Thursday, 27 May 2010

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy of North Western Reform Synagogue

After reading the census of Parashat Be-Midbar last week, we are ready for something a touch more enlightening.  

Which makes it all the more disappointing that at the end of the census what we seem to get is a repetition of two laws we have already received:  a brief restatement of the rules of ritual purity and a reminder of what to do when one Israelite wrongs another.  Numbers 5:6–7 tells us, “When a man or woman commits any wrong against a fellow, thus breaking faith with the Eternal . . . then they shall confess their sin which they have done; and shall make restitution for the trespass in full, and add to it one fifth, giving it to the one who has been wronged.”  Yet in Leviticus 5, in the discussion of the sin offering (vv. 20–26), we seem to have almost exactly the same law.  

In the mindset of the early rabbis, such repetitions were hugely important.  In their understanding of Torah nothing was to be viewed as redundant; when a law seems to repeat one found elsewhere, it was understood to signify something more.

And so it is here.  This law had to come to teach us something new.  According to the early halachic Midrash, Sifre Be-Midbar, “Scripture comes to teach that if one steals from a convert, swears to [the convert] and then [the convert] dies, the offender must pay the principle and an additional fifth to the priest and a guilt offering to the altar”.

Why would this need to be said?  Why was there a need for a separate statement of the law about wronging a convert?  Why here, as in a number of other places in rabbinic interpretation of Torah, do we find special attention paid to the interaction with those who convert, when elsewhere in rabbinic law we find the principle that the convert is equal to the born Jew in all respects?

The early rabbis were aware that the convert is not identical in all respects to the born Jew.  The equality of the convert in Jewish law was stated as an aspiration, but the rabbis knew, as we do, that the experience of coming to Judaism is different to that of being born within the Jewish community.  This was reflected in law, as here, and in rhetoric.  For some of the early rabbis, the difference in experience was a source of caution.  But for others, the recognition of difference – in background, in motivation, in journey – was a source of great joy and wonder.  
According to this view, those who (in the words of Be-Midbar Rabbah on Numbers 5) “come and take refuge in the shadow of the Holy One” are understood to be especially precious to God.  Converts come to Judaism from free will rather than as an inheritance, and this was seen as a source of special status.  

Midrash Tanchuma states:  “The ger who converts is more beloved than Israel when they stood before Mount Sinai. Why? Because had they (Israel) not seen the thunder and the lightning and the mountains quaking and the sound of horns, they would not have accepted the Torah. But this one, who saw none of these, came and surrendered to the Holy One and accepted the Sovereignty of Heaven. Can there be any more beloved than this?
We are fortunate that so many people choose to come to Judaism through our Movements.  It is a testament to our rabbis and congregations that we provide this service out of a genuine commitment to those who wish to become our brothers and sisters.
Yet our tradition demands that we do more.  We have an ongoing responsibility to those whom we help to convert: to ensure their real equality in out communities; to recognise that the journey of conversion does not end at the mikveh; to give thought to how we welcome them in our congregations and in the wider Jewish community.  

It is this that their choice deserves.  And that our formative texts demand.

Rabbi Josh Levy
May 2010

Rabbi Josh Levy is a rabbi at Alyth (North Western Reform Synagogue, NW11).His rabbinic thesis examined the minor tractate of the Talmud, Masechet Gerim, which looks at the status and treatment of the convert.  Attitudes to conversion in rabbinic literature remain one of his main areas of study.  

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.