Bet Midrash Virtuali


of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel
and the Masorti Movement


THE HALAKHAH OF GIYYUR (Conversion to Judaism)

Wherever you go I will go; wherever you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die and there I will be buried. Thus and more may God do to me if anything but death parts me from you. [Ruth 1:16-17].

(For the Hebrew text of this passage please click here.)

Part One

Our formula for this topic will have to be different from the formula used with previous topics. Let us start with a brief resumé of what conversion to Judaism means from the point of view of our classical sources. Clearly, the minutiae of the requirements of conversion change with the passing of the ages, but one aspect seems to be fairly constant. The conversation between the aging Naomi and her young daughter-in-law, the widowed Ruth, which is decribed in the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, is seen as a paradigm for ideal conversion. Ruth, a Moabite woman, has lost her Israelite husband and seeks to return from Moab to Eretz-Israel with her bereaved mother-in-law. Naomi is not happy with the idea.

Accompanied by her two daughters-in-law, [Naomi] left the place where she had been living; and they set out on the road back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Turn back, each of you to her mother's house. May God deal as kindly with you as you have dealt with the deceased and with me." ... And she kissed them farewell. They broke into weeping and said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people." But Naomi replied, "Turn back, my daughters! Why should you go with me?" ... They broke into weeping again, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law farewell. But Ruth clung to her. So she [Naomi] said, "See, your sister-in-law has returned to her people and her gods. Go follow your sister-in-law." But Ruth replied, "Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go I will go; wherever you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may God do to me if anything but death parts me from you." When [Naomi] saw how determined she was to go with her, she ceased to argue with her. [Ruth 1:7-18]

The sages saw in this episode a kind of paradigm for proselytization, a paradigm in which Naomi represents the Bet Din, the body representing the Jewish People which is to accept the proselyte and Ruth represents the would-be proselyte.

The sages note that Naomi tries to dissuade her daughters-in-law from casting their lot with the Jewish people - and in the case of Orpah she succeeds. But Ruth is so determined that no rejection on Naomi's part will move her: she declares that she wants to be a part of Naomi's people, to share their fate whatever it might be, and to accept Naomi's God as her God. Only after this, "when Naomi saw how determined Ruth was, did she cease to argue with her" and consented that Ruth attach herself to her for the rest of her journey in life. This was seen as the ideal of conversion.

Perhaps we might suggest that the two paradigmatic elements that can be perceived in the conversation between the two women are

"Naomi", of course, represents the Jewish people (or the Bet Din which embodies the Jewish people for this purpose), and "Ruth" represents the non-Jew who seeks to become a Jew.

There is a midrash [Ruth Rabbah 2:22] which fancifully amplifies the conversation between the two women and which it might be useful at this stage to quote, because it sheds light on the concerns of the sages concerning "Naomi's" part in the conversation.

She [Naomi] said to her [Ruth]: "My daughter, Jewish women do not go to the theatres and circuses of the gentiles." She [Ruth] replied: "Wherever you go I will go." She [Naomi] said to her [Ruth]: "My daughter, Jews do not live in a house that does not have a mezuzah." She [Ruth] replied: "Wherever you lodge I will lodge."

The midrash continues, but the above quotation will suffice to show that what most concerns "Naomi" is that "Ruth" understand that becoming a Jew will involve a considerable upheaval in her life-style: there will be some things that "Ruth" used to do that she will be expected to refrain from doing if she becomes a Jew; and there will be other things which as a non-Jew she has not done which she will be required to do as a Jew.

But conversion does not only entail an acceptance of a change of customs and traditions; it also involves a commitment to identification. Here 'identification' means that "Ruth" must identify with "Naomi" and her people. In the 12th century Rambam sent a responsum to a man called Ovadya. Now this man had not always been called Ovadya: his birth name had been Jean and his family name was Dreux. He came from an ancient Norman family which had migrated to a Norman kingdom in Italy and had settled in the town of Oppido. Jean had become a monk and in his monastery he was in charge of the choir and the music. But the more he studied the scriptures the more he became enthused with Jewish teachings. When he heard that the archbishop of Bari had converted to Judaism Jean found his own courage to convert.

After his conversion he travelled to Kushta (now Istanbul), then to Eretz-Israel and finally to Egypt where he settled. He attached himself to a rabbi (and thank God we are ignorant of his name) to continue his Jewish learning at the same time composing religious songs. He came to the attention of Rambam, the greatest rabbi in Egypt of that time (and probably of all times!) when he wrote to Rambam asking him to settle a dispute between himself and his teacher. Ovadya had claimed that Moslems were not idolators but his teacher was adamant that they were - and in the heat of the discussion had lost his temper. Rambam wrote a responsum [Blau #448] which is one of the most human documents he ever penned - and they don't write responsa like this any more, more's the pity. We don't have an exact date for this responsum but around 1180 CE would not be far off the mark. We cannot quote all of the teshuvah here, but enough of it to illustrate our point concerning identification.

When your teacher responded to you inappropriately, shaming you and calling you a fool, he committed a grave sin and he should beg forgiveness from you, even though you are his student [and he your rabbi]. Was he drunk that he didn't know that in thirty-six different places the Torah warns us not to denigrate a proselyte? Even if he was correct and you were in the wrong he should still have been polite to you and should have spoken gently; all the more so since it is you who is correct and he who is mistaken. How could he possibly call you a fool? - a man who forsook his father, his homeland, his people's sovereignty and generosity, and who has come to understand [the true God] in his own heart [and not from education] and has come to join a people which today is despised and subjugated, who has realized that their faith is the true faith and has approved Israel's customs ... and has pursued after God and come to shelter beneath the wings of the Shekhinah and to sit at the feet of Moses our Teacher - can such a man be called a fool?! God forbid! You are not a fool but a sage, a student of Father Abraham...

If you would like to read the full Hebrew text of Rambam's responsum please click here.

By a strange quirk of fate some of Ovadya's songs have survived in the Cairo Genizah. (If you don't know about the Genizah you may find this link useful.) You will recall that Ovadya - or rather Brother Jean Dreux - had been in charge of the music in his monastery in Italy, and there he had learned an early system of musical notation. It is therefore a sheer delight that one of his songs, possibly an ode for Shavu'ot or Simĥat Torah, a paean of praise to Moshe Rabbenu, has survived in notation in his own hand. Its title is Mi al Har Ĥorev [He whom I Had Stand on Mount Horeb]. If you would like to listen to it please use this link. (The instrumentation is a musicologist's informed guess as to what the accompaniment might have sounded like.) If you want to follow the Hebrew words please click here.

Of course, not every convert can be expected to be of the standard that Rambam ascribes to Ovadya the Proselyte, but in our discussions, however far we shall roam from it, it will always useful to bear in mind the nature of the rabbinic ideal, of what was for them "a consummation devoutly to be wished".

To be continued.


Because of the incidence of the festival of Shavu'ot (Pentecost) the next shiur in this series will be, God willing, on Monday 16th June. Ĥag Samé'aĥ.