Friday, 05 Feb 2010

Written by Anna Gerrard

One of the most powerful experiences of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim students conference in Wuppertal happens when the members of the three faiths come together over the three last days of the week and share in each other’s prayer services.  For me, this exercise raises anxiety about the quality generic xanax and meaningfulness of our Jewish prayer as well as a kind of spiritual envy of certain elements of the prayer of the other faiths.

What surprised me the most though, was to discover that just as I was inspired by the devotion of the Muslim prayer or by the stillness of the Christian prayer, members of those faiths were equally inspired by the joyfulness of the Jewish prayer or the wholeness of the Jewish Shabbat.   Through their eyes I was able to re-appreciate my own tradition and learn to value what is unique and spiritually meaningful within it.

In the parashah this week, Moses has a similar experience with the Midianite Priest Jethro.   When Moses recounts to his father-in-law the story of the exodus from Egypt including the intervention of the God of Israel, it is Jethro who responds with songs of praise for this God.  He even takes the lead with a sacrifice of thanksgiving.   And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father-in-law”  (Exod. 18:12)

While the children of Israel are complaining, it takes an outsider to appreciate the miraculous nature of their struggles, to be awed by their story and to help them to see what they had.  Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz of the Jewish Theological Seminary suggests that Jethro’s response to the Israelite experience actually gave us the formula for the Blessings that we use to this day.  Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians” (Exod. 18:10).  Berkowitz places Jethro in a long line of non-Jews who have inspired the Jewish people with their external perspective on our faith, including Abraham’s servant Eliezer, the Queen of Sheba and Martin Luther King. 

But according to the Midrashic tradition, there is more to Jethro’s response than that of an inspired and inspiring non-Jew.  The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that Jethro, on hearing all this, determined to become a Jew and to believe in the one God (Y. Yebamot 8,3). 

The experience of being inspired by non-Jews who are actually in the process of converting to Judaism is one that is even more familiar to me.  While teaching Access to Judaism courses over the past few years, I have been amazed time and again by the new insights that can be gained from a fresh perspective.  Even as people who study Judaism full time, or perhaps especially as people who study Judaism full time, hearing the reasons that someone has chosen Judaism of their own free will can open our eyes to new elements of Jewish faith and practice that we may have otherwise taken for granted.

I know that I have been inspired by Jewish proselytes to rethink my understanding of circumcision, to re-examine the relationship between history and faith and to re-value the beauty of Synagogue music.  The very fact that someone has chosen Judaism, when they could have chosen any other world faith, fills me with a deeply humble appreciation for the tradition into which I have been born.

Jethro is certainly one of these inspired and inspiring proselytes, but there is yet another side to his story as it is interpreted in Midrash.  In Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginsberg tries to amalgamate the various Midrashic traditions that relate to the Jethro narrative in Exodus, but there are certain glaring contradictions that even he cannot iron out.  On the one hand we read,

At first Moses was inclined to give no ear to Jethro’s letter, but God said to him: “I, through whose word the world came into being, I welcome men to Me and do not thrust them back. I permitted Jethro to approach Me, and did not push him from Me. So should you, too, receive this man, who desires to come under the wings of the Shekhinah, let him approach, and do not repulse him.” God herewith taught Moses that one should repulse with the left hand, and beckon with the right.” 
(Ginsberg, Legends of the Jews, Vol. 3, p. 63)

From this, halachic Judaism derives its typical response to those seeking to convert; to discourage them to the point that their persistence and perseverance is testimony to their commitment and worthiness; and to support them along each step of the process only at the instigation of the candidate. 

Although conversion to Progressive Judaism is far more common and in many ways a less arduous process, this idea of both supporting and discouraging still permeates.  In a leaflet entitled “The Process of Conversion in Liberal Judaism,” it states: “Please remember that all along the impetus to take the next step comes from you.”  This, together with other subtle remarks, can give the impression that converts are something that Judaism neither needs nor desires and therefore will not go out of its way to encourage.

However, just a few lines later, Ginsberg incorporates another potential set of responses to a candidate for conversion to Judaism.

With sacrifices and a feast was the arrival of Jethro celebrated, for after he had made the burnt offering not far from the bush of thorns that had been unscathed by fire, Jethro prepared a feast of rejoicing for the whole people, at which Moses did not consider it below his dignity to wait on the guests in person. 
(Ginsberg, Legends of the Jews, Vol. 3, p.63)

This unabashed celebration of Jethro’s sudden and spontaneous conversion, “at which Moses did not consider it below his dignity to wait on the guests in person,” does not at all fit the model of repulsing with the left hand, and beckoning with the right.  This is unquestioning acceptance.  And this is not the only place in Tanakh where conversion appears as a natural and celebrated phenomenon.  When Abraham journeys from Haran to Canaan, he takes with him the souls that he had made; the Jews that he had converted.  In the Midrashic text, Sifre Deuteronomy 313, Abraham is praised and upheld for his missionary activities.  There is no mention here either of repulsing with the left hand, and beckoning with the right.  This is all out welcoming!

This word, “welcoming”, is the term chosen used by Lawrence Epstein in his article “Why the Jewish People Should Welcome Converts,” which appears on the website CONVERT.ORG (  This is one of several websites and organisations whose aim is to promote the active encouragement of Jewish outreach to prospective proselytes.  They stem from all Jewish denominations and take slightly different approaches to the details, but their bottom line is the same: it is time to return to the open-minded and uncomplicated approach to conversion that we see modelled in the Tanakh.

Epstein identifies biblical Israelite religion as a balanced combination between the particular and the universal, in which it was equally important to obey the covenant that God had made with the Jews and to convey the revelation of this covenant to all humanity.  He then traces this pattern through Jewish history, quoting from both Rabbinic and early Medeival Jewish literature, as well as contemporaneous secular writing. 

His examples include a passage in the Talmud praising Rabbi Jochanan for his conversionary activities (B. Pesachim 87b), Josephus’s polemical treatise against Greek religious beliefs Contra Apionem, and the historical data that shows the Jewish population growing “from 150,000 in 586 BCE to more than eight million by the first century of the common era.  “Such an increase,” says Epstein, “can be explained by the supposition that Jews actively welcomed large numbers of converts.” 

We know that changes in this positive attitude towards conversion were initiated by discriminatory external legislation.  Facing punishment, often by death, for any kind of proselytising, the minority Jewish community understandably decided to cease all such activities.  Epstein explains the next step as the formalisation of this pragmatic measure:

Eventually, the Jewish community sought a justification to explain away their failure to meet their covenantal obligation, to explain their dismal existence, and to offer hope of escape from that existence. Such a justification was found in the particularist interpretation of Jewish theology, with the Jewish mission limited to one of simply following religious laws and waiting for the messiah…
Persecution and fear had led, over time, to the transformation of the Jewish understanding of its mission as spreading God’s word to a denunciation of such a mission as not conforming to Jewish law.

With such persecutory legislation behind us, now is the time, say Epstein and other pro-conversionists, to reconsider our position.  Now is the time to consider what it could mean to “welcome” new Jews into our communities in the same way that Abraham welcomed the souls he met on his journey; in the same way that Moses did not consider it beneath his dignity to welcome his father-in-law Jethro into the Israelite fold.  His precise definition of this term is important to note:

“Welcoming” is used here to mean openly proclaiming the willingness of the Jewish people to accept sincere converts, accepting them as genuine and authentic Jews when they do convert, and integrating them fully into the community after the conversion.  “Welcoming” excludes using any physical or emotional pressure to gain converts [or] the belittling the faith of others…

Openly proclaiming the willingness of the Jewish people to accept sincere converts: was that what Moses was doing when he recounted their story to Jethro?  Is that what the Progressive movements are doing by having informative leaflets available about the process of conversion and even posting these leaflets on their websites?  Or is there more to it?  What could it mean in our communities to openly proclaim our willingness to accept sincere converts?  Signs outside Synagogues to welcome in those who wanted to know more about what went on inside?  Synagogue Open Days?  Advertisements in the national media?  “You too could be Jewish – if you really want to!”

Are these ideas pure fantasy or are we ready to have the conversation and think through the ways in which we would feel comfortable to reintroduce a more proactive approach toward prospective converts?  Jethro gave us the formula for our blessings and even helped Moses to establish a functioning Israelite legal system.  We can never know on what new inspirations we might be missing out if we do not give this topic some serious thought soon. 

Anna Gerrard
February 2010

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