Monday, March 8, 2010

Converts, Orphans, Widows and the Poor

Over the weekend, I had a Shabbat meal with a ger tzedek, a sincere and recent convert to Judaism. He had a fascinating story about how he came to the conclusion that our traditions were closest to the source. He also explained how he persevered through the difficult process of becoming Jewish and constantly being watched by rabbinical supervisors. However, there was one thing he mentioned that really upset me: many religious Jews keep their distance from him. After spending many years of proving his sincerity, they still do not invite him into their homes. This is appalling because the Torah explicitly states that we are to take extra care of how we treat converts.

One reason for this attitude may stem from an episode that happened here some years ago: Christian Missionary Infiltrates Denver Jewish Community. There was a married couple who posed as Jews, but were eventually exposed as Christian missionaries. It was a big mess that upset many people. As a result, some members of the community became overly guarded about "outsiders," including converts. However, this is comparable to non-Jews who have one bad experience with a Jew and then feel justified in being anti-Semitic. It's flawed logic that can lead to awful behavior.

Here is another disturbing story that completely undermines the decency we are supposed to show converts: Israel - Proposed Bill Would Bar Gerim from Aliyah Under the Law of Return. How much clearer can the Torah be? True "Jewishness" is not exclusively determined by ancestry. We must make sure that converts are not considered second-class citizens. They are just as Jewish as those of us who were born to a Jewish mother. Just think of where we would be today if not for two righteous converts to Judaism: Onkelos and Ruth. Onkelos wrote the main translation relied upon to interpret the Torah, and Ruth lived such a dignified life that the Davidic dynasty comes from her!

The Torah teaches us to treat all people well, but goes out of its way to command sensitivity toward converts, orphans, widows, and the poor. In the case of the convert, it states "v'ahavta lo kamocha" - to love him as yourself (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:34). If "v'ahavta l'rayacha kamocha" - to love your neighbor as yourself (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18) is considered the major principle of the Torah, then this commandment is the major principle of the Torah with specificity. God does not take kindly to anyone taunting converts, or for that matter, orphans, widows, and the poor. We should emulate His special love for people in these circumstances.

Have you ever been the new kid at school, suffered the loss of a loved one, or gone through difficult economic circumstances? Think of how you felt, and then show people going through similar situations the abundant kindness that is commanded of us. There is enough suffering in the world today without placing unnecessary hardship on the most vulnerable. If Mashiach (Messiah) comes from a lineage that includes a convert to Judaism, just imagine the greatness other converts can achieve if given the opportunity. However, they'll never get that chance if we treat them indecently. In fact, the reason why Mashiach has not yet arrived is because of this kind of hatred toward fellow Jews.

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