Though there always seems to be some controversy du jour in the Jewish community, of late there is much ink being spilled over conversion issues. My concern is not the current dispute over whose conversions are acceptable, but more the intrinsic matters of conversion. Do Jews encourage conversion? Are there more converts now than before? Is conversion praiseworthy? I have heard that conversion should be actively discouraged — is this true?
Though this subject is definitely receiving much attention of late, it is particularly pertinent as the holiday of Shavuot approaches. The festival of Shavuot marks the occasion when, in a sense, all of us converted to Judaism. We stood at Sinai 3,000 or so years ago, and, en masse, dramatically accepted the Torah.
The readings for the holiday of Shavuot echo this monumental transformation and the theme of conversion. The Torah reading is the section of the Ten Commandments, (which ironically appears in the parshah called “Yitro,” the name of Moshe’s father-in-law, a man traditionally viewed as a convert).
Yitro had joined our people after hearing of the impressive miracles brought about by the Almighty during the Exodus. The additional scriptural reading is the Book of Ruth. As convert par excellence, Ruth epitomizes the pure acceptance of Torah and the sincere attachment to our people. A convergence of conversions this Shavuot is reason enough to take up the issue.
I wonder at times about the attraction to join a people long persecuted and to adopt a lifestyle demanding of deed as well as creed. Many beg to differ. There is early documentation, not just in our own Biblical narratives, but in sources outside of the Jewish tradition, that describes the draw to our religion. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, writes: “the customs of this accursed race have gained such influence that they are now received throughout all the world. The vanquished have given their laws to the victors.”
While later, Augustine preserved the words of Varro, telling us that the worship of the Jews authentically reflects the original piety of humanity before the corruption of the worship of visible and tactile images. There’s no hiding a good thing apparently.
Our own tradition is ripe with awe-inspiring conversion epics that pepper our history. From Yitro and Ruth to later tales of the Talmudic age’s Onkelos and the famous Polish righteous convert Avraham ben Avraham. These characters loom large in our collective memory. They stand out as object lessons to those of us born Jewish, as if to say: “See these pious ones? See how they sacrificed to be Jewish?”
This sort of frank self-criticism is recorded in the Tosafist’s commentary on the Talmudic dictum, “converts are as difficult as leprosy.” Difficult? Yes, they often make our own commitment look a bit pale in comparison. Naturally, a little bit of resentment may creep into our acceptance of these zealous newcomers who do not make us look as terrifically devoted to our traditions as we otherwise might.
This sort of enthusiastically compelling commitment is never more eloquently stated than by Ruth herself, in what we now know to be her conversion process. She declares poignantly: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.”
Here Ruth commits not just to familial loyalty, but to an above and beyond kind of spiritual allegiance that is difficult to surpass.
Naomi and her daughter-in-law’s exchanges in this first chapter of Ruth become the archetype for all conversions that follow. The Talmud concludes from their emotional give-and-take that converts must be dissuaded three times, as per Naomi’s model: “return thou after thy sister-in-law.”
Once an earnest effort is put forth, converts must then be taught Torah. Ruth declares acceptance of her beliefs, and finally, once accepted, converts stand on the very same footing as those born Jewish. So they two went. Two, together and equal.
Onkelos the convert is a story of great renown: a Roman nobleman, nephew to Titus himself, joins Judaism and then authors the famous Targum, the Aramaic translation of the Torah that made the Torah accessible to those who were not learned.
Much later, the tale of the Polish convert Avraham ben Avraham regaled European Jewry with its drama. Said to have been the great Polish lord Potocki’s only son, Valentin, Avraham ben Avraham converted secretly, only to be informed on by a Jew. He was condemned to death for illegally converting to the unlawful religion, Judaism. He was burned at the stake on May 24, 1749. A fearless woman gathered his ashes and buried them in the cemetery in Vilna, where a tree is said to have grown over them. The courageous woman, as legend goes, was the future mother of the Vilna Gaon; her brilliant son was her reward for her courage.
There is no denying the inherent tension between those born into a group and those who join. Yet we are enjoined over and over again by our Torah to welcome the stranger and to be overwhelmingly sensitive to their precarious status. In a lecture given on June 10, 1974, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik raises the bar with a loving passion. Here is what he so movingly said about Moshe’s urging Yitro to remain with the Israelites — I can’t imagine a more nobler stance.
“I want to let you in on another secret. It was not an invitation which a son-in-law extended to his father-in-law. It was not an invitation extended by an individual to another human being to share the good things in life. It was more than that. It was an invitation extended by Moshe, as a representative of the People Israel, to all converts of all generations.... It was extended to the entire non-Jewish world: Join us! …There is enough chesed — goodness and happiness in the Torah — to be transmitted to others and to be shared by others. Join our triumphal march… toward our destiny. It may become your destiny as well.”