Leviticus 21 -24
Converts: Equals, or does our tradition give special treatment?
Sometimes the Torah gives us a simple commandment, and then other times it gives us the Law by telling us a story. This week we are going to look at one of these situations where the Torah lays out statutes but with a deep story surrounding it to shed light on the motivation of this form of law. Since the beginning the Torah has been presenting us with unusual case-law that we must consider; it is not just apparent in Rabbinic literature. Here in this parsha is one of the great windows into this tendency demonstrated in the Chumash (the Five Books of Moses) itself. It calls us to not just look in generalities, but look deeply into the issues of each person. To try to be concise I don’t want to give us too much lead info, we should just jump right into the text, as the points we should be exploring become apparent along the way:
| Vayetze ben
| ishah Isre’elit
| vehu ben-ish Mitzri
| betoch benei Yisra’el
| vayinatzu bamachaneh
| ben ha’Isre’elit
| ve’ish ha’Isre’eli.
“And there came out a son
of an Israelite woman
and who was a son of an Egyptian man
in the midst of the Children of Israel
and they quarreled together,
the son of the Israelite [woman]
and the Israelite man.”
As we start this section of our parsha we are told that a man went out into the camp of Israel, but we don’t know why. We are also told that he quarreled with an Israelite man, and it doesn’t specifically tell us who or for what reason. But it does seem to tell us a lot about the person that is going to be at the center of this story, though he is not mentioned by name. This man is a son of an Israelite woman, but also the son of an Egyptian man. From what we see presented to us by the text, he is a half-breed; it sounds harsh to say so, but this is what is explicitly being laid out for us here. More precisely, this is the mentality of the age in which he lived.
The only reason it might not be apparent to us to read it this way is because at this current point in history Jewish descent is assigned by maternal lineage. If you mother is Jewish, you are Jewish. Your either Jewish, or your not.
We know that the seeds of this mindset goes back all the way to the days of the prophet Ezra and the foundations of the Knesset haGedolah – or the Sanheidren – when the pious men of Israel were told to not keep foreign wives, but to send them and children born from them away. (see Ezra 10:10-11) Of course, that is if they did not convert; this is always the case, in our religion just like the other great religions. Relations with ordinarily forbidden foreigners was always biblically permitted after a conversion, sealed by a sacrament of marriage, this is the case with Ruth and with the soldier who takes a wife in field of battle, (see Parshat Ki-Teitzeh) etc. This is true in all cases except for the Levitical priests, who are required to keep a higher level of purity and discretion in marriage. (see Leviticus 21:13-15)
In the days of Ezra during the restoration of Jerusalem and the building of the Second Temple (5th century BCE), out of 30,000 people returning from exile about a little over a 100 men are listed as intermarried; about ¼ of these were priests and Levites, they are called out. The reason should be apparent. They are tasked with rebuilding their Jewish society from the ground up. This list seems to be a truncated record, containing men in authority and of reputation. Again we look and see parallels to the story of Ruth; upon returning to the homeland of Israel the foreign wives that were dedicated stayed for the long-haul, those would weren’t on board were to return to their kin and the leisurely society they came from. But dedication to and identification with the cause of Israel had to be at the forefront of one’s identity and purpose in order to remain. The mother being the primary person to raise and influence the child would naturally impart her ways and sentiments to her children, and needed to be of the Jewish mindset and values in order to propagate that in their society. Judaism was defined by someone’s professed and active practice.
This issue came to a head during the Roman occupation, when women were often raped and paternity became difficult to be certain of; the mother once again would be looked to as central source of imparting Jewish identity. However, this time in a more literal way. Whereas it was difficult to be certain of paternity, maternity was almost always known. Jewish identity thus became firmly understood as passing maternally. Ones Judaism is defines by who one is born from. And so is the law from the 2nd century CE to this very day.
The Ramban, the Sephardic scholar and celebrated biblical commentator, in his mystical style would express this vein of thought in this way:
“[An Isrelite woman]
is a Mikveh of purity for the nations
preparing them to be just like her.”
[אשה הישראלית היא] |
…מקוה טהרה לאומות |
להכשיר את ולדה להיות כמוה|
Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi, Bonastruc ça (de) Porta (Barcelona), 13th Century
A Israelite women is like a ritual bath – a mikveh, a purifying fountain, cleansing the nations and through her making them pure. But we can also read it another way, that she is a source of hope (קוה), that from her springs forth hope (מקוה). In the days of Ezra she was the fountain of hope that offers the water of life, which is Torah (Bava Kama 82a), to those in her care and thus raising them up in her likeness. But by the time of the second Roman occupation and in the shadows of the destruction of the second Temple, in the disrepair of religion as a whole the Rabbinic sages had to take this very literal; the waters of her womb becomes a pool of purification, the most some could pass of their Jewish likeness was their physical traits so that came to suffice for legal purposes. We have taken a long detour, going through material that most of us know very well. But it is important to keep this in mind the distinction and the evolution of this concept of Hebrew identification in order for us to ask the questions that we need to about this story.
Let us step back to the story for a moment, not ignoring the traditional interpretation of rabbis such as the Ramban. But we need to look at the situation in the context of that age and stage of development we are making mention of. According to law prescribed by the Torah, one is not a legitimate Hebrew if his father is not a Hebrew. Notice that the man is a son of a Israelite woman, whose father is an Egyptian man. His otherness is not just displayed by us ignoring current halachic development and assumption. Notice the way the text of our parsha speaks about the man’s adversary as “ish ha-Israeli / the Israelite man;” whereas he is just designated the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man. If he was reckoned as an Israelite, the text could have called him an Israelite man as well but it does not.
| ben ha’ishah ha’Isre’elit
| et-hashem vayekalel
| vayavi’u oto el-Moshe
| veshem imo
| Shlomit bat-Divri
“And [He] blasphemed,
the son of the Israelite woman,
cursing [the Name of] Hashem (יהוה).
And they brought him to Moses.
The name of his mother was
Shlomit daughter of Divri
of the Tribe of Dan.”
Our text continues with the Israelite and the son of the Israelite woman arguing in the camp. And in the midst of this quarreling this son of the Egyptian man blasphemes, and then pronounces the Name Havayah – the ineffable, Four-Letter Name of G-d, Hashem. In response the people bring him to Moses to be tried for his crime.
Again we aren’t explicitly told why he was striving with a man within the camp. We also need to remember that we are not even sure why he is in the midst of the camp at all. What we do know is that his mother is of the Tribe of Dan.
As we have studies many times before, the authority of adjudicating law was given to each tribe. Each tribe dwelt together, each family and clan together among their own. When someone did wrong, it fell upon the elders of that tribe to sentence judgment. But in issues that were outside of themselves, or too hard for them to handle, they brought them to Moses to hear and give sentence. (see Parshat Yitro) This man’s case was not just brought to Moses because his crime was one of capital punishment, they had authority and the sole duty to act in such cases which lay within jurisdiction of their tribe. (see Parshat Pinchas)
And herein lays the problem. It appears this son of the Egyptian man begins to cause trouble within the camp, as he is no longer dwelling with his mother’s clan and in her tent. As soon as he becomes troublesome he is disavowed, and he is brought before Moses for his sentence to be handed down. Is it because he is being disavowed as a Hebrew? No, not necessarily. But he is not considered a member of the Tribe of Dan, which his mother was a member of. To understand we turn to the Sifra, the rabbinic account of Leviticus:
“There came out a son
of an Israelite woman –
from where did he come out?
From Moses’ court,
for he had sought to pitch his tent
in the camp of Dan.
He said to them,
I am [the son] of the Tribe of Dan.
They said to him:
“Each man shall pitch under his banner,
according to his father’s household
granted among the children of Israel.”
So court was held
and it rendered the judgment of Moses,
and he came out
having been found against.
And he stood there and cursed.
Among the Israelites –
which teaches us
that he had converted.”
“ויצא בן אשה |
ישראלית” – |
מנין יצא? |
מבית דינו של משה, |
שבא ליטע אהלו |
בתוך מחנה דן. |
אמר להם: |
מבנות דן אני. |
אמרו לו: |
הכתוב אומר: |
“איש על דגלו |
באתת לבית אבתם |
יחנו בני ישראל” |
(במדבר ב, ב). |
נכנס לבית |
דינו של משה, |
ועמד וגידף… |
“בתוך בני ישראל” – |
Sifra, Emor siman14; cited by Rashi in Lev. 24:10
Again we don’t know why the man is amidst the camp, not camped with his mothers clan. It has been speculated based on her name Shlomit bat Devri (שְׁלֹמִית בַּת-דִּבְרִי) that she was a busybody, that she liked to wander around talking (Heb. Daber, דבר) to people too much, greeting everyone “shalom / hello” (שלום) (thus being called Shlomit, in the feminine). Apparently he had the same tendency to wander instead of keeping himself occupied with family matters. His father, we don’t know who he was. Some say his father was a Egyptian soldier that raped his mother because she was always out and about mingling with people, and thus easily victimized.
Others say his Egyptian father was a ger – a convert, a stranger – just like he was; that all people who were not yet identified as Israelites who had left with the Israelites from Egypt had converted at the giving of Torah earlier on in this story.
Either way, be it him or his father as a convert, the outcome is the same. Even if his father was a convert, the Egyptian father does not have any inheritance to give his son anyhow. When a stranger – a convert – comes to settle among the children of Israel we are told that they are not to be oppressed. Though Israelites must dwell within whatever tribal lands they were born into, the convert is allowed to dwell anywhere among the tribes. (see Exodus 23:9) Even though he is to be permitted to dwell among them, and might be a resident with a tribe and clan, he does not have the right of inheritance.
Consider this for a second, next week the parsha will discuss the year of Yovel (see Parshat Behar; see Leviticus 25, Numbers 27) – the year of Jubilee commemorated every 50 years – which is observed with the cancellation of debts and return of sold land to the ancestral grant holders. The tribal holdings were not to be given away nor sold forever (also reiterated in Ezekiel 46:16-18) If you consider it, the only people left with nothing were the convert and the people without legal standing (a bastard, a eunuch, a woman, etc). He was not to be cast out, but he was not entitled to a portion of the tribal holdings.
Lets say the Egyptian father had converted and dwelt with his wife in the camp of the Tribe of Dan, this Egyptian man would be able to dwell among Israel as an Israelite and enjoy the benefits of his wife’s inheritance, but he was not a member of the Tribe of Dan in order to pass on inheritance. Likewise his son was not in a position to receive any. Furthermore if we just take a simple reading, and assume that the man is relying merely on his maternal lineage and not a convert at all (dismissing the opinion of the Sifra); such a claim is still not valid. And even yet if he had converted and was merely relying on his maternal lineage to reinforce his claim; his claim is still invalid, because as a convert one is considered like a reborn person, they sever all former tribal and ancestral claims and stand on their own as an independent citizen of Israel. The Ramban would hold a mixed view, that he was Hebrew by birth through his mother but that he forfeited any tribal rights anyhow by converting and becoming a citizen of Israel in his own right. It is no ones fault or merit in this case, it is just a fact of law; with the Egyptian man’s son is found in the wrong.
The reason this story is so complicated is because this episode might be comprised of more than just a single incident, especially considering it escalates to a capital punishment case so quickly; we know that forewarning is required to be give in such instance. We also have many other good rabbinic sources to tell us that it’s even a lot more complicated than this. The questionable son was not the only one in the wrong, his Israelite adversary was also quick to quarrel along with him; he was being instigated. (Kli Yakar) But here in the Sifra, the case is distilled down and becomes one incident. His struggle is merely for tribal identity only (logically this is the main issue in this story anyhow). The elders drag him before Moses, who does not rule in his favor, he exits the preceding, he is instigated again by the gloating of his adversary, and thus the son of the Egyptian man begins to blaspheme and curse the Divine Name.
Consequently this man is hauled back before Moses, and he is sentenced to death. And overlooking all of this, many people walk away with a feeling of equality being demonstrated by the Torah herein. Why? Because the equality that he didn’t seem to get in life, he got in judgment. The Torah continues:
“And to the Children of Israel
you shall speak, saying:
A man, any man that curses his G-d
shall bear his own sin.
And he that blasphemes the Name Havayah
he shall surely be put to death;
all the congregation shall stone him
the convert, like the native-born
when he blasphemes the Name he shall die.”
| Ve’el-benei Yisra’el
| tedaber lemor
| ish ish ki-yekalel Elohav
| venasa chet’o.
| Venokev shem-Hashem
| mot yumat ragom
| yirgemu-vo kol-ha’edah
| kager ka’ezrach
| benokvo-shem yumat.
A few verses later it is summarized with a single verse we all like to quote:
“There shall be one manner of law for you,
it shall be so for the stranger (convert) and the native-born
I am Hashem your G-d.”
| Mishpat echad yihyeh lachem
| kager ka’ezrach yihyeh ki
| ani Hashem Eloheichem.
I have to admit the first two verses quoted immediate above from our parsha are not the most comforting, but they are very telling about the status of the sentenced man. He wasn’t being punishes out of retaliation for him blaspheming someone else’s G-d, he was punished for cursing his own G-d. It doesn’t matter if one is a proselyte or native-born, the law is to be the same. Blasphemy is punishable by death. We are not permitted to treat the stranger any different from the native. The Torah does not serve for the benefit of the home-born over the immigrant, the immigrant is not to be made an example out of more than the native-born.
But that is not the feeling that most of us get when we walk away from this story. Most of us, especially in light of the rabbinic insights, feel like the native-born Israelite is a person in power and the man of a complicated origin is the one quickly deprived of due justice; hastily brought before a definitive court for humiliation. Though the convert might be in the wrong, and presumptuous in his claim, he is nonetheless provoked in an astonishing way that leaves us walking away from this story feeling less that satisfied with a fable of equality.
Why so astonishing? Because our Torah does not just demand equality for citizens. In the end Moses had to adjudicate true law in the sentencing of the man for his crimes, sure. But the truth was that it should have never gotten to that point. No matter what the man’s faults were, he should have had a place among the congregation of Israel. True, he did not have a right to demand nor was he entitled. But in the end the folly of this story is apparent, this man was given no place among Israel. He had come along and struggled with Israel through the desert, he had converted and given up any claim or right he had to Egyptian identity (as if they would take him back anyhow). But now when he became troublesome the identity that cost him so much and alienated him from the rest of the world now seemed worthless to him in actuality; if not the entire source of his pain. Add to that the appearance of favoritism for the native son’s case over the convert, this perception added insult to injury even if it was not true. Even though he was yet a blood relative, it meant nothing. How could he not blaspheme this religion and the Name of the G-d who he was being oppressed in the name of?
For this reason our tradition actually expresses to us that we should not just seek equality with the stranger and convert in our midst. We need to act on a higher level of maturity with them. That we not even appear to be holding a sense of oppression and prejudice towards them. Again let’s go back to our other key text, a central maxim of Judaism concerning converts and immigrants:
“You shall not oppress the stranger (convert)
for you know how it feels to be a stranger
since you were strangers in Egypt.”
וְגֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם |
יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר |
כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: |
It seems pretty clear-cut, but our master Rashi makes sure that we explicitly get the point by providing us the following commentary on this verse:
“Do not oppress the stranger (convert):
In many places we are warned by the Torah
that the stranger (convert)
might turn around and return to his
“The feelings of a stranger:
how hard it is when he is oppressed.”
וגר לא תלחץ: |
בהרבה מקומות הזהירה תורה |
על הגר |
מפני שסורו |
את נפש הגר: |
כמה קשה לו כשלוחצים אותו: |
Rashi on Exodus 23:9, 11th Century
Interestingly many people who are critical and suspicious of converts and immigrants, they love to quote the first part of this Rashi. They warn that converts should be taken on suspiciously because even on their best day your end up with someone that is likely to return to his old habits anyhow. Cynical, yes. And completely out of step with the actual tone of this commentary. We need to continue on and read the second part of this Rashi that tells us that we need to consider the feelings of the convert, and that we need to relate with his experience of feelings of oppression and alienation. And with this in mind the tone changes, Rashi’s statement reads more as a warning to us Jews to not mistreat the stranger, because we can understand about people making it hard for us. And if we make it too hard for such a person, they will surely resort to the most unrefined of their former ways.
Herein the Torah actually does not call for just equality, but responsiveness. It asks us to step back and consider the background and personal story of the individual. We should understand the stranger already has a lot to contend with, and quite possibly a lot of baggage. We should not make it harder for them.
And even more so, we need to consider that in choosing to be among the congregation of Israel the convert is left with no other home. This is their home. And to the extent that we can, we should try to help make a caring Israel for their home. It doesn’t matter if we are personally offended by the person and their background. Based on this very text from Exodus most of our poskim adhere to the opinion that even if an Egyptian turns to Israel to become a convert, especially because of their people’s experience and suffering through the biblical plagues and their being host (even if not very good ones) to Israel, we are required to allow them to convert; we are not permitted to turn them away. The Torah calls us to make a home, even for the people that make us the most uncomfortable. Through empathy we should consider the situation of another and temper our patience to their unrefinement, not looking for nor provoking a reason for someone to stumble. Not waiting for a reason to disavow them.
As this story of Judaism progresses through the Tanach, it is not going to remain silent on the issue of the plight of the convert and immigrant. It will look forward to a prophetic day when Israel is no longer caught in tribal and ethnic feudalism. To a day when boarders are replaced with allotment of land according to the tribes once again, presumably in the messianic age. The prophets give us a vision and calls us to strive to bring a better day, and a better way, described like this:
“And you shall divide this land for you
according to the Tribes of Israel.
“And it shall be
that you shall allot the inheritance
for you and also for the strangers (converts)
that reside with you,
who shall bear children among you,
and they shall be like the native-born
among the Children of Israel
and they shall have an inheritance with you
among the Tribes of Israel.
“And it shall be that
in whatever tribe that the stranger dwells among
there he shall receive an inheritance;
declares Hashem, the Sovereign.”
חִלַּקְתֶּם אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, לָכֶם– |
לְשִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. |
תַּפִּלוּ אוֹתָהּ בְּנַחֲלָה, |
לָכֶם וּלְהַגֵּרִים |
הַגָּרִים בְּתוֹכְכֶם, |
אֲשֶׁר-הוֹלִדוּ בָנִים בְּתוֹכְכֶם; |
וְהָיוּ לָכֶם, כְּאֶזְרָח |
בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל– |
אִתְּכֶם יִפְּלוּ בְנַחֲלָה, |
בְּתוֹךְ שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. |
וְהָיָה בַשֵּׁבֶט, |
אֲשֶׁר-גָּר הַגֵּר אִתּוֹ– |
שָׁם תִּתְּנוּ נַחֲלָתוֹ, |
נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה. |
The Torah does not just call us to equality. It does not call for equity even. But it does call us to support those among us, make a place for them and to care for them even if they don’t “deserve” it. No matter how “strange,” no matter how difficult they are; native-born or not.
Something to Consider:
Often times in religions when they don’t like someone or they are embarrassed of another’s actions the first thing is to deny they are real member. You’ve heard it before “he isn’t a real Christian,” or “yeah, but they aren’t real Muslims anyhow.” Do you think we as Jews are often guilty of that? Do find yourself ready to disavow people that you might disagree with or dislike?