Welcoming the Convert into the Family of Israel

Israel's responsibilities toward converts begin with equal protection, but ultimately require the full integration of the convert into the family of Israel.

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"The king responded, 'The other animals have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in to sleep in the fold. Stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into places inhabited by man. Is it not to a sign of this one's merit that he has left behind the whole of the wilderness to stay in our courtyard?' In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind his family and his relatives, his nation and all the other nations of the world, and has chosen to come to us?"

This parable responds to the unvoiced question/critique of the native Israelite: "Why does the Torah provide all of these protections for the convert? Does God care more about them than about me?" The midrash responds, "Consider what the convert has given up."

This section of the midrash concludes:

"Accordingly, God has provided the convert with special protection, warning Israel to be very careful not to do any harm to converts, and indeed, it says, 'Love the convert' (Deuteronomy 10:19)… Thus God made clear safeguards so that converts might not return to their former ways [which God fears they might do if native Israelites treat them poorly]."

Although some tannaitic midrashim voiced suspicions that the convert might fall back or that the convert might not entirely abandon his past beliefs, this later text places responsibility for backsliding converts squarely upon the native Israelites who disregard the protections that God put in place.

Numbers Rabbah 8:4

The midrash returns to the issue of the convert's family by retelling how Joshua and David dealt with the tribe of the Gibeonites. Joshua chapter 10 retells how, after the destruction of Jericho, the Gibeonites pretended to affiliate themselves with Israel in order to preserve themselves. Rabbinic tradition describes the Gibeonites as converts who converted for impure motives. As Joshua decides how he should treat the Gibeonites, the midrash has God speak to him:

"Joshua initially thought, 'Should we bother with helping these converts?' But the Holy Blessed One said to him, 'Joshua…consider the plant from which you yourself have sprung! Are you not descended from converts?' as it says, 'Unto Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim whom Asenat, the daughter of Potiphera kohen of On bore' (Genesis 46:20), and as it is written, 'Of the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea, the son of Nun' (Numbers 13:8)."

In II Samuel 21, God explains to David that the famine, which has lasted for three years, was a punishment for Saul's killing of some Gibeonites. David sought to provide restitution to the wronged Gibeonites who said they had no desire for compensation or retribution against any of Israel except for Saul himself. They demanded the execution of seven of Saul's children, and David handed them over to the Gibeonites.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.