herself, and for her righteous descendants.
Over three decades ago I met a recent Russian immigrant who had started an introduction to Judaism class in Boston. She had to leave the class to move to L.A. with her husband for his new job. She was six months pregnant and wanted to be Jewish before the baby was born, because she was the child of a mixed marriage in the Soviet Union, and she did not want her child to have a similar experience.
She told me that at age 18 everyone in the USSR had to get an identity card. Since her father was Jewish, and her mother was Russian, the government official told her she could pick either one for her identity card, but she could not change it once it was issued. She said she wanted her identity card to read: Jewish. The official, and then his boss, spent over a half an hour arguing with her that this was a very bad decision. She insisted and it was done.
When I heard that story, I followed the excellent example of Rabbi Hiya and told her that in my eyes she had already become Jewish by that act alone. I was ready to convert her next month. And I did. Two months later I was at the circumcision of her son. The family joined my congregation, and were members for several years, until they moved to another part of L.A.
The examples of Hillel and Rabbi Hiya should guide us today in deciding how to accept people with a blemished past and/or with mixed motives for conversion. When Rabbi Hiya proclaims, “Go and claim that which is rightfully yours.” he asserts that just as every Jew who sins has the right to repent; every non-Jew, even a blemished non-Jew, has the right to convert, and to marry any Jew he or she loves. The account in the Talmud thus concludes, “She ended up marrying the man. The bed which she originally prepared for him illicitly, she now prepared for him lawfully.” (Menahot 44a)
I think the Rabbis of today should not forget these examples of Hillel and Hiya guidelines. Let us welcome most people who are potential converts; even if sometimes we have some doubts; even if a few of them fail to work out; and even if a few of them turn out to be annoying irritants that itch (Kiddushin 70b) like a scab; either because they become overly pious Jews, or because they remain blemished, like some Jews born into the Jewish community, still remain blemished after joining a synagogue.
Their descendants still can be a blessing. As the Midrash teaches, “When a person wants to become part of the Jewish people, we must receive him or her with open hands so as to bring that person under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Leviticus Rabbah 2:9).