Brother, Not Other: Rambam’s Loving Embrace of Converts
It may sound surprising to the contemporary Jew, but classical Jewish sources do not unanimously favor converts. This unsympathetic attitude present in some texts even goes beyond the three initial rebuffs in the conversion process;[i] even after the full halakhic conversion is complete, much negativity is directed towards the convert. Rambam stands out among the medieval commentators as a staunch supporter and defender of converts, in both halakhic and hashkafic contexts. Though his stance may seem self-evident nowadays, Rambam grappled with certain sources, often interpreting them more liberally and less literally in order to establish his approach. His far-reaching and consistent treatment of converts spans several of his works; in each, Rambam is notable for his sympathy – indeed, his love – for his new brethren.
Sefer ha-Mitsvot: Love for the Ger
Why are Jews obligated in ahavat ha-ger, love of the stranger? According to the Sefer ha-Hinnukh, the Torah’s intention is to train Jews in “grace and compassion” so that other nations should think highly of them and declare, “This is the nation of God.”[ii] One way to exhibit grace and compassion is by embracing converts, individuals who left their nations and families to join Judaism, who chose truth and hated falsehood. The mitsvah of ahavat ha-ger, then, is just a single, practical instance of a broader national goal: Jews must internalize and epitomize positive character traits, and treating converts well is a sensible means to this end.
Rambam’s explanation of the mitsvah is more straightforward than the Hinnukh’s. The reason for this commandment is that “since he entered in [the covenant] with our Torah, God added love for him and designated for him an additional commandment.”[iii] Rambam believes that this mitsvah is not for an instrumental purpose, but for an inherent one: A convert’s proactive decision to join God’s covenant alone warrants his special endearment by all Jews.
In addition to providing the rationale for ahavat ha-ger, commentators confront another halakhic question: Who is a ger? The broadest interpretation can be attributed to R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Hafets Hayyim), in his pamphlet, Sefer ha-Mitsvot ha-Katsar.[iv] R. Kagan states that the mitsvah of ahavat ha-ger applies to all strangers in one’s community – converts or not.
As mentioned earlier, the Hinnukh believes that this mitsvah is a specific instance of the Torah’s general emphasis on and demand for kindness. Unsurprisingly, he adds towards the end of his commentary on this mitsvah, “We should learn from this valuable commandment to have mercy on a man in a city that is not his homeland or the place of his parents’ family, and we should not pass him by when we find him alone on the road and all his helpers are distant from him, just as we see that the Torah commands us to have mercy on anyone who needs assistance.”[v] Minhat Hinnukh clarifies that this postscript is just an ethical aside, while the technical commandment is indeed limited to a convert.[vi] Nonetheless, even if the Hinnukh agrees that, legally speaking, the mitsvah is strictly limited to converts, he believes that the logic behind it is more universal.
Again, Rambam stands out in his interpretation. Since, in Rambam’s opinion, the commandment of ahavat ha-ger is because of the ger’s unprompted theological and halakhic commitment, the mitsvah is inherently limited to the convert. While love of our Jewish brethren is a commandment unto itself, ahavat ha-ger is an unrelated love specific for converts. This is obviously a world apart from R. Kagan, and even unlike the Hinnukh, as Rambam would never expand ahavat ha-ger to love of strangers in general.
Rambam’s consistent and insistent approach that ahavat ha-ger applies only to converts leads to difficulties in understanding the very source of the commandment. The biblical source of ahavat ha-ger is the verse, “You shall love the ger, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt.”[vii] Based on its context in this verse, as well as its usage throughout the Bible, the word “ger” clearly refers to a stranger. Because the Jews were strangers in Egypt, they know the “soul of the stranger” and must empathize with those in similar situations.[viii] However, Jews were not converts in Egypt. R. Kagan’s expansive definition of ahavat ha-ger as love of all strangers is actually most reflective of the verse itself. The Hinnukh, though he limits the application of the mitsvah to converts, is willing to expand it (even if only in the non-legal, ethical realm) to the strangers to which the verse refers. Rambam’s interpretation, however, clashes with the plain meaning of the text, by defining ger as a convert, to the total exclusion of a stranger.
Mishneh Torah: Acceptance of a Ger
Many diverging attitudes towards gerim are found in Hazal. Statements from the Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, and Midrash reflect perspectives from all over the spectrum, from acceptance and accommodation to rejection and opposition.
Hillel famously accepted even improperly motivated converts.[ix] The Midrash understands that God instructs Jews to bring potential converts closer, rather than to distance them.[x] In the Talmud Yerushalmi, Rav concludes that we should accept even those who converted with clear ulterior motives, since it is possible, perhaps, that they converted for religious reasons in addition.[xi]
On the other hand, there are many sources in Hazal that reflect a less-than-positive outlook on converts. R. Yitshak says, “Evil after evil will befall those who accept converts.”[xii] One Gemara says, “Converts are as bad for Israel as a sapahat,” a sore on the skin.[xiii], [xiv] As we will see, there are many interpretations as to what, exactly, might be so bad about converts. Regardless, the Talmud clearly intends these words derogatorily and expresses an unwillingness to accept converts.
R. Shlomo Goren has categorized these diverging opinions of Hazal according to the locales in which they were formulated.[xv] Midrashim and the Talmud Yerushalmi do not record any negative statements about converts or suggest any methods to discourage them; instead, “The Yerushalmi sees in their acceptance a great spiritual accomplishment.”[xvi] It is primarily the Talmud Bavli that disparages converts. R. Goren links this discrepancy in attitudes to the differing realities in Israel and Huts la-Arets (the Diaspora). Outside of Israel, Jews may be concerned that imperfect converts will only love Judaism conditionally; if and when that condition falters, they will revert to a lack of interest. However, in Israel, even if a convert initially has an unrighteous motivation, involvement in the Jewish environment will inspire them “to see the light of Judaism.”[xvii] Therefore, the sources from Israel (Midrash and Talmud Yerushalmi) speak favorably of converts, while sources from the Diaspora (Talmud Bavli) are more suspicious of converts.
Though the attitudes towards converts demonstrated by these generally aggadic statements fall across the spectrum, Hazal’s halakhic rulings do not. The primary talmudic source for conversion procedure details a script that the Jewish court must read to a prospective convert.[xviii] The role of the conversation is clearly stated: “Why [do we tell him everything]? For if he turns away, let him turn away.” Hazal aim to dissuade the convert and they feel no responsibility to encourage him. Rambam, of course, must quote the halakhic ruling of the Talmud. But he silently and subtly recasts the conversation with the convert so as to draw him in, rather than deter him.
Of course, Jewish law seeks to turn away insincere converts, who cause problems for themselves and for the Jewish community. To this end, the Jewish court begins the conversion process with a verbal deterrent, aimed to screen converts for insincerity. After this initial discouragement, the court gives the potential convert a primer in mitsvot and punishments to inform him of the religious commitment he is to accept upon himself. In the Talmud, the tone of the conversation continues to be quite stern. In contrast, in Rambam’s version of the conversation, as described below, the deterrent component is neutral, while the informative component reflects an attitude of encouragement and endearment.
In comparing the tones of the Talmud’s and Rambam’s conversations, it is important to note that Rambam created his own screening procedure, separate from the Talmud’s. Rambam’s process occurs before any of the Talmud’s script is read. According to Rambam, as soon as a potential convert appears before a Jewish court, the court investigates the possibility of ulterior motives, such as a desire to marry a particular Jewish man or woman. If no such motive is found, the petitioner is told about the great difficulty in observing the Torah, so that he or she will turn away if he or she is not entirely committed to observance. If, at that point, the potential convert still accepts the terms and does not turn away, and the court sees that he or she is driven by love of God, then the convert is accepted as genuine.[xix] In this first screening, which is not particularly hostile, Rambam establishes the convert’s sincerity. With this as the prerequisite, Rambam begins his endearing informative conversation, which draws from both the Talmud’s deterrent and informative dialogues.[xx] Throughout, he reinterprets Hazal’s phrases.
According to the Talmud, [the court asks the convert,] ‘Do you not know that Jews nowadays are broken down and pushed down, lowly and bewildered, and afflictions come upon them?’ If he answers, ‘I know, and I am not worthy [to join in with them],’ they accept him immediately. This question, posed in the Talmud as a warning for insincere converts, seems misplaced in Rambam’s conversation, because, in his opinion, it is addressed to converts who have already been found to have proper motivation. The end of Rambam’s conversation explains how this question serves to endear, rather than distance, the convert, as will be discussed below.
The Talmud continues, “They tell him of the punishment for [violating] the commandments… Just as they tell him the punishment for the commandments, so too they tell him their reward. They tell him, ‘Know that the world to come is made only for the righteous, and Israel nowadays can accept neither much goodness nor much punishment.’ They do not overstress this to him, and they are not exacting with him.” Rashi explains that Jews cannot accept much goodness because they are antagonized by the yetser ha-ra, the evil inclination, which impels them to sin.[xxi] Still, the court should not say further things to instill more fear to make the convert leave.
Rambam relocates the directive, “They do not overstress this to him,” to the description of punishments for violating commandments. He appends and explains,[xxii] “They are not exacting with him, lest they cause him distress and he would veer from the right path to the wrong path. For, in the beginning, one draws a man with soft, graceful words, as it says, ‘I drew them with cords of man,’ and after that, ‘With bands of love.’”[xxiii] The verse from Hoshe’a that Rambam quotes, which is not cited in this context by any Gemara or Midrash, refers to God’s embrace of the fledgling Jewish nation, lovingly drawing them in to be His people. Its appearance in Rambam’s treatment of converts reflects his belief that Jewish courts should relate to new converts as God related to His new nation.
At this point, Rambam expands the Talmud’s mention of the rewards earned by observing the commandments. He inserts, “They tell him that through the observance of these commandments, he will merit the World to Come, and that there is no fully righteous man except for a wise man who performs these commandments and knows them.”[xxiv]
Rambam then quotes and expands another fragment from the Talmud, totally reversing its implications in the process. The Talmud said, “They tell him, ‘Know that the World to Come is made only for the righteous.’”[xxv] This statement suggests that a convert is far from secure even after he converts; he must be personally righteous in order to merit the World to Come. Rambam instead specifies, “Know that the World to Come is reserved only for the righteous, and they are Israel.”[xxvi] This addition implies that, merely by joining Judaism, the convert will merit the World to Come.
In the last sentence in the conversation described by the Talmud, the court warns, “Israel nowadays can accept neither much goodness nor much punishment.” As mentioned earlier, Rashi understands that this refers to the unending war with the yetser ha-ra. Rambam interprets this statement in the opposite way: “[The court tells the convert,] ‘Though you see Israel afflicted in this world, good is reserved for them [in the next world]; because they are not able to accept much goodness in this world like the nations, lest their hearts become proud and they will stray and lose their reward in the World to Come, as it says, “Yeshurun became fat and kicked.”[xxvii] Nonetheless, God does not bring much punishment on them, so they will not be lost. Though all of the nations end, they are still standing.’ They talk at length about this in order to endear him.”[xxviii]
There are several significant differences between the formulation found in the Talmud (with Rashi’s interpretation) and in Rambam. Instead of frightening the convert with the difficulty of life as a Jew, the court is actually giving a religious rationale for that difficulty. This, in turn, provides an explanation for the very first sentence said to the convert: “Do you not know that Jews nowadays are broken down and pushed down, lowly and bewildered, and afflictions come upon them?” The court finally offers a theological justification for this problem, one that emphasizes God’s unique relationship with Israel and ensures its eternality. The motivation is explicit: “to endear him.” This question, which the Talmud utilizes to turn away insincere converts, Rambam uses to bring converts closer.
Despite Rambam’s reframing of the Talmud’s conversation, it is quite difficult to get around the Talmud’s overtly negative conclusion, “Converts are as bad for Israel as a sapahat.”[xxix] How do other Rishonim interpret this passage? Most commentaries suffice with explaining why Hazal are so opposed to converts. There are a number of different approaches provided by the Rishonim. Some complain of the dilution of true Jews, since the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, only dwells on Jews of pure lineage.[xxx] Another explanation, which appears somewhat selfish, argues that when Jews are surpassed in Jewish observance by converts, God is critical of the natural-born Jews.[xxxi]
Rashi says that Hazal’s disapproval is conditional.[xxxii] We must suspect converts, since they are sometimes lax in halakhah, and they may lower their Jewish neighbors’ standards of observance. This implies that Hazal would not resist any earnest and dedicated convert, if only they could be convinced of that sincerity in advance.
It is this reason that Rambam quotes, and he adds two specific historical instances of conversions that hurt the Jews. “The Sages said converts are as bad for Israel as a tsara’at affliction, since most of them go back for some reason and lead Israel astray, and it is difficult to separate from them after they convert. Go and learn what happened in the desert with the Golden Calf and in Kivrot ha-Ta’avah.[xxxiii] In most of the trials, the riffraff[xxxiv] were involved first.”[xxxv] Rambam’s explicit mention of these two extreme cases of whole communities of converts suggests he is not necessarily concerned for the risk from individual converts.
Responsum to a Ger
Another place where Rambam’s remarkable ahavat ha-ger shines through is a particular responsum that he wrote, addressed to a convert.[xxxvi] A man identified as Ovadyah wrote to Rambam to ask three questions. The first was primarily halakahic: Since Ovadyah was not of Jewish ancestry, could he say the standard phrases in prayer which refer to “the God of our forefathers?” The second was philosophical: Did Ovadyah properly understand the intersection of God’s omnipotence and an individual’s free choice? The third question concerned the halakhic status of Islam in terms of idolatry.
Dr. Isadore Twersky points out that it is improper to extrapolate philosophical leanings from Rambam’s strictly halakhic rulings; his conclusions may be founded strictly on his understanding of the rabbinic sources.[xxxvii] However, the contextual wording beyond the minimal ruling of “permitted” or “forbidden” can indeed be adduced to glean Rambam’s approach to a philosophical issue. In the case of Rambam’s response to Ovadyah, his love and admiration are impossible to overlook.[xxxviii]
Rambam answers Ovadyah’s first question in the affirmative: A convert should say all prayers exactly like any other Jew. He then writes a paragraph which is totally extraneous to the halakhic ruling, whose sole purpose is to inspire Ovadyah and raise his self-esteem:
Know that most of our forefathers who left Egypt worshipped idolatry while in Egypt, “mixed with the nations and learned from their actions,”[xxxix] until Hashem sent Moshe, our teacher and that of all prophets, separated us from the nations, and gathered us under the wings of the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) – us and all converts – and gave us all one law. And do not think lightly of your lineage; if we relate to Avraham, Yitshak, and Ya’akov, you relate to He who spoke and the World came into being, as explained in Yesha’yah: “This will say, ‘I am to Hashem,’ and this will call in the name of Ya’akov.”[xl] The convert will say, “I am to Hashem,” and the Israelite will call in the name of Ya’akov.
More than in any other text, Rambam explains his reason for loving converts in the conclusion of his letter to Ovadyah. Ovadyah had gotten into an argument with his rabbi about Islam. Ovadyah argued that it was not idolatry, an opinion with which Rambam agreed. However, the argument developed until the rabbi embarrassed Ovadyah and called him a fool. Rambam responds:
That he called you a fool is a big surprise. A man who left his father and homeland… and came to cling to this nation that is “despised of nations” and “servant to rulers,”[xli] who knew that its religion is the true and just religion… who chased after God and passed on the holy path and entered under the wings of the Shekhinah… who desires His commandments, whose heart inspired him to come close to God… who tossed away this world from his heart, “And did not turn to the arrogant nor those who fall away in lies”[xlii] – someone of this virtue is considered a fool? No! God has declared you not a fool, but a wise man, understanding and alert, on the straight path, and a student of Avraham our father, who left his fathers and his birthplace and followed God.
In these three works – Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Mishneh Torah, and this responsum – Rambam’s halakhah and philosophy show his great love for converts to Judaism. In each work, Rambam breaks away from opposing opinions (subtly or otherwise) to state and restate his full acceptance and embrace of converts.
Rambam’s opinion is, of course, consistent with his broader philosophical approach. His rationalist and more universalistic perspectives allow for hypothetically seamless inclusion of converts into the Jewish fold.[xliii] However, Rambam doesn’t merely relate to converts as ordinary Jews. He sees the convert tracing the footsteps of our patriarch Avraham, abandoning his or her former world to become attached to the truth. We are to respond as God Himself did in establishing our nation, drawing him or her in “with cords of man, with bands of love.”[xliv]
Gilad Barach is a second-year YC student majoring in Physics and Mathematics, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] The widely known practice of turning away a convert three times is, remarkably, not found in the Talmud. It appears in Rut Rabbah 2, s.v. “shovnah” and Yalkut Shim’oni, Rut 601, s.v. “va-yamutu.”
[ii] Mitsvah 431. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are the author’s.
[iii] Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Positive Commandment 207.
[iv] Positive Commandment 61.
[v] Sefer ha-Hinnukh, Mitsvah 431.
[vi] Minhat Hinnukh, Mitsvah 431:3.
[vii] Devarim 10:19.
[viii] Shemot 23:9.
[ix] As recorded in Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a.
[x] Midrash Tanhuma, Yitro 86.
[xi] Talmud Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 42a.
[xii] Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 109b.
[xiii] Translation from the Jastrow dictionary. Sapahat is also a type of tsara’at affliction (Vayikra 13:2).
[xiv] Yevamot 47b. This source will be discussed at length below.
[xv] R. Shlomo Goren, “Conversion from the Perspective of the Halakhah” (Hebrew), Mahanayyim 92 (1964), 8-12.
[xvi] Ibid, p. 11.
[xvii] Ibid, p. 12.
[xviii] Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 47a-47b.
[xix] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 13:14.
[xx] Rambam’s intention to create his own screening process and adapt the Talmud’s initial deterrent conversation to his own educating session is evident in Rambam’s modification of the beginning of the Talmud’s discussion. The Talmud begins its deterrent conversation, “When a convert comes to convert nowadays, they say to him, ‘What have you seen that makes you want to convert?’” (Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 47a) Rambam’s version reads, “When he comes to convert and they check after him and find no ulterior motive, they say to him, ‘What have you seen that makes you want to convert?’” (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 14:1) This starts Rambam’s educational primer, which is described at length in Issurei Bi’ah Chapter 14 (Halakhot 1-4), after the screening process was already recorded in Chapter 13 (Halakhah 14). This underscores the fact that Rambam quotes the opening lines of the Talmud, which the Talmud uses to dissuade insincere converts, as part of his post-acceptance educational discussion.
[xxi] Yevamot 47b, s.v. “lo rov ha-tovah” and s.v. “ve-ein marbin alav.”
[xxii] Issurei Bi’ah 14:2.
[xxiii] Both quotes in this phrase are from Hoshe’a 11:4; JPS 1917 translation.
[xxiv] Issurei Bi’ah 14:3.
[xxv] Yevamot 47b.
[xxvi] Issurei Bi’ah 14:4. Emphasis my own.
[xxvii] Devarim 32:16.
[xxviii] Issurei Bi’ah 14:5.
[xxix] Yevamot 47b.
[xxx] Tosafot to Kiddushin 70b, s.v. “kashim”; to Niddah 13b, s.v. “kashim”; to Yevamot 47b, s.v. “kashim”, Tosafot Ha-Rash to Yevamot ad loc., s.v. “kashim.”
[xxxi] Tosafot to Kiddushin ibid., Tosafot Yeshanim to Yevamot ibid., Tosafot Rabbeinu Perets to Yevamot 47b, s.v. “kashim.”
[xxxii] Rashi to Yevamot 47b, “de-amar mar.”
[xxxiii] Bemidbar 11.
[xxxiv] Asafsuf in Hebrew (Bemidbar 11:4).
[xxxv] Issurei Bi’ah 13:18.
[xxxvi] Iggerot ha-Rambam, edited by Y. Shilat (Ma’aleh Adumim: Birkat Mosheh, 1988), 231-241.
[xxxvii] Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 485.
[xxxviii] R. Avi’ad HaKohen, “On the Relation of Rambam to the Convert and to the ‘Other’” (Hebrew), available at: http://www.daat.ac.il/mishpat-ivri/skirot/294-2.htm.
[xxxix] Tehillim 106:35.
[xl] Yesha’yah 44:5.
[xli] Yesha’yah 49:7.
[xlii] Tehillim 40:5.
[xliii] This can be contrasted with R. Yehuda ha-Levi, who believes Jews are inherently different from non-Jews. R. ha-Levi famously distinguished hierarchically between human and Jew. Rambam, though, believes every person has the potential to be a Jew of the highest level, and only one’s beliefs and actions determine his or her status.
[xliv] Hoshe’a 11:4, JPS 1917 translation.