The ‘mixed multitude’

For those who are not halakhically Jewish, but feel a connection, we have sacred work to do.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
“WHEN YOU came in just now, did a Jew enter the room?”
It’s a question sometimes asked of candidates for conversion by the Beit Din of the British Reform Movement and it acknowledges the difference between Jewish identity and Jewish status. In thirty years of working in the congregational rabbinate, I have met many people whose halakhic status does not match their sense of who they are, and it is invariably a painful realization. For some the sense of rejection leads them away from Judaism; for others it strengthens their resolve to join us; always the discussion is raw and challenging.
The experience is made more difficult by a failure in our tradition to define what a Jew actually is, and the fact that the only route to Jewish status is by having a Jewish mother or else converting in a religious court (beit din). Identity, culture, propinquity, commonality, faith and practice – none of these provide an entry into Jewish status. And many batei din keep the gateway deliberately narrow and hard to navigate.
Here in Beha’alotkha, we see the roots of our difficulty with the phrase “veha’asafsuf asher bekirbo” – “the people who had gathered amongst them” (Num. 11:4) yearning for meat and causing the Israelites also to demand the food of Egypt – fish, cucumber, melons and onions – instead of the manna provided by God for their sustenance.
Who are these asafsuf who are agitating? The word appears only once in the Torah, as does the phrase “erev rav” or “mixed multitude” (Ex. 12:38), and neither are explained in the text. The Bible is neutral about these people who are living and traveling alongside the Israelites, but rabbinic tradition is not.
Midrash Exodus Rabbah tells us the mixed multitude were Egyptians who, believing in the redemption of the Israelites, threw in their lot with us as gerim, or strangers. Sifre suggests the asafsuf are strangers collected from all around, and thus while there are other opinions, a link is generally understood to have been made between them and the idea of a collection of people who are neither inside nor quite outside the Israelite community.
Occupying liminal space, these people are ripe for definition. The Midrash obliges. The asafsuf incited rebellion and consequent destruction in their lust for meat – this negativity reflects back not only on the mixed multitude but also on strangers in general. The group quickly becomes responsible in the eyes of the classical commentators for many of the failures of the Israelites – in particular, they become responsible for making the golden calf.
In several places in Midrash the story is told of Moses persuading a reluctant God that the mixed multitude should join the Israelites leaving Egypt. God even tells Moses that they will endanger the Israelites and Moses counters that they will show the world the compassion and openness of God, who receives those who repent their sin. Midrash Tanhuma Yelamdeinu (on Ex. 32:7) comments on the verse “God said to Moses: Go, get down, for your people that you brought up from Egypt, have corrupted themselves”: “It does not say My people but your people … you caused me to accept the mixed multitude because it would be good to receive penitents, and I told you that in the future they would … cause the nation to sin with them.”
Defining the people who live alongside the Israelites as Moses’ people rather than God’s, describing them as agitators who facilitate sin, merging the ‘mixed multitude’ with asafsufsim and then both into the category of ‘strangers’ is the rich soil in which negativity toward outsiders is planted. We lose the biblical neutrality toward those who throw in their lot with us; we lose the alternate understandings that the mixed multitude were supportive of our mission, that the asafsufim were our own leadership (as suggested in Sifre), and instead cast them into the category of neither one thing nor the other, ambiguous fellow travelers.
When rabbis meet people who feel Jewish, but who have one (wrong) Jewish parent, or a grandparent, or a Jewish partner who has encouraged a love of Judaism, we have choices. When we meet those who cannot explain why their soul tells them they are Jewish and who have searched and learned and grown in certainty; or those who never knew there was a chasm between their status and their identity; when we meet descendants of anusim, people forced to convert from Judaism or those dislocated by the Holocaust, we have sacred work to do.
We can return to the world where people can join us easily, acknowledging their Jewish identity, their sincere desire to become part of the peoplehood of Israel. Or we can find it unbelievable that anyone may want to join us, put obstacles in their way, and demand the highest standards of observance over a long period. The asafsuf are with us still. We can reject them or we can gather them in.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in the United Kingdom for 30 years and blogs at