Parashat Ki Tavo: Jewish DNA

“My father [Jacob] was a wandering Aramean and he descended into Egypt… And they [the Egyptians] afflicted us… And we called out to the Lord of our fathers… And the Lord took us out of Egypt… and brought us to this place…” (Deuteronomy 26: 5-11).

This week’s biblical portion opens with the commandment for every landowner to bring his first fruits to the Temple. This ordinance can only be honored after the Israelites have settled their Promised Land and built God’s Temple in Jerusalem. The Mishna (Bikkurim) describes the ceremony: the glorious decorations, the musical accompaniment, the dancing and colorful fruits which adorned the marketplaces of Jerusalem.
Each individual would set down his basket of fruit at the Temple altar and give a brief synopsis of Jewish history – from the exile of Jacob until the return of his descendants to the Land of Israel. And this short expression of thanksgiving – which comprises the centerpiece of our retelling during the Pessah Seder – is said in the first person (“My father,” “afflicted us,” “we called out,” “the Lord took us out”). Each Jew must see himself as the embodiment of his history, and feel responsible for the succeeding generations.
The Mishna, however, places a striking limitation on the identity of the spokesman: “These are the individuals responsible to bring [the first fruits], but do not declaim [the narrative]: the convert brings but does not declaim, since he cannot refer to ‘the land which the Lord swore to our forebears to give to us.’ If, however, his mother was an Israelite (from birth), he does bring and declaim, since the religious status of the child follows the religious status of the mother.”
And then the Mishna makes a similar point regarding converts and the language of their prayers: “And when [the convert] prays the Amida by himself, he says ‘Blessed art thou O Lord, our God and the God of the forefathers of Israel’ [rather than ‘and the God of our forefathers’]; when [the convert] is praying in the synagogue, he says ‘and the God of your forefathers.’” And if his mother was an Israelite, he says [with everyone else] ‘and the God of our fathers!’” (Bikkurim 1:4).
The normative law does not follow this Mishna; the convert has the same legal status as the born Jew, using the same speech when bringing his first fruits to the Temple and the same liturgy in daily prayers.
The Jerusalem Talmud disagrees with the Mishna in the Babylonian Talmud (which only cites the view of R. Meir), citing an alternative view of Rabbi Yehuda: “The convert himself must bring and declaim! What is the reason? Because God made Abraham the father of a multitude of nations so that Abraham [metaphysically] becomes the father of everyone in the world who enters under the wings of the Divine Presence…”
In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi declares that the normative law is to be in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Abahu actually decided a practical case, determining that a convert bring and declaim in the manner of every born Israelite. Maimonides decides similarly (Mishne Torah, Book of Seeds 4:3), and even penned a poignant response to Ovadiah the Proselyte (Mekitzei Nirdamim, Siman 293) which includes the converts’ praying to “the God of our forefathers” as well!
This is why every convert becomes the son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah, with the ritual immersion at the time signifying their being “born again” into the Jewish family/nation. This does not take anything from the biological parents who nurtured them, and so deserve heartfelt gratitude and sensitive consideration. Hence, the convert too has Jewish history and even Abrahamic “blood” in his/her veins – and Judaism has nothing to do with race!
I would conclude this commentary with one additional point from an opposite direction: The Jew begins his declamation with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean…” Yes, we have seen from the Mishna in Bikkurim (as well as Kiddushin 3:12) that the religious status of the child is determined by the mother, probably because the fetus is inextricably intertwined with the mother as long as it is in the womb. Nevertheless, the DNA contribution from the father cannot be denied. This gives rise to a special halachic category for a child born to a gentile mother and a Jewish father, known as zera yisrael, or “Israelite seed.”
Such a child would require a conversion to become a Jew. However, most decisors throughout the generations have felt it incumbent on the Jewish community to encourage conversion of such individuals, and to be as lenient as possible to effectuate these conversions. An important and even monumental work called Zera Yisrael has just been published by Rabbi Haim Amsalem (a Shas Knesset member), in which he documents the relevant responsa which suggest that “the religious court is duty-bound to convert” an individual with zera yisrael. These leniencies are limited to Israel, and are especially germane to the Russian immigrant population among us.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.