Ruth and Contemporary Conversion: Lessons in Ahavat HaGer

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28 May 2019

From Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth (YU Press and Maggid/Koren Books, 2019) edited by Rabbi Dr. Stuart W. Halpern

The biblical story of Ruth has been frequently mined for insights, both halachic and ideological, into the conversion process. The Talmud[1] cites Ruth’s words to Naomi as examples of the type of mitzvah acceptance — Kabbalat Ol Mitzvot — necessary for conversion. Later rabbinic literature attempts to pinpoint the stage at which Ruth converted. Contemporary voices in Jewish life debate the extent to which Ruth’s conversion process is similar or dissimilar to the present-day procedure; these debates typically are heavily polemic in nature.

As much as there is ample room for using Ruth as a lens through which to view the conversion process, the focus of the biblical story is on Ruth’s life post-conversion. As such, I believe the primary conversion-related lessons to be drawn from the Book of Ruth have less to do with the convert’s embrace of Judaism and more to do with the Jewish community’s embrace of the convert.

It is striking — and profoundly moving — to contemplate how Ruth is welcomed into the Jewish community with warmth and love. The Midrash[2] teaches us that Megillat Ruth was composed to teach us “the reward given to those who perform acts of kindness.” The kindness shown to Ruth is meant to impress upon those of us who are born Jewish how much responsibility we bear to create a seamless transition for converts into the Jewish fold.

One of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot is Ahavat HaGer — love of the convert. The mitzvah is codified in Devarim (10:10): “You shall love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The stranger is this context is traditionally understood to refer to the convert, who abandoned his or her former life and attempts to become part of a foreign people. This positive mitzvah is linked to a parallel negative mitzvah which prohibits Ona’at HaGer — paining a convert. According to the Talmud[3], the concept of dealing sensitively with a convert is mentioned 36 (or 46) times in the Torah, underscoring its importance.

What follows is a brief presentation of ways in which we can emulate the kindness shown to Ruth in our contemporary world, putting the lofty ideals of Ahavat HaGer into practice.

We need to speak more about conversion in our communities

Growing up, I confess that I thought of converts as exotic. One would read the occasional story of someone from a very different culture embracing Judaism, but it was not something which I saw as a common phenomenon.

My own work with converts and conversion candidates has impressed upon me that this is a fiction. Converts are very much a part of the contemporary American Orthodox community. This is not only true in communities and synagogues which are outreach-oriented, in which one would expect to find many people of diverse backgrounds. It is even true in synagogues in which the average worshipper is assumed to be “frum-from-birth.” It is true in modern Orthodox as well as “yeshivishe” synagogues.

In truth, it is not surprising that there are so many converts who are part of the fabric of our communities. The RCA-affiliated Manhattan Beth Din for Conversions alone oversees close to 100 conversions every year. Most of these converts live in very robust Orthodox communities in the New York area and participate fully in the life of the community.

I think it is important that people stop viewing conversion as exotic and begin to view converts as yet another standard subset within the Orthodox community. In light of how many converts are already part of the Orthodox community, the mitzvah of Ahavat HaGer needs to be a topic which is regularly addressed in public. Shiurim and talks can and should be devoted to this important Biblical mitzvah, which is far more relevant than people think it is.

More often than not, public discourse within the Orthodox community on the topic of conversion tends to focus on the halachic and political dimensions of conversion standards. While these discussions are important, discussing standards exclusively can potentially objectify the convert. In contrast, speaking about Ahavat HaGer humanizes the convert, reminding the rest of the community that conversion is not only about the obligations the convert has to G-d and Torah but also includes the obligations the Torah community has towards the convert.

I believe that it is also important to include in our public discourse expressions of admiration for converts and the choices they have made to lead a Torah lifestyle. Sadly, people sometimes express disbelief that anyone would choose an Orthodox lifestyle. This attitude not only disrespects the convert; it also sends a debilitating message to our own children: We only practice Torah because we were born this way. You’d have to be crazy to actually choose to do this!

On a public level, we need to remind our constituents that we pray explicitly for the welfare of converts three times a day in Shemoneh Esrei. Indeed, we mention converts in the same breath with “the righteous, the pious, and the elders of the Jewish people.” We need to publicly share stories about the nobility and self-sacrifice of converts — both past and present — and describe how our great leaders went out of their way to show honor and respect to those who had made the courageous decision to join the Jewish people.

We need to respect converts’ privacy

Speaking about conversion more frequently in public creates an environment of Ahavat HaGer, as long as we speak about the mitzvah conceptually and abstractly. At the same time, individual converts in our communities are entitled to their privacy, which we should guard zealously.

Some converts are very open about their status. Others prefer to keep a low profile. This is especially true when the convert was raised with a Jewish identity but was not halachically Jewish. It goes without saying that a major part of Ahavat HaGer includes respecting a convert’s wishes to not publicize his or her status. Beyond that, Ahavat HaGer requires us to be sensitive to the fact that people we interact with may well be converts, unbeknownst to us, and we should be careful to not act in a way which makes them uncomfortable.

A seemingly innocuous activity which has made many a convert — and Ba’al Teshuva — squirm is the favorite Orthodox pastime known as “Jewish geography.” For those who grew up or have spent many years in the Orthodox community, Jewish geography is a fun way to instantly establish a connection between two people. For a convert, it can be torture. If the convert desires — as is his or her right — to keep the facts of his or her life pre-conversion private, “Jewish geography” forcibly “outs” the convert and compels him or her to reveal a non-Jewish background. We should be very careful when hosting to stay away from questions about the person’s past; if such questions come up around a Shabbat table, we should do our best to redirect the conversation.

On the topic of Shabbat meals, it is imperative that we, as a community, ensure that converts are regularly invited for Shabbat and Yom Tov meals. In most cases, they have no Jewish or observant family to host them. Many will feel shy about proactively requesting meals. For that reason, we need to be proactive in searching out converts we know before Yom Tov and making sure that they need not spend the holiday alone. [There are potential halakhic issues, which are beyond the scope of this chapter, involved in inviting a conversion candidate to a Yom Tov meal that is not on Shabbat. One should discuss with a halakhic authority how to negotiate these issues. Typically, a halakhically appropriate solution can be found to help a conversion candidate feel embraced durung the Yom Tov period.]

The worst sin: Raising the spectre of nullification

Some years ago, a born Jew whom I know was involved in a financial dispute with someone who had converted to Judaism years beforehand. The born Jew called me up with (what he thought) was a shaila: In light of what he perceived as the unethical way the convert was acting in their dispute, was there some way that the conversion could be retroactively revoked? I was shocked, and quickly told the questioner that not only could no nullification take place, but that even the suggestion of such was a terrible sin of Ona’at HaGer!

This story should give us some insight into the sense of uncertainty many converts live with, and the supreme importance of helping to create an environment which alleviates those fears. The feeling that the conversion can be “undone” or “revoked” for any reason is terrifying for a convert. It is a terrible violation of Ahavat HaGer to imply — or certainly to state explicitly — that a convert’s conversion could potentially be nullified. Born Jews would tremble if they felt their Jewish identity could be taken away due to religious or ethical lapses on their part.

The average layperson needs to realize that he or she is not a Beth Din and should not be deciding whether a particular convert is legitimate. It is wrong and extremely hurtful to quiz converts to get a sense of their sincerity, knowledge, or observance levels, and to make decisions based on that information as to whether the conversion was valid. Examining a conversion candidate is solely the job of the Beth Din. Once a candidate is converted legitimately, it is a violation of Ahavat HaGer for community members to constantly scrutinize the convert.

No different than anyone else

An important part of Ahavat HaGer is making the Ger feel like he or she is fundamentally no different than anyone else in the Orthodox community. Some Geirim enjoy their unique status as Geirim and are anxious to share their stories; that is certainly their right. Many others, however, prefer to blend in and not call attention to the fact that they are different in any way.

A question of interest to converts is how to relate to the morning blessing “Shelo Asani Goy,” thanking G-d for having not created one as a Gentile. Obviously, this is not literally true for a Ger. Halachic opinions differ as to whether one should omit the bracha, recite a variant (“She’asani Ger” — “Who has made me a convert”), or recite the bracha with the understanding that the convert is thanking G-d for his or her present status as a Jew.[4]

During the course of my work with converts, I posed the question to Rabbi Mordechai Willig. Rabbi Willig generously and selflessly volunteers many hours to serve as a Dayyan on the Beth Din for conversions; I consistently marvel at how he has gone to extraordinary lengths — in contexts far removed from the public eye — to help make converts feel comfortable and accepted in the Orthodox community. His response was immediate: Of course the convert should recite “Shelo Asani Goy.” He should not feel different than anyone else in Shul. That is the mitzvah of Ahavat HaGer!

A similar approach applies to helping converts deal with the loss of a close non-Jewish relative. Although a convert is not halachically obligated to sit Shiva[5] or say Kaddish[6] for a non-Jewish relative who passes, many converts find comfort in doing so. Not only are these time-hallowed practices therapeutic, but observing them helps the convert feel fundamentally similar to other members of the community who turn to these practices in their time of grief. Conversely, not observing Shiva or not saying Kaddish may reinforce the convert’s feeling of being a community outsider. It is important to realize that a halachic exemption from these practices is not synonymous with a prohibition to observe them. Rabbis should reach out to converts in their communities with halachically appropriate options to deal with their grief.

Some converts, especially those who are private about their status, may not wish to sit Shiva after the passing of a close relative. They are anxious about the well-meaning questions which will be asked of them during the Shiva, forcing them to reveal more about their past lives than they feel comfortable. This position, too, needs to be respected. Caring rabbis and close friends need to think of alternative ways to acknowledge the convert’s grief and pain when Shiva is not desired.

“My daughter, I seek a haven for you” (Ruth 3:1)

In the Book of Ruth, the pinnacle of the concern Naomi shows towards Ruth is manifest in her successful effort to help her remarry. In the contemporary world, as well, the ultimate display of Ahavat HaGer is to help converts marry and build observant Jewish families.

Finding a marriage partner is often challenging even for those who grew up in the Orthodox community. Converts may experience additional hurdles: Most female converts become Jewish at an age when they are already considered “older” by some in the Orthodox community. Some born Jews may feel uncomfortable marrying someone without Jewish family. (Ironically, numerous converts have expressed to me that they would rather not marry a convert, as they want to have a Jewish extended family.) Some born Jews may feel uncomfortable with a convert who looks ethnically different as a marriage partner.

Precisely because of these challenges, we as a community must make a special effort to introduce converts to potential marriage partners. While it may be tempting to suggest matches based on superficial similarities, we should do our best to suggest matches who share common goals and personalities, even if the backgrounds are radically different from one another. Even if our efforts are not met with immediate success, converts are encouraged, knowing that the community cares about them.

It is worth noting that sometimes the sudden introduction of a newly-minted Jew into the marriage arena opens up new “shidduch” possibilities. I know of several born Jews who went years without finding a marriage partner. They then met someone who had converted at an age close to their own; this new Jew, who had not been a marriage option only a short time before, proved to have the qualities which had been lacking in previous relationships. These couples are now happily married. Both the born Jew and the convert in the relationship had almost despaired of finding that marital “haven” which Naomi sought for Ruth.

Ahavat HaGer: Not just for converts

I have argued that converts are far more pervasive in our communities than we often assume, and, as such, there is a need to promote the mitzvah of Ahavat HaGer. Beyond that fact, highlighting the mitzvah of Ahavat HaGer helps sensitize us to the many other “strangers” in our communities, even those who were born Jewish. Consider the powerful words of the medieval author of Sefer HaHinuch[7]:

We should learn from this precious mitzvah to extend ourselves to anyone in our communities who is far from his place of origin and family. We should not simply pass him by when we discover him all alone, without those who can help him. We see that the Torah commands us to extend ourselves to someone who needs support.

There are so many “strangers” in our communities: couples in crises, children who feel lost, older singles, people struggling emotionally, religiously, financially … The list goes on and on. Our public discourse on the topic of Ahavat HaGer — narrowly defined — will help us develop and sharpen a sensitivity to those who are part of the broader definition of Ahavat HaGer, as described by Sefer HaHinuch. The development and implementation of that sensitivity carry with them great blessings, as described in that same passage:

When we develop these character traits, we merit having G-d extend His mercies to us, and the blessings of Heaven descend upon us.

The sensitivity shown to Ruth ultimately paved the path to the birth of King David. May our sensitivity to converts in the contemporary community also yield blessed results.

[1] Yevamot 47b.

[2] Ruth Rabba 2:14.

[3] Bava Metzia 59b.

[4] See Shulhan Arukh Orah Haim 46:4 and Ba’er Hetev 8.

[5] Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 374:5.

[6] See Zekan Aharon II:87 who suggests that the convert may, indeed, be obligated to say Kaddish.

[7] Mitzvah 431.