A Convert’s Status: He has embraced the Torah of his own free will and derives special merit
June 21, 1973
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
If I had to give this essay a title I would call it “Double Dealing With A Convert.” Talmudic literature on the subject is very impressive and is based on a difficult verse in the book of Numbers. However, the important political and ethical insights to be derived from that literature must needs to inspire anyone familiar with it. (Numbers 5:8).
The verse in the book of Numbers speaks of an individual who has no heirs. According to Jewish law, it is impossible for a person who belonged to any one of the twelve tribes of Israel to die without heirs. If need be, one can trace heirs back to our patriarch Abraham. Of necessity, therefore, every Jew must be related to some other Jew in existence and thus has heirs.
Unlike our American law, the right of inheritance is not cut off at nieces and nephews. The right of inheritance belongs to any relative no matter how distant the relationship. Consequently, the only Jew who can possibly die without a relative is an individual who was converted to the Jewish faith and died before he had a chance to have children. What happens to the property of such an individual?
According to American law, the property of a person who dies without heirs belongs to the state. However, Jewish law did not want to aggrandize the power of the state and therefore regarded such property as ownerless. Anyone who saw it, could take it. It was truly a “free-for-all.”
This rule in and of itself is important to bear in mind because it reveals how reluctant our tradition was to give sovereigns an inordinate interest in person s possessions. The judicial system of the state would certainly be much fairer in the distribution of an estate if the state itself could never profit by the distribution. This is a political and legal insight worthy of attention.
However, the Bible has much more to say about this. What would happen if an individual borrowed money from a convert and had falsely sworn that he did not owe the money; or was in possession of the property of a convert and had falsely taken an oath that he did not have it; or stole from the convert and again perjured himself by denying the theft?
In all of these instances the individual who offended against the convert has compounded his sin by taking a false oath. Yet when he wants to atone for his sin what does he do if the convert is no longer alive? The convert may have no heirs. To whom can atonement be made? To whom can the stolen property or the unpaid debt be paid?
The language which the Bible uses is quite clear. It must be given to God. (Ibid.) It is due God. God takes the place of the convert. Yet since God does not reach out His hand to take it, it is given instead to the priests, and one must also bring a sin offering to the Temple. Indeed our sages even pondered what would be the rule if the offender was himself a priest. Sometimes priests themselves were guilty of double dealing. Under such circumstances the priest would still have to return what he had unlawfully retained but he would return it to other priests while he himself could have no share in it.
What impressed me about this rule is that we have here one of hundreds of instances in the Talmud which indicate the extent to which Jews were expected to be considerate of, and compassionate toward, converts who embraced the Jewish faith. If need be, God Himself acts as their surrogate. Certainly they are not to be disadvantaged.
We are told many times in the Bible to love the convert. Indeed there is a charming text in the Midrash to the effect that in one verse in the Book of Deuteronomy God mentions the Levites and the converts almost in the same breath. Moses, to whom the verse was given, challenged God and asked God how He placed the sacred Levites and converts in the same category.
To this query of Moses, God is said to have made a charming reply. He said unto Moses that Moses ought to think of the shepherd who takes care of his flock from the time they are born until the time they are slaughtered or die. He gives them so much attention when they are young and raises them until they can fend for themselves. And then a deer comes along, full grown, and joins the flock. In the final analysis, the shepherd will love that deer for having spared the shepherd so much effort. So it is with human beings.
For us Jews God had to do so much until He made of us a people and gave us His Torah. However, when other people come along and embrace our Torah, of their own free will and accord, it is like the deer joining the flock of the shepherd and becoming a part of the chosen people without any special effort on the part of God.
Very often in the Talmud Jews are cautioned never to utter a word that would embarrass the convert and remind him of his pagan forebears. (Bava Metzia 58b) There is a special command not to oppress or disadvantage the convert. (Exodus 23:9) We must be especially cautious with regard to everything we say to, or do with, the convert, that the convert shall appreciate that even though he has misgivings as to whether he truly belongs to the Jewish people, he must be reassured and made to feel that he is very much a part of us. This is the Jewish ethic. We are always concerned about those who may feel that they have second-class status and we must act with special consideration for them.
The Talmud also tells us that one can always judge a man by three things: how he handles his purse, his liquor, and his temper. (Eiruvin 65b) I think the more important hallmark of a human being is how at acts toward those who are in a status lower than his. This ethical point Judaism always sought to stress. God is always on the side of the pursued even if the pursued is a villain and the pursuer is a righteous man. (Some of those extremists in the Orthodox camp who continue to vilify Chief Rabbi Goren and me and others ought to remember this.)
In any event this ethic is too often forgotten not only by Jews but especially by the nations of the earth. It amazes one that the nations of the earth cannot abandon their hostility toward Israel and treat her among the family of nations with the most elementary forms of justice. We had an instance only these last few weeks of what ought to really be regarded as bizarre.
An official organization of nations appoints a committee to investigate the airplane crash over Sinai in which many innocent people lost their lives. The report of the investigators is so overwhelmingly in favor of Israel that one of the leading newspapers in Europe predicted that as a result of that report the nations that were formerly critical of Israel would apologize. However, despite the report of their own investigators and all the evidence that favored Israel, the nations voted unanimously to condemn Israel! It was as if a jury had come to the conclusion that the accused was innocent and the judge didn’t care about the evidence and condemned and sentenced the accused! In any event, there is no regard among the nations for those with second class status!
Alas, Israel is still the pursued. God must be on her side if she is able to survive at all.