Last week when I went to the Israeli consulate to get a visa for my upcoming trip to Israel, the security guard, after taking in my kipa and tzitzit, asked me “Atah yehudi?” Are you Jewish? On my replying “bevadai,” of course, he persisted in asking “Atah yehudi mimakor?” “Were you born Jewish?”
With my Indian passport and a name most uncommon among Jews, he clearly had me pegged for a convert. And that aroused his interest. Most Jews are like that Israeli guard; they know that Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, and hence a convert is an object of curiosity to them, something unusual. The very word in Hebrew for a convert is ger — an alien, indicating an outsider. Nevertheless, I would argue that converts and the experience of being a ger are crucial to the essence of the Jewish people.
It is undeniable that the Passover story is the defining experience of the Jewish people. The sojourn in Egypt is what made them a people, uniquely qualified to receive the Torah. But what was it about the time in Egypt that was definitive? Right at the beginning, when the Haggadah starts the story of the Exodus, we read about God’s promise to Abraham that his children will inherit the land of Israel, but only after they experience being “strangers in a land not theirs.” The Hebrew actually says “ki ger yihye zar’akha” — your children will be gerim in an unknown land. Abraham himself experienced being a ger — he separated himself from his father’s family and his ancestral land and subjected himself to being a stranger wherever he traveled. Jacob, too, spent many years as a foreigner in his father-in-law’s house; in his own words, “im Lavan garti” — “I was a ger with Lavan.” And, finally, Moses, too, felt his alien status strongly enough to name his eldest son, “Gershom.” The Torah explains his rationale: “For I was a ger in a foreign land.” This is what allows him, in spite of his privileged status in Egypt, to empathize with his Jewish brethren and ultimately to lead them out of slavery, out of Egypt.
Once we realize how important the experience of being an alien in a foreign country is to the Jewish psyche, it should not come to us as a surprise when we read in Exodus: “You shall not cheat a ger — a sojourner among you and you shall not oppress him, for you were gerim in Egypt.” The next verse — Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan — shows us that the Torah’s concern is really for all disadvantaged people in Jewish society, of whom the ger is a prototype. Similarly, we find the command not “to oppress a ger, for you know the heart of the ger, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt.”
Rabbi David Silber in his Passover Haggadah puts it concisely: “One purpose of the Egypt experience was to sensitize the People of Israel to the suffering of others, to teach them what it means to be alienated and oppressed,” so that they will be sure not to impose such suffering on others. Or as professor Jacob Agus says in his book, “The Meaning of Jewish History,” “primitive man tends to resist any objective criticism of tribal mores or any widening of tribal boundaries. As far as historic memory goes, men always treated those who were akin to them with consideration and rough justice. But they were very slow in recognizing the rights of ’foreigners.’” The Torah, in extending compassion and rights to the stranger, demands that the Jew transcend this tribal feeling. While the Egypt experience prepared the Jewish nation for this empathy (a better word is the Yiddish mitgefil — feeling together with the other), the difficulty is how to maintain, over time, this identification with the stranger and the dispossessed.
Living in the diaspora as outsiders, Jews over the centuries were able to maintain the element of alienation crucial to their identity and the continued acknowledgement of the Jewish mission. However, today most Jews live either in their own state — Israel, or in the United States, where they have acquired a strong comfort level. As a result, this crucial sense of “outsider-ness” is lost. In fact, it is an unfortunate fact that many Jewish communities try to avoid contact with the non-Jewish world entirely. Even communities that do maintain a connection with the non-Jewish world seem to focus on non-Jewish institutions, but not necessarily on non-Jewish people. And many Jews who do examine non-Jewish ideas seem to have difficulty in integrating these ideas into their Judaism. What this means is that Jews are more involved with Jewish issues and less worried about the treatment of non-Jews in the world or in their own backyard. For example, most Jews don’t care about the treatment of Muslims in the western world or of Arab populations in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East. The immediate self-justifying reaction is to contrast that with the treatment of Jews at the hands of Muslims. But the point is that the Torah mandates our concern for non-Jews, particularly non-Jews in our society; it’s not a quid pro quo.
If the Jew will not go out and make contact with the non-Jewish world, it is necessary for the non-Jewish world to come into the Jewish world. Converts are one way for this to happen. A convert comes from outside the Jewish community and has already had a life before his/her Jewish life. A convert has, of necessity, had to think of things — the nature of life, the nature of God, how societies are organized, Jewish society versus non-Jewish society, Jewish ethics versus non-Jewish ethics, Jewish tribalism versus other affiliations. Such a person has considered all these alternatives and chosen the Jewish alternative. But this doesn’t mean that this person considers the Jewish way superior in all aspects. Simply that as a complete package, s/he has chosen the Jewish way. There may be aspects of how non-Jewish societies are organized, non-Jewish ways of thinking about God, about life, about other people that may be worth applying to Judaism.
The strength of post-Second Temple Judaism is its ability to accept from other religions and societies without diluting its core belief of monotheism. For example, professor Yaakov Elman has amply documented the large scale of borrowings in the Talmud — and this from the quintessential avoda zara, dualistic, society of Babylonian Zoroastrianism. In today’s Jewish world, it is arguably the convert, who by bringing himself/herself into the fold of the Jewish people brings non-Jewish ideas into Judaism and into the Jewish consciousness. And I would even argue that the rabbis intended this to be the case. The word in Hebrew for the notion of converting is not lehityahed, i.e. to become a Jew, but rather, lehitgayer, i.e. to become a ger, to accept a status as an alien, as an other. Naturally, this is difficult to deal with, especially for representatives of the current established order, and creates tension. One result of this tension is an attempt to make it very difficult for intending proselytes to enter the Jewish fold, or at least to require that such converts completely sunder themselves from their pre-Jewish selves (in the “classical” mold of a convert as a newly born child) and to closely follow a narrow Jewish path. It is not surprising that this is occurring in Israel where the “other” has been easy to ignore. What is alarming is that this is occurring in the U.S., as well.
Jewish history is replete with famous converts — for example, Queen Helen and her sons of the royal family of Adiabene as well as Onkelos the famous translator. Rabbi Akiva and his disciple, Rabbi Meir, were both descended from converts, as were Shemaiah and Avtalyon. In fact, King David himself traces his lineage to Ruth, the convert, whose story we read every year during the festival of Shavuot. Why did the king of Israel, David, have to be descended from a convert, and not just any ordinary convert, but from a people, Moab, that was despised because “They did not come to meet you with food and drink when you were on your way out of Egypt?” To emphasize that even such a people was not to be completely excluded as a source of influence on the Jewish people. Ruth was an exemplar of the three characteristics that can be used to recognize a descendant of Abraham: kindness, modesty and compassion (Yevamot 79a).” This made her supremely eligible to be the mother of the future king of Israel. In including the Book of Ruth in the Hebrew canon, the rabbis were telling us that all people are God’s creation – we are all made in the image of God. God, in requiring Jews to first go through the crucible of alienation in Egypt, chose them to bring this message of universality to His world. And the ger is a constant reminder of this command of God to His people.
Meylekh (PV) Viswanath is a professor of finance and the graduate program chair in the Depart- ment of Finance and Economics at Pace University.