parshat beha’alotcha, numbers 9
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on June 16th 2022. The Torah breaches the subject of a Ger (Convert alt. resident alien) celebrating the Exodus from Egypt. Jews-by-birth praise God who took “us” out of Egypt and we wonder along with Nachmanides and Maimonides whether a convert can or should consider him/herself a part of past Jewish historical experience as well as part of the Jewish People. In the process, we discover an ambivalence Judaism has to converts and we explore this ambivalence through history and up to the present.
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite podcast platform. The Torah breaches the subject of a convert celebrating the Exodus from Egypt. Jews by-birth praise God who took “us” out of Egypt but what about those whose ancestors did not share this historic experience? Tonight, we explore an ambivalence that Judaism has to converts and we explore this ambivalence throughout history and up to the present. Join us as we explore: Joining the Tribe.
Well, welcome. Welcome to Madlik. And if you are listening to this as a podcast, please, if you like it, give us a few stars, say something nice about it, and share it with your friends. So, the rabbi; Rabbi Adam Mintz who is with us tonight spoke at the JCC of Manhattan on Shavuot about conversion. And every other week in pre party, he he’ll say, I went to Italy like he went last week or he went here or there to officiate at a wedding. And I think he once dropped the fact that he’s converted 200 people maybe in the last year. So I dedicated myself to finding a parsha, where we could use this as an opportunity to get a little bit more of an insight into Rabbi Adam Mintz’s approach to conversion. So here we are, it’s in numbers, Beha’alotcha is the name of the Parsha. And it starts by talking about how the Israelites all had to come forward and lay their hands on the Levites we get the word smicha from this, and they basically transfer the concept of being a first-born from themselves unto the Levites. I have taken them for myself, in place of all the first issue of the womb for all the male first born of Israelites. And then it goes into keeping the Passover something that it does a lot similar to what it does about the Shabbat It’s a favorite subject. But in numbers 9: 14 It says out of the blue, as it’s discussing how you now have to keep the Passover. And when a stranger who resides with you would offer a Passover sacrifice to God, it must be offered in accordance with the rules and rights of the Passover sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or a citizen of the country חֻקָּ֤ה אַחַת֙. So, all the rabbis are wondering, scratching their heads. Why would one think that a convert would carry or observe the Passover in a way different from the rest of the Jews? He joins the tribe. He keeps all of the laws whether Shabbat kashrut, in the same manner as the Jews. So, Rashi says well, you might think that Passover is so important that if you convert on a Wednesday in June, you should do a Seder immediately. And therefore, this comes to tell us that no, the Convert waits to observe their first Passover when it happens in Nissan. But Ramban Nachmanides, a commentator that we’ve come across many times before, says something even more insightful, I believe, and serves as a great segue to today’s conversation. He says when we celebrate the Passover, we might think that strangers who joined us in going out from Egypt, this mixed multitude should keep the Passover, because they were also included in the miracle of the Exodus. But those who converted afterwards in the desert or in the land of Israel, we might have thought do not have to bring the Passover offering since neither they nor their ancestors were included among those who it is said he brought us out of the land of Egypt, and therefore according to Nachmanides, we need this verse to tell us that even if in your Cultural Historical Heritage, your ancestors did not literally come out of Egypt. Even if you are a convert, you should keep the Passover sacrifice, the Seder the observance in an identical fashion as the Jews, but what Nachmanides is raising and Rabbi, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this, is that there is this tension there is this dynamic there is this way of looking at a convert and saying maybe you don’t get it. Maybe you are not full in How can you say words like that God has commanded us at Sinai, when you and your predecessors were not at Sinai. How can you say all these wonders were done for us? So I do really think that Ramban raises this question of how does Judaism deal with and consider the convert? Am I right?
Adam Mintz 05:52
You are right. And it’s interesting that you talk about the ערב רב the mixed multitude. I want to tell you in the Chumash it’s not clear who the mixed multitude is. It just says that the mix multitude came out with the Jews from Egypt. And it seems to be that they were involved in the sin of the golden calf. Now, Rambam, Maimonides, in his laws of conversion, says the following. He goes through how someone converts, a woman goes to the mikvah, a man needs circumcision, and then goes to the mikvah. And he goes through all of that. And then his last law in that chapter, says the following. קשין גרים לישראל כספחת. Now ספחת that’s a great word. It’s a word that we’ve had before. One of the types of tzarat, of leprosy. They have different names for the different types of skin issues. One of those issues is what called a ספחת. And so basically converts are as bad for the Jews as leprosy, which we know is the worst, right? I mean, that’s kind of the thing you want to stay the furthest away from is lepers. And the Rambam explains, because the converts are going to cause you to sin, as we see from the ערב רב the mixed multitude, who caused the Jews to sin at the golden calf. So Rambam is clear that they’re bad. Now, there were other explanations, I’ll just tell you quickly, about what it means it’s a quote from the Talmud, קשין גרים לישראל כספחת that converts are as bad as leprosy. Another explanation is that converts are as bad as leprosy, because converts, will keep the law more strictly than Jews from birth, since they’ll keep the law more strictly than Jews from birth. It’s embarrassing, they embarrassed the Jews. And that’s why you shouldn’t have converts. Now, two explanations are exactly the opposite. Right? One is that they’re bad because they cause you to sin. The other explanation is, they’re bad because they make you look bad, completely different. Isn’t that fascinating?
Geoffrey Stern 08:28
It is fascinating. And it literally hits the nail on the head, in terms of this ambiguity. In terms of, clearly, if someone joins the fold, if you have a movement, and someone joins in, from a certain perspective, they are not natural, they have to work at it. They’re bringing in foreign elements, and so forth and so on. But on the other hand, you are there because you had no choice you are there, because you were born into it. And this person is a Jew by choice, which is a wonderful word for converts. But what it means to amplify is that they chose God. They chose Judaism, they chose this way. So, I think that just as we find in the commentators on this verse, this sense of; is it because they were in there? It identifies exactly the issue that I believe you spoke about Shavuot night, which we have this kind of dialectic and ambiguity between looking at the Convert as something that is, it shows that God’s word is growing, that the movement is growing, that one day the whole world will recognize God on the one hand, and on the other hand something that is a dilution, and how does that work out through history.
Adam Mintz 10:06
So, basically, throughout history, meaning from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple until the year 1800 people were not allowed to convert to Judaism. Christians weren’t allowed to convert to Judaism and Muslims weren’t allowed to convert to Judaism by their law. So, it never happened. And that’s what I wanted to say. That’s an important thing. And that is when Maimonides; when Rambam talks about this, you have to remember that Maimonides, is not talking practically about converts to Judaism. He never met a convert to Judaism. I know that, because in Cairo it was punishable by death to convert to Judaism.
Geoffrey Stern 11:04
But on the other hand, you know, when I read that Nachmanides that I quoted the second ago. It had no problem with a non-Jew, who was part of the Exodus, who went out with the Jews, because clearly that non-Jew experienced everything that the Jews experienced. But the question that Nachmanides raised was, well, what happens if you convert it in later generations? And as you know, one of the most famous letters that my monitors ever wrote was to Ovadia the Righteous Convert. So, what you’re saying is, he might never have met a convert, but he certainly was in discourse with
Adam Mintz 11:50
Yes, that’s correct. We don’t know exactly what overcharges background is. But that’s right. So that’s interesting. That’s a very good point means he was familiar with the idea now, how it could be that Ovadiah converted to Judaism. That’s something that I don’t think we have an answer to. If it was prohibited in Muslim countries to convert to Judaism, how could he have converted to Judaism?
Geoffrey Stern 12:15
That’s an interesting question. Interesting question. You know, as long as we’re talking about that letter, you know, you have to say that the letter is addressed to this Ovadiah, who Maimonides called HaMaskil HaMeivin, Ger Tzedek, that he was an enlightened convert in all of the accolades that you could possibly give. And Ovadia asks the same question, addresses the same question as knock manatees, and says, Can I both in public and in private? Talk about the God of my father’s? Can I talk about the God who commanded me assuming it was at Sinai? And ultimately, to our point, can I talk about the God who took us out of the land of Egypt? And Maimonides gives an answer to all of the above questions, saying, yes, you can say that was commanded to you. You’re a child of Abraham. And then he gets to the question of our pasuk, of our verse. And there, he says, that when it comes to leaving Egypt, he says, as to the words, who brought us forth from the land of Egypt, or who performed miracles for our ancestors, these you may change, if you wish, and say, You who bought Israel from the land of Egypt, you who perform miracles for Israel, If however, you do not change them, no harm has been done. So literally, Maimonides goes on the fence in this one. And there’s overwhelming sensitivity for Ovadia, who he clearly respects but again, he straddles the question of what is the place of a convert in Judaism, and of course, you bring up Islam, and you bring up Christianity. In those religions, at least in Christianity, I’m pretty confident you don’t get born into it. The only way of access is by being baptized, and in a sense, opting in. So, conversion is what every member of the movement is ultimately going through. Judaism has this unique concept of both. It’s a race, but clearly from the texts that we’re looking at. It’s a shared historical destiny. And the question is, if you haven’t, or your ancestors have not been involved in that historic destiny, can you, should you, will you?
Adam Mintz 15:01
So that also is a fascinating question. So Rambam seems to say that your ancestors were not part of that tradition, but you’re allowed to accept that tradition. There was another great medieval scholar in Muslim Spain. His name was Robert Yehuda Halevi. He wrote the Kuzari that Kuzari says that actually every convert to Judaism, their soul was at Mount Sinai. Meaning that it’s not that you’re allowed to do it even though your parents weren’t part of the tradition, you could accept the tradition. No, you are part of the tradition, it just took a while for you to recognize that.
Geoffrey Stern 15:47
It’s kind of like finding this hidden connection.
Adam Mintz 15:50
It’s very interesting. Now, people have been critical, because it’s a little racist, seeming to say that, you know, Jews are somehow better than everybody else. But anyway, leave that aside. It’s an interesting dispute between Rambam and the Kuzari. Well, I take it in a different way, when you said it, it reminded me of the similar tradition, that when you meet your Basher’t; your spouse, that ultimately you had been already connected before you were born, and you are meeting so to speak, combining those two halves. And I believe there’s even a dating site called saw you at Sinai. https://www.sawyouatsinai.com/ So when you said that, I didn’t think of it as racist, I just thought of it as finding your shared destiny, that if somehow Judaism resonates with you, the history of this people resonates with you, and you, for whatever reason, come and join the tribe, you’re re-joining the tribe. And I think that’s, that’s something beautiful, that we provide that sort of aspect. And I think what I was saying before, when you join Christianity, you’re born again, everybody becomes born again, what Judaism seems to be at least on the side of those who are saying that you can say, the God of my father, and my mother, and you can say that we were in Egypt, what it is permitting you to do, is to join a history to join a heritage to join a tradition that maybe was not yours in terms of a DNA, but is yours by choice. And I think that’s kind of a beautiful concept. That is really a beautiful concept. I don’t think the Kuzari disagrees with that, the Kuzari just wants to understand mechanically how it works, or religiously how it works.
Geoffrey Stern 17:52
I mean, if you think of us as Americans, you know, we all look back to the revolution, we all look back to Washington chopping down the cherry tree. That’s our shared Midrash. That’s our shared heritage. And so I think it’s almost natural to say that yes, and, you know, this is a long term theme, I think, of Madlik, which is that we can choose our history that we that that Judaism and the Exodus what it proved was that entitlement was wrong, where you are who you are, because of your blue blood, and choseness was in and were choseness is you can pick your heritage, and you can pick your future. And I think ultimately, that’s part of the concept of conversion within Judaism, which given our background as a tribe becomes kind of unique.
Adam Mintz 18:55
I think that’s really beautiful. I think that’s interesting. It’s important to say that all of these views we’ve talked about now, in the first half of the class, are all medieval views, where basically there weren’t converts. That’s interesting about Ovadia the Convert, but basically, there weren’t many converts. Radically, around the year 1800 that all changed. Around the year 1800. Jews were granted citizenship in Germany, and then in the rest of Western Europe. That meant that for the first time in history, Jews could go to university, Jews could be lawyers, Jews could be doctors, Jews could live in non-Jewish neighborhood. And you know, the first time something is opened up to you, you literally embrace it, you gobble it up. And the Jews gobbled it up, including the fact that for the first time they could integrate with the Germans. They could be in the same community. And the intermarriage rate in Berlin in 1840 was something like 50% from zero to 50. Now we talk about the intermarriage rate. But then it was literally from zero to 50. Because before 1800, Christians were not allowed to marry Jews. And all of a sudden, the Jews are marrying Christians. And there was a whole complicated situation where what you had was a Jewish man, marrying a non-Jewish woman. And they actually didn’t convert, and they had children. And the father, it’s interesting, he didn’t care about marrying a non-Jewish woman. And some of these men wanted their boys circumcised, and to have their boys have a bar mitzvah means like, I’ll be married to you, the kids are not technically Jewish. But can they be circumcised? Can they have a bar mitzvah? And this was a huge debate. So, I’ll tell you that there a rabbi who lived in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was the rabbi, an orthodox rabbi, who lived in New Orleans. And this rabbi, he had the following question. There was a mohel in New Orleans, who was willing to circumcise sons of Jewish men and non-Jewish women, even though they weren’t Jewish. He said, Let’s circumcise them when they’re babies. And hopefully, when they grow up, they’ll convert to Judaism. But if we don’t circumcise them, as adults, there’s no way that they will circumcise themselves. So this is like the first step towards the process of conversion, even though we have no reason to assume that they’re gonna convert. The rabbi in New Orleans, was very upset about this. He was upset. He thought this was totally wrong. The kids aren’t Jewish, in a sense, you’re legitimizing the fact that this Jewish man married a non-Jewish woman, Jewish men will marry non Jewish women all the time. If they’re promised that they can have their son circumcised. So he wrote to the rabbis in Europe, because in those days, New Orleans, America was not much in 1840. He wrote to the rabbis in Europe and Germany, asked them what they thought about this. Most of the rabbis in Europe agreed with him, saying, you’re right, you should not circumcise the son. But there was one rabbi, his name was Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer. Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer was kind of interesting, because he was the first religious Zionist. Long before there’s a state of Israel. He was an outspoken, religious, Zionist, and in Germany, they thought that was dual loyalty, they were very much committed Germany. So people weren’t really Zionist. But he was a religious Zionist. And he wrote that No, I believe that we should circumcise these babies. Because again, he agreed with the mohel, that that was the first step towards conversion. And I think that Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer is a very interesting statement, about an attitude towards intermarriage and towards conversion. He believed that we need to be more inclusive, because for the sake of Judaism, you need to be more inclusive, meaning he didn’t say it, that you should circumcise the baby, because that’s the right thing to do. No, he was very practical, he said, This is gonna be good for Judaism, if we circumcised the baby, he added, took a very practical view to circumcision, and for the possibility of conversion. Now, that sounds very different than Rambam, who talks about the fact that that converts are like leprosy keep converts away. This Rabbi Kalischer is saying, No, don’t keep converts away. Let’s help him convert by allowing him to be to be circumcised.
Geoffrey Stern 24:26
So I find that so fascinating, but you know, I contacted you discovered you were in Italy, and said we’re going to talk about this and what should I add to this source sheet? And you said go ahead and look at Mishneh Torah, Forbidden intercourse 13 and 14 and I did and what I was blown away by, besides that throwaway comment that converts are like leprosy, it is so amazing to look at the original sources in this case, Maimonides, and see what he says about what is necessary for conversion? One of the things that really struck me, how do we deal with someone who says they’re Jewish? How do we how do we deal with someone who says they converted? And if you read the text of my Maimonides, it’s pretty amazing that we assume he’s telling the truth. And then when it comes to getting married, okay, so then we want some proof. But if he has children, and later on, he goes, you know, really, I didn’t have witnesses. So, you might say, he’s no longer Jewish, but his kids remain Jewish. The amount of flexibility there is, the amount of forward thinking there is, the amount of what you were just describing as within the law, the ability to look at conversion, the way every other religion does, which is, it’s wonderful when somebody chooses to be part of your club. It’s wonderful when somebody chooses to obey your commandments. And I think that’s kind of what comes across in those chapters, which are in the source notes, from my Maimonides that you are assigned me, so to speak, Rabbi and the other thing that comes, of course, is that these things are socially subjective. So, there was some rules that apply in Israel, and some rules that apply outside of Israel. In Israel, if a convert says I’m Jewish, you believe him, because most people are Jewish. I don’t want to get into the reeds of the particular sociology that is being addressed. But what I do want to say is, it is socially contingent, that it depends on the age, as you were saying, it depends on the circumstance. And we don’t have a long show. It’s only half an hour. I want to use that as a segue for you, Rabbi to talk about, how do you take this ruling of the rabbi in New Orleans? How do you take that into your own Rabbinate? And how are you dealing with these couples that are coming to you?
Adam Mintz 27:17
So that’s a good question. You know, we live in a different time. In those days, a Jewish man married a non-Jewish woman, it wasn’t just that the non-Jewish woman didn’t want to convert to Judaism. The Jewish husband didn’t care whether the non-Jewish woman converted to Judaism or not, he didn’t care, because they were being accepted in the non-Jewish world. And he was happy to marry a non-Jewish woman. Today, there are many secular couples like that. But what we’re finding is that there are many people who are exploring conversion. And that’s an interesting thing, that people are willing to convert. So if somebody came to me at a case like that, and they said, you know, can I circumcise my son, my wife is not willing to convert, and we do sometimes have cases like that. So, I’m very much aware of Rabbi Kalischer. And obviously, that’s what I would say, but I would broach the topic that maybe the mother would be willing to convert also. And I would discuss what that would mean to convert. You know, there’s an important thing about conversion. For a man conversion involves circumcision. But for a woman, it’s just going to the mikveh. The question is, what kind of commitment to Judaism do you need before you can go to the mikvah? That’s also an interesting question. Maimonides says, You have to accept the idea of mitzvot. Not that you have observe every Mitzvah, but you need to accept the idea of mitzvah. And the question is, and this is also an important question for today. How strict are we about that? I don’t think we’re so strict about that. I don’t think we should give away conversion, you know, we always say, don’t give away anything for free. If it doesn’t hurt a little bit, then you’re not going to value it. So, I don’t think we should give away conversion. I don’t think we should have a day in the mikveh whoever wants to come and dunk in the mikvah can dunk? I think there has to be a steady process. I think there has to be an understanding and a commitment to Judaism, as a whole, but I think, you know, the, the old-fashioned idea that if you know, if you don’t accept all the mitzvot and you don’t practice, you’re not observant, that you can’t convert. I think that that’s not what’s best for Judaism, and what just generally best for the community right now. Well, you know, I applaud that. I’ve been approached by family members who have a friend and they’ll say they’re getting converted and they go into conversion classes. Maybe it was Reform, maybe it was Conservative. And the rabbi said to them, so what is tough for you? And they go, well, you know, I love all of the mitzvot, and I’m going to have a kosher home and all that, but I kind of like a Christmas tree because it’s a national holiday. And the rabbi says, I think you need to find another class. And I thought to myself, you know, it, I think it takes a certain level of self-confidence for a rabbi to be able to look at Maimonides which I did this week. And you’re absolutely correct. He doesn’t say you have to accept it all. He goes, you know, some of the rules are tough, and if they don’t go away, then you go, okay. It’s so accepting. And I started the parsha today, by bringing this into context of the people of Israel, laying their hands upon the Levites. And saying, You guys are now the firstborn. And we know the Levites are not the firstborn, those of us who believe in birth order, there’s a whole dynamic to being a firstborn. But somehow by putting one’s hands on the Levites, they made the Levites take on a roll that was not theirs. And I think reading it afresh this week, that that was almost an intro to this ger (convert) who, in fact, we are making it possible to lay the hands upon tradition, to lay the hands upon our destiny, and to join, and I think it’s a beautiful thing. And I think it’s an amazing thing that you’re doing because I think at the end of the day, in the day and age that we live in people joining our group, people, loving our Judaism and our history as much as we do, is only, is only a positive thing. I would agree with you and I think it’s a great topic. Thank you for raising this topic. It was a great conversation, and I love the fact that you found it in this week’s parsha I want to wish everybody Shabbat Shalom, enjoy the parsha, and we look forward to seeing you next Thursday. Enjoy the parsha, Shabbat Shalom.
Geoffrey Stern 32:08
Shabbat Shalom and Rabbi Keep up the good work.
Adam Mintz 32:11
Thank you so much be well.
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/414358
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