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Jews and proselytes to Judaism

Posted By Obadiah Shoher On March 29, 2011 @ 3:10 pm In giyur | 1 Comment

All adherents to Judaism were not equal for the rabbis. They sanctioned any means that could be employed to drag a Jew back into the fold of Judaism, even forcing or bribing him into mechanical observance in the hope that habitual observance would evolve into faith. Any material incentive, however, disqualified the conversion of non-Jews. On that, the rabbis were proactive: we did not accept proselytes at the time of King David and Solomon, and we must not accept them in the messianic age―which all rabbis have always understood as the time when Jews return to their land with military might and statehood. On a side note, frequent wars are to be expected in messianic times: “And I will give you peace in the land, and when you would lie down nothing will disturb you… sword will not go through your land. You will chase your enemies, and they will fall from your sword” (Lev26:6-7).

According to rabbinic logic, we must not accept converts today because, presumably, they are driven to join the Jews by material incentive rather than pure love of God. Note the presumption of guilt, of religious insincerity, on the part of the converts; rabbis always go an extra mile to insist on a presumption of innocence for Jews. Repentance, for example, expiates a sin because repentance proves the sin to be unintentional.

But rabbis never applied the prohibition of induced conversion to the major source of proselytes: the foreign wives of Jews. Could the rabbis have been blindly to the obvious: that foreign fiancees may embrace Judaism out of love for their Jewish spouses or their money, not for any high-minded theological reasons? The rabbinical logic was, in fact, sharp: conversion is altogether irrelevant with respect to wives. Married into the Jewish milieu, they were forced to live Jewish life, and there was no doubt that their children were practically Jewish. Rachel stole her father’s idols, but gave birth to our Jewish forefathers.

The principles are different with large, self-contained proselyte communities who are not likely to assimilate into the Jewish people. In ancient times, gerim residents of Israel were de facto converts: they observed festivals, basic kosher laws, and the prohibition of idolatry. The Torah hints in at least three places that these converts were not considered Jewish.

Speaking of Sabbath observance, the Torah says that no ger should be working “in your gates,” that is, in Jewish gated towns. In their towns―and we know from history that gerim had communities of their own―they are free to work. A more important implication is commonly overlooked: why is the prohibition only in effect “in your gates”? In many places, the Torah clearly distinguishes the rules for walled towns and non-walled villages. Why are gerim converts not barred from working in Jewish villages? Because they were not living there! The Jews were a proud nation of landowners; the Torah insists that even sold plots be returned to their previous owners in the Jubilee year so that no Jew can lose his landownership status. The entire land was partitioned among Jewish tribes upon Joshua’s invasion of Canaan. Gerim were unavoidably landless, with some ad hoc exceptions. They were present in Jewish villages only for seasonal work, and such work could not be postponed for Shabbat. Even a farmer with the strongest faith in God would not risk losing his entire harvest to rain or sun by delaying it for a day. Here we have two lessons: urgent Shabbat jobs may legitimately be outsourced to foreigners, even quasi-converts, and such converts are not equal to Jews in national or religious terms.

Another instance in which the Torah distinguishes between Jews and converts is the famous injunction against oppressing gerim. They must be loved “as” Jews. The demand of functional similarity underscores the political dissimilarity: gerim are not melted into the Jewish people; they remain separate, but enjoy similar personal rights. The rights are similar, but not the same: a fellow Jew cannot be dealt with falsely or even insulted (Lev25:17); gerim must not be oppressed, but there is no injunction of meticulous honesty or politeness toward them.

But the most striking inequality between Jews and resident aliens is laid out in Lev25. This is a late chapter with a highly idealistic vision of an egalitarian Jewish society of small landowners. In this pastoral society, landless aliens are detested and restricted. They cannot own land; only our Jewish brothers can (v.25). Who are the “brothers”? Answers v.46: sons of Israel. Here is a clear statement that Jewishness is not merely a religion, but blood descent, too.

If Jews go bankrupt and lose their land plot, their status is downgraded to that of ger or toshav (convert and settler), v.35. Even in slavery, a Jew cannot be treated worse than a free ger; the implication of this is that a free Jew is treated much better than a ger (vv.30-40).

It is shameful for a Jew to be sold into slavery to gerim. Such a Jew must be redeemed immediately (vv.47-48). When a Jew is sold to another Jew, he may remain in bondage until Jubilee. In today’s terms, a convert cannot own a Jew, and all the more he cannot vote on political issues of importance to Jews.

Aliens were not assimilated. Rabbinical law allows a proselyte to marry another proselyte only, never a Jew―though practical exceptions abounded. Descendants of settlers could legitimately be purchased as slaves by Jews (v.45), but could not own Jewish slaves (v.47).

How is all this relevant today? Rabbis have long abandoned a nationalist concept of Jewish people. Instead of a full-bodied nation bound to its land, Jews have become a religious community―which is not entitled to statehood under modern legal principles. The rabbis ceded Ceasar’s issues to Ceasar, and confined themselves to religious matters only. Contrast that attitude with that of Rabbi Akiva, who was of non-Jewish descent, but led the Bar Kochba revolt because he understood that Jewishness is not merely a matter of religion, but of nationhood. By defining Jewishness in strictly religious terms, the rabbis unwittingly opened a door into Israel for all kinds of fake Jews from Africa and Asia, as well as Russian Jews-by-grandparent. Politically, this arrangement is absurd: a secular nation-state cannot define its immigration laws in religious terms.

The solution is to adhere to the Torah’s logic: that people may adhere to basic precepts of Judaism without becoming Jews. Such converts are not descendants of Israel. They have no ownership share in the Land of Israel. It is preferable that they remain in their own countries, but if they come here, they must not be accorded political rights. They may perform urgent work on Shabbat, but they must not be allowed to own land.


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