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Our Neglected Converts, Our Neglected Duty

January 31, 2013

A while back, the OU’s daily Taryag email featured mitzvah (commandment) #431, the obligation to love converts. As I mention in that article, an obligation exists to love converts above and beyond the obligation to love every Jew, which is stated in Leviticus 19:18. Our additional obligations vis-à-vis converts can be seen elsewhere in the Torah, as well. For example, mitzvos #63 and #64 specifically prohibit us from verbally abusing or financially cheating a convert, over and above the fact that we may not abuse or cheat anyone. The Talmud in Baba Metzia 59b says that all told there are 36 – or, according to another opinion, 46 – discrete mitzvos obligating us in our best behavior towards converts.

puzzle piece misfit abandonedThere’s a reason that G-d takes extra steps to protect converts. It’s similar to the reason that there are special mitzvos warning us not to abuse, oppress or otherwise aggrieve widows and orphans. Just like the widow has no husband and the orphan has no father, the convert lacks the support system of a Jewish family that those born Jewish typically take for granted. So, just as G-d acts in loco parentis for an orphan and in loco maritus for a widow, He acts in loco familia for a convert. In other words, G-d personally takes up the battle of a widow, orphan or convert; this is something we should take pretty seriously but, sadly, many converts aren’t feeling the love.

One woman wrote in response to that daily mitzvah email expressing a certain exasperation including, among other things, feeling marginalized. She wrote:

You write nicely, but what are you doing to give converts tangible help? As a convert, I feel barely welcome or a part of the Jewish people. I urgently need help to live as a Jew, but most people couldn’t care less. Converts have no lobby, money or influence. Baruch Hashem, (thank G-d), some people are kind and caring, but mostly I feel uncared for and unwelcome.

I wish I could say that her experience is unique but, unfortunately, I know, and know of, too many converts who have encountered too much stupid. A person leaves the faith in which they were raised, often creating friction with family and friends, to join the Jewish people who, honestly, are not exactly the most popular people in the world. We need all the friends we can get! So when someone takes that “whither thou goest” step, don’t they deserve to be welcomed with open arms?

The Talmud in Yevamos (43b) and elsewhere makes a startling statement. There, it says that converts are as harmful to the Jewish people as a leprous blemish. (The reason for the analogy to leprosy is based on Talmudic wordplay and is beyond our scope. Let’s just address the sentiment.) The commentators are full of explanations for this statement. The Baalei Tosfos refer us to the many mitzvos requiring that we take our behavior above and beyond for the sake of a convert. It’s simply impossible, they tell us, that we’re never going to upset a convert. Inevitably, we’re going to let our guard down and lose our temper or say something stupid. Still, shouldn’t that be the exception rather the rule that it seems to have become in many places?

The Torah has nothing but the highest esteem for converts. Yisro, father-in-law of Moshe, was a convert. (By extension, so was Moshe’s wife, Tzipporah.) Rahab, who helped save the Jews in the time of Joshua, was a convert; she became the ancestor of eight prophets, including Jeremiah. The prophet Obadiah was a convert and he has his own book in Tanach. Ruth, perhaps the most famous convert of all, became the ancestor of King David. You want to look down on a convert or the children of converts? Without Ruth – a convert – Moshiach can’t even exist! (Who’s going to turn down that match? “Sorry, Ben David, but I see you’re descended from converts. Not in my family!”)

The Torah gives us a reason why we should love converts: it’s because we ourselves were strangers in Egypt. The connection is easy to see. We’ve been the outsider. We’ve been oppressed. Does anybody know better than the Jews what it means to be a stranger in a strange land, without a support system? Having been there ourselves, we’re the first who should have empathy. It should be an automatic reflex that we spring into action in order to keep others from feeling that sting.

If we allow ourselves to become part of the problem rather than part of the solution, then we fail. We fail not only the convert, we fail ourselves. (We just violated 36 or 46 Biblical injunctions, remember?) We fail the entire Jewish people by disenfranchising those we should be embracing. We fail G-d Himself, Who then takes matters into His own hands. That’s a lot of responsibility. Ultimately, working a little harder to be inclusive and to treat others the way we would want to be treated is an investment we should be all too eager to make.

 

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of five books, including The Tzniyus Book. His latest work, The Taryag Companion, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.