Friday, July 23, 2010

Shabbat Thoughts.

I want to stress to the readers that when the Tanakh talks of the ger, it is not referring to the "convert." Rather, ger means "stranger" or "sojourner" in the midst of the nation of Israel (גר is the Hebrew, which is used even today as the verb "to reside"). In the Tanakh, there is little conception of a convert, and I think that this concept might have been very foreign to the people of Biblical times. Throughout history, conversion to Judaism has been outlawed, and the danger of converting meant low numbers converting to Judaism. It is only over the past 60 years or so that conversion has become the booming "business" that it has, with new freedoms and new nations allowing this possibility to really flower.

That being said, the rabbis spend much time about the ger and how to treat the ger, because, for the rabbis, the term came also to refer to proselytes (converts) to Judaism. The terms used by the rabbis throughout the literature, then, are ger tzedek and ger toshav (toshav means "resident"). Thus, today when we see that blasted word, we assume it always refers to converts, when, in fact, it doesn't -- especially in the Torah. 

Okay, now that that's out of the way, I wanted to impress upon my readers and all those worried converts out there, as well as all of those born Jews who don't know how significantly the rabbis impressed upon born Jews to make Judaism work for the gerim (referring specifically to proselytes). These are bits taken from my D'var Torah from Parshah Sh'mot, which actually can be found in full on the righthand side there (it was largely about Rahab, my tour de force, but got into the discussion of the rabbis and converts).
Numbers Rabbah 8:2 says, “Why does the Holy Blessed One love the righteous (referring to a discussion of converts being loved as the righteous)? Because they have neither inheritance nor family. Priests and Levites have an ancestral house, as it says, “House of Aaron, praise the Lord. House of Levi, praise the Lord” (Psalms 146:19). If someone wants to be a kohen or levite, one cannot because one’s father was not. But if someone wants to be righteous, even a non-Jew can, since that is not dependent on ancestry.” The midrash continues with a parable about the stag that attaches itself to the king’s flock. Daily, the king instructs his shepherds to take care of the stag, and they ask the king why he cares so much abvout this one animal:
"The king responded, 'The other animals have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in to sleep in the fold. Stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into places inhabited by man. Is it not to a sign of this one's merit that he has left behind the whole of the wilderness to stay in our courtyard?' In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind his family and his relatives, his nation and all the other nations of the world, and has chosen to come to us?"
This parable responds to the unvoiced question/critique of the native Israelite: "Why does the Torah provide all of these protections for the convert? Does God care more about them than about me?" The midrash responds, "Consider what the convert has given up."
This section of the midrash concludes:
"Accordingly, God has provided the convert with special protection, warning Israel to be very careful not to do any harm to converts, and indeed, it says, 'Love the convert' (Deuteronomy 10:19) … Thus God made clear safeguards so that converts might not return to their former ways [which God fears they might do if native Israelites treat them poorly]."
Although some tannaitic midrashim voiced suspicions that the convert might fall back or that the convert might not entirely abandon his past beliefs, this later text places responsibility for backsliding converts squarely upon the native Israelites – that means YOU! Born Jews! 
... I think that many people today could learn much from the rabbis discussion of Rachav and other converts – our great sages viewed these converts as truly magnificent, unique, and key to the future of the Jewish people. 
So, my diverse readership, take to heart these words that the rabbis wrote for a reason. Why do we so readily ignore these words today? Why is the weight of the world placed on the convert, in the crossfire of politics? I don't know. I can't be sure. Paranoia, fear, a tumultuous world in which trust is something people know not of. Think on this over Shabbat, speak about it with your table guests, discuss your fears and what you don't know and then go out and educate yourself!

Shabbat shalom, friends!