In light of the Shas party’s ridiculously prejudiced ad which insulted converts and the people involved in the conversion process in Israel, I thought I might post a beautiful Midrash which sums up the proper Jewish response to converts.
The truth is, there’s a certain prejudice that creeps among the Orthodox community, and every so often we hear of a ger (convert) who experiences what might be called a “spiritual racism”. This racism is basically the belief that a born Jew is better than someone who converted.
If anything, we would think that someone who joins the Jewish people should be treated with a great respect, since we can only imagine how difficult it is for a person to change his or her entire life and suddenly acquire a new God, many new commandments, privileges and challenges, and a new people.
Of course, this would be hard enough if a person joined a welcoming community, and it must be much worse when they periodically come up against a painful condescension from their Jewish brethren.
The Midrash, in the Soncino translation, goes as follows:
“The Holy One, Blessed-be-He, greatly loves the proselytes. To what may this be compared? To a king who had a flock, which used to go out to the field and come in at evening. So it was each day.
Once, a stag came in with the flock. He associated with the goats and grazed with them. When the flock came in to the fold, he came in with them; when they went out to graze, he went out with them. The king was told ‘A certain stag has joined the flock, and is grazing with them every day. He goes out with them, and comes in with them.’
The king felt an affection for him. When he went out into the field, the king gave orders: ‘Let him have good pasture as he likes; no man shall beat him; be careful with him!’ When (the stag) came in with the flock a,so the king would tell them, ‘ Give him to drink!’ And he loved him very much.
The servants said to him: ‘Sovereign! You posses so many he-goats, you posses so many kids, and you never caution us about them; yet you give us instructions ever day about this stag!’
The king said to them: ‘The flock have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in at evening to sleep in the flock. The stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into placed inhabited by man. Shall we then not account it as a merit to this one which has left behind the whole of the broad, vast wilderness, the abode of all the beasts, and has come to stay in the courtyard?’
In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind him his family and his father’s house, aye, has left behind his people and all the other peoples of the world, and has chosen to comes to us?
Accordingly, He has provided him with special protection, for He exhorted Israel that they shall be very careful in relation to the proselytes so as not to do them hard; and indeed it says. “Love ye therefore the proselyte, etc.”…
The view given here in the Midrash, that we should be grateful to the proselyte, is a far cry from the sad view that someone who is born Jewish has some inherent quality which makes her better than even someone who converts!
This view appears in our tradition, and not necessarily uncommonly, sad as that may be. It is a spiritual racism, as we said above, and the right way to relate to our converted brethren is to simply treat them as we do any other Jew, with the exception of 2 things we must do:
- We should express our gratitude to the people who have sacrificed to join us. We don’t know what it’s like, and we can’t put ourselves in their shoes. It must be hard, and the fact that they have joined us gives us strength by validating our goals and adding to our numbers, and helps us serve God better.
- We should be careful to give them some extra support once they join our communities, precisely because of the hardship involved not just in being Jewish when you once were not, but because the emotional journey and stresses involved must be tremendous.
What’s interesting to me is that spiritual racists may express these two sympathies with the exception of their prejudice, which must be very insulting and hurtful. I have heard cases of people who did not want their children to marry a convert, or even the child of a convert, and I can’t imagine the pain involved in being the person who is snubbed in this scenario.
It’s easy to see how this kind of behavior is contrary to the 36 times the Torah commands us regarding the proper treatment of gerim.
I’ll end with a quote from Rambam, because our blog needs Rambam like Epic Meal Time needs bacon. The quote is addressed to Obadia the proselyte, in a very famous letter:
“Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you derive form Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah; “One shall say, I am the Lord’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob”.