Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pledging Jewish Allegiance: Part II

You can read the first part of this multi-part look at Pledges of Jewish Allegiance and responsa about conversion in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries here

I think -- and this is me, of course -- that when it comes to conversion to Judaism, the concern of the rabbis and the born-Jewish community is one of honesty, sincerity, and dilution of the Jewish people. Oddly enough, in Pledges of Jewish Allegiance, a "warning" narrative is mentioned to show just what can happen when you don't welcome the convert with open arms. The source is an aggadic one, which means that it's not legal but rather a narrative from which we can learn something, and it comes from the Tractate Sanhedrin.
What is the purpose of [writing in the Torah], "And Lotan's sister was Timna"? -- Timna was a royal princess, as it is written, aluf Lotan, aluf Timna; and by aluf, an uncrowned ruler is meant. Desiring to become a proselyte, Timna went to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz, the son of Esau, saying, "I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation." From her, Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? -- Because they should not have repulsed her. (29)
The passage doesn't state why Timna should have been accepted, but it does suggest that "when people are turned away, the implications for Jewish security in the future can be very problematic." Hell hath no fury like a potential convert scorned? 

Maimonides, writing in the late Twelfth Century, discusses the idea mentioned in the last blog post of intention at length when detailing how to handle a potential convert.
The appropriate way to perform the commandment [of conversion] is that when the convert comes to convert, we investigate him lest [he be converting] for money that he will receive, or for some position of authority that will come his way, or whether it is because of fear that he wishes to enter the religion. If he is a man, we investigate whether he has cast his eye on a Jewish woman; and if she is a woman, we investigate whether she has cast her eye on a Jewish man. If no inappropriate motivation is discovered, we inform him of the magnitude of the weight of the yoke of Torah and of the tremendous efforts required from Gentiles to perform [its commandments]. If they accept and did not change their minds and we see that they have returned out of love, we accept them. (30-31)
The new and interesting thing about this is that it suggests that the court be compelled to investigate, not that the court simply turn someone away because their motives might be suspect. You will notice, oddly enough, that in this bit from the Mishneh Torah Maimonides says absolutely nothing about acceptance of the mitzvoth (commandments). After all, the text merely says that the potential convert is "informed" of the weight of the yoke of Torah -- not that he or she must accept it or be fully educated on it prior to conversion. In later responsim, rabbis will use these ambiguities to support their own points. 

And then, of course, there's this, which comes later from Maimonides, is a big deal, and I think that this should inform how we view conversion today. 
A convert whom they did not investigate or to whom they did not make known the commandments and the punishments [for not fulfilling them] but who was circumcised and immersed in front of three judges is a convert. Even if it subsequently becomes known that he converted for some ulterior motive, once he has been circumcised and immersed, he has been removed from the status of Gentile, and he remains suspect until his righteousness can be verified. Even if he returns to Gentile worship, he remains in the category of a Jewish apostate whose marriage is a valid marriage. (32)
BAM! This very passage from the Mishneh Torah, says volumes about the convert -- volumes that many modern rabbis seem to ignore when they think that they can revoke a conversion. Even in the Beit Yosef, Rabbi Karo follows Maimonides' claim that all conversions are valid, regardless of whether the courts have investigated and that it is "obvious" that failure to accept the commandments does not render the conversion invalid after the fact (36). It also must be mentioned that both Maimonides and Karo agreed that every case with conversion is different, unique, and specific to the time and place and that every court must handle the case accordingly. In essence, there is no simple way to hold every potential convert to the same process and same procedures. 

In just about everything that Maimonides says regarding the convert, it is clear that he values and respects the position of he or she who joins the fold. In a query from Ovadiah ha'Ger as to whether he should amend the liturgy and avoid phrases like "God and God of our fathers," given his status as a convert, Maimonides had this to say:
You should recite everything as it is, and do not change anything. Rather, you should pray as every Jewish citizen does, whether alone or in public. The critical point is that it was Abraham our Father who taught the entire nation, who gave them the wisdom and who made known to them the truth and unity of God. He battled against idolatry ... and brought many under the wings of the Divine Presence. ... Thus, anyone who converts until the end of time ... is a disciple of Abraham our Father and a member of his household. ... Thus, you should say "our God and God of our ancestors" ... -- there is no difference here between you and us. 
It's statements like this, from one of the greatest sages of all time, that makes me wonder why we've fallen so far. 

I'll conclude with this portion of the series by saying that many rabbis in later times who sought to make it "easier" to convert followed the position of the Beit Yosef in the emphasis on the discretion of the court while also debating what exactly "for the sake of heaven" means in Maimonides' initial dictum about the conversion process. In future posts, you'll see how confusing and convoluted the debate becomes based on the writings of Tractate Geirim and the works of Maimonides. 

Still: Think back to what Maimonides says about once a convert, always a Jew. Why can't we live by this simple dictum?