Thursday, January 27, 2011

Unstigmatizing the Convert

Parshat Mishpatim

by Rabbi Avi Billet

During one of the classes I teach on weeknights, our topic turned to the different kinds of love mentioned in the Torah. One insightful participant commented that if G-d tells us to look out for different kinds of people on account of His own personal feelings of love for them, we have an obligation to go above and beyond where our normal emotions take us.

In our efforts to emulate G-d, we are meant to copy His ways in our treatment of the orphan, the widow, the poor and the ger.

Shmot 22:20 states " Do not hurt the feelings of a foreigner or oppress him for you were foreigners in Egypt." Later on in the parsha, we hear (23:9), " Do not oppress a foreigner. You know how it feels to be a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt."

The Sefer Hachinukh counts the instruction in 22:20 as two commandments — not to oppress the ger with words and not to oppress him with money.

Whether a ger refers to a convert or someone who is literally a foreigner who has come to live among you (Rashi) is a subject of debate. Regardless, the Torah's point is minimally commanding us to respect persons of all different nationalities who want to live peaceably with the Jewish people.

This is a sentiment we can all appreciate.

The Or Hachaim warns Jews not to feel superior to converts on account of their not being direct descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Isn’t it true that the direct descendants of the forefathers reached the lowest spiritual levels in the depravity of Egypt? No one can point fingers at the past without revealing skeletons in their own closets.

On the other side of the equation is the mitzvah to love the ger (Number 431 in Sefer HaChinukh), a concept that is repeated a few times in the Torah (Vayikra 19:34, Devarim 10:19).
One of the reasons the Sefer Hachinukh advances tighter restrictions against pursuing the ger's money is because he, as a foreigner, has no close relatives to bail him out. Furthermore, we do not want him treated in a way that will cause him to return to his former ways.
A number of years ago I was present at the conversion of an adult male. One of the rabbis said something to the man that has stuck in my memory. "You realize that in accepting to convert in this manner, you are committing to be in the top 10 percent of observance,” the rabbi explained. "Most Jews are born into this and might choose how they want to go about expressing their Jewishness. But you are asking to join our ranks, and in turn we're asking of you to commit to the highest level of observance."
I know many converts — in many cases, I can't even tell they were not Jews from birth. Each one has a beautiful soul, and understands far better than I do how special it is to be a Jew.
Many years ago, I was the gabbai for a minyan where a Hispanic convert prayed. When he was asked his name for an aliyah, he always said his name, proudly concluding with "ben Avraham Avinu" — son of Abraham our forefather. His natural father is not Jewish, but through converting, he is now the son of Abraham.
I can't speak from personal experience about whether being a convert has a stigma. I would think that based on what the Torah tells us about how we are to treat "gerim," there would be no need for the converts today to be referred to as "ben Avraham" with the "Avinu" dropped. But I never hear "ben Avraham Avinu" any more.
Yes, there is a rule that a kohen may not marry a female convert — but this has nothing to do with the convert personally, as much as it has to do with how we view kohanim, and a reality check of the convert's past. But beyond this restriction, converts are considered complete Jews in every way, in the same manner of every Jew who is not a kohen or levi.
We should admire gerim — individuals who have left their former lives behind to embrace Judaism. The Torah, after all, tells us we are to love them.
I like to think that the righteous converts would be heralded, put on a pedestal, pointed at for all to see "This is how a Jew is supposed to live."
May we merit to overcome our inhibitions and stigmas; may we truly fulfill the mitzvot of treating converts properly. They are the best of us, and we ought to learn from them.

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