Conversion has been in the news a great deal of late and for all the wrong reasons.
The government’s plans to pass legislation that would reform Israel’s conversion system have sparked a fierce outcry, with supporters and opponents invoking rhetoric and even vitriol that seem oddly out of place given the spiritual nature of the subject at hand.
The debate has centered around who should be empowered to convert, which standards of conversion should apply and who needs to have the ultimate authority to confer the state’s stamp of approval.
As important as these questions are, there is one key point that has been overlooked amid all the bickering: our attitude toward those who do choose to convert, which is no less in need of improvement.
After all, process is crucial, but so, too, are people. Every effort must be made to ensure that proper halachic conversion standards are upheld. But we must remember that those standards also include loving the convert and welcoming him or her into our midst with warmth and affection.
Too many of us still look upon converts with suspicion, unfairly questioning their sincerity or motives. Instead, we as Jews need to make a greater effort to embrace Jews-by-choice and shower them with kindness and adoration.
Over the past two decades, as chairman of Shavei Israel, I have worked with countless people from a variety of countries across the globe who have made courageous and enormous sacrifices to tie their fate with the Jewish people. In a world in which antisemitism and Jew-hatred is on the rise, the decision to join the people of Israel is nothing less than valiant and even heroic.
Indeed, as Jews by birth, we have much to learn from converts about not taking our faith or identity for granted. Throughout our people’s history, proselytes and their progeny have enriched us spiritually.
Our daily prayers include numerous passages from the Psalms, which were penned by King David, a descendant of Ruth the Moabite. Alongside the text in every standard Hebrew edition of the Pentateuch is the Aramaic commentary of Onkelos, authored by a Roman nobleman who converted to Judaism nearly two millennia ago. And the Bible itself includes the Book of Obadiah, which was written by an Edomite convert who became a Hebrew prophet.
Several Talmudic luminaries whose rulings shaped Judaism as we know it today were descendants of converts, such as the great Rabbi Akiva and his student Rabbi Meir. About the latter, the Talmud says in Eruvin 13b: “Rabbi Aha bar Hanina said: It is revealed and known before the One Who spoke and the world came into being that in the generation of Rabbi Meir there was no one who was his equal.”
Interestingly, the act of converting a gentile to Judaism is not listed among the 613 mitzvot of the Torah by any of the major codifiers of Jewish law, but the requirement to love the convert most certainly is.
The Sefer Hahinuch, a 13th-century text attributed to a student of Nahmanides that enumerates the mitzvot, says (Mitzvah 431), “We are commanded to love the convert,” noting that “we are cautioned not to cause them any sorrow, but rather to do good unto them and treat them righteously as they deserve.”
And in his great compendium of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes (Hilchot De’ot 6:4) that “God has commanded us concerning the love of a convert, just as He has commanded us to love Him,” and adds that “God Himself loves converts, as the Torah says (in Deuteronomy 10:18), ‘and He loves converts.’”
And one of the most powerful statements of all is to be found in the Midrash Tanhuma (Lech Lecha 6), where Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish states, “A proselyte is more beloved before the Holy One, Blessed be He, than all those who stood at Mount Sinai [i.e., the people of Israel].”
He explains that if the people who stood at Sinai “had not experienced the thunder, the flames, the lightning, the quaking of the mountain and the sound of the shofars, they would not have accepted the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
By contrast, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says, the convert to Judaism witnessed none of these things and yet chose of his or her own accord to accept God. He concludes by asking rhetorically, “Is there anyone more precious than this?”
However the changes play out in the battle over Israel’s conversion system, when the dust settles we would do well to take Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish’s words to heart. Rather than focusing exclusively on how to refine the process of conversion, we must also prioritize finding ways to embrace those who join the Jewish people. Only then can we say that the conversion system will truly have been reformed.
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and other hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.