January 19, 2020

Pachad Yitzchak: How Converts Expand the Torah

Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Wikipedia Commons)

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, ztz’l (1906-1980) was one of the most brilliant and radically creative Roshei Yeshiva of the twentieth century. In his seminal work, Pachad Yitzchak, he offers a profound insight about the deeply-rooted Jewish appreciation for those who convert to Judaism. He explores the contrast between the notions of the despised Amalek (Exodus 17) and the beloved Yitro (Exodus 18). The two ideas are mystically connected, because the story of Yitro sequentially follows the story of Amalek, and for the sages, this indicates that Yitro is emerging to respond to Amalek. As a further basis for this contrast, the rabbis explain the verse in Proverbs 19:25 as juxtaposing Yitro and Amalek (Shemot Rabah 27:5)[1]. Amalek represents pure evil that attacks the weakest in society (as they attacked the Israelites walking in the back as they left Egypt and traveled the desert). Yitro, on the other hand, is Moses’ father-in-law and teacher and, according to many commentators, a convert to Judaism.

To support his point, Rav Hutner brings the Biblical prohibition against adding or subtracting to the Torah but then he brings the Talmudic position that the prophets made the Megillah the exception (BT Megillah 14a). They added the Megillah because Haman is from Amalek and because of Yitro being added to the Torah in response to Amalek, and since the Jewish people and the Torah are one, adding a convert is adding Torah. Just as the Megillah adds to the Torah, so too does Yitro add to the Torah. 

Yitro & Moshe (Wikimedia Commons)

Rav Hutner’s teachings are inspiring. He suggests the idea that converts can, and perhaps should, expand the potential and actualization of the Torah. While those raised within the Jewish community have much to offer based upon their potential literacy and fluency of the Jewish experience, those coming into Jewish life from the outside have the unique potential to expand Torah in innovative ways. Yesterday, as it were, one did not leave Egypt as a slave. But today, upon converting, one is transformed to the point where they left Egypt, were chased by Amalek, and stood at Sinai. They become fully Jewish while also bringing the positive gifts from their old culture and modes of thought. The Jewish people, always so limited in number, must be open to receiving these contributions.

The path of the Jewish convert is strenuous. The processes that have been established over centuries have acted as both protection and entry way to a life of keeping the commandments and devoted to Torah learning. But how are we doing, as a collective Jewish community, in taking care of our brothers and sisters who seek to become part of the ways of the Torah and mitzvot and intertwine themselves with our fate and destiny?

Based upon the stymying attitude emerging from the office of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, however, one would think that the Torah’s attitude towards converts would be something along the lines of: “Exercise extreme caution with those who want to convert” or “Act with spite toward all those who want to join the Jewish People.” After all, when rabbis create arbitrary lists to invalidate certain rabbis performing conversions, all the while making the standards of what makes a Jewish convert “legitimate” more stringent and opaque, they bring needless suffering and unwarranted shame to those who have dedicated months, sometimes even years, to accepting the covenants of Judaism. How can a Person of Color, for example, trust their conversion is accepted by the Chief Rabbinate when the Chief Rabbi, Yitzchak Yosef, just referred to black people as “monkeys.”

Sadly, shame might be the standard feeling based on the events of the current moment; what other conclusion might one come to?  One might think the guiding text for the obstinacy found among  members of the Chief Rabbinate is the unusual one that states: “Proselytes are hurtful to Israel as a sore on the skin” (BT Yevamot 109b). One without the knowledge might be surprised to learn that the Torah time and time again vigorously commands us to love and protect converts. As one example, Maimonides taught:

Loving a convert who has come to rest under the wings of the Almighty [fulfills] two positive commandments: one for the convert who is [also] included among the “fellows” [whom we are commanded to love] and one because they are a convert, and the Torah states: “and you shall love the convert.” God has commanded us concerning the love of a convert just as God commanded us concerning loving God, as it states: “And you shall love God, your Lord.” God loves converts as the Torah notes “and God loves converts” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot 6, 4).

Admittedly, there will always be particular individuals in the Jewish world who are angry or jealous that “outsiders” who enter the Jewish people are actually to be given more honor and protection; overcoming these negative emotions is their spiritual work. Consider how the midrash explains this phenomenon:

A king has many flocks of sheep, and one day a stag appears and joins the sheep. The stag grazes with the sheep and returns with them at night, as if he were a sheep. When the shepherds tell the king of the stag, the king takes great pride and interest in it and ensures that the shepherds treat the stag with special care. The shepherds question the king, asking “you have thousands of animals over which you take no personal interest, so why do you care so much about one animal?” The king answers them, “My sheep have only one flock to join, and cannot leave, but this stag has the whole world to choose from, yet he chose my flock. He surely deserves my special attention and cares” (Bamidbar Rabbah 8:2).

Elsewhere in Jewish thought, we find sources that demonstrate that there is a moral imperative to love and protect converts. This is partially due to the fact that they are far more exposed and susceptible to exploitation. But, concomitantly, this can also be due to the fact that converts can be viewed as courageous, spiritual journeyers who have overcome great obstacles. It is said that Yitro later became drawn to the miracles of Torah and the God of the Israelites. Indeed, expanding on this point, there is an illuminating point in the Talmud that God seeks out individuals with unique spiritual attributes to join the Jewish people (BT Gittin 56a). Through this lens, every convert is specially chosen by the Divine to actualize their potential at a point in life.

And to be sure, the medieval commentators known as the Tosafists explain the burden put upon those born Jewish and offer solutions. Firstly, they suggest we must do all we can to be accepting of converts and prevent any suffering and secondly that since converts tend to be particularly careful in their observance, those born Jewish may feel implicated when they do not reach the same level (BT Yevamot 47b; BT Kiddushin 70b-71a). And, to be sure, the great sage Saadia Gaon, teaches that this mitzvah does not begin once one has converted to Judaism, but actually at the moment the conversion journey commences.[2] Even before one begins the delicate process, support has to be present and gentle. We don’t distress those in the process only to embrace them once they’ve rigorously jumped through all hoops. Rather the Torah directives for love and justice begin at the beginning.

The Sefer HaChinuch reminds us that the mitzvah is not merely to love the convert, but also to prevent gratuitous psychological anguish:

We are commanded to love the convert: In particular, we are directed not to cause converts to suffer in any way, but rather to do them good and act as charitably as they deserve. The converts are all those who have joined us from other nations and abandoned their religion and joined outs. About this group, the Torah [Devarim 10:19] says, “Love the stranger [convert] since you were strangers (Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 431).

Being the leaders of a new and compassionate frontline that welcomes converts and greets them with open arms, rather than suspicion, has to be the path forward for a healthy, engaged Judaism; it is a spiritual call to arms. Converts should never be used as pawns in intra-Jewish battles of influence over policy or religiosity. The transformative moments of spiritual import for converts are too important for this pettiness. Ensuring that all those who seek the beauty of mitzvot become full-fledged members of the community with love and care is a holy task we can accomplish.

But how are we doing on this as a Jewish community today? There is undoubtedly much room where we can improve on both the individual, communal and national levels. But even more so, the monopoly of who is and who can be a Jew must be taken away from those who so narrowly construe the definition of who is a Jew. While the Chief Rabbinate stumbles to consolidate its bureaucratic power, peoples’ dignity (and lives) are at stake. We should follow the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, who added a brilliant and compassionate insight when he suggested that Yitro’s joining the Jewish people expanded the Torah. In our day as well, the Jewish people—and the Torah itself—only gain more glory and awareness of the Divine Spirit by receiving yearning souls into the community.

[1] The line from Proverbs reads: “Beat a scorner, and a simple man will gain cunning; reprove a man of understanding, and he will understand knowledge.”

[2] See the Ri Barcelona quoted in the Sefer HaMitzvot of Saadia Gaon in Rabbi Yerucham Perlow’s commentary on Mitzvah 19).

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institutethe Founder and President of YATOM, and the author of thirteen books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.