The Converts In Our Midst – Rabbi Barry Gelman

The following is a digest of the sermon I delivered in my Synagogue on Shabbat, January 9th, 2010

I feel compelled to address the recent conversion controversy in my sermon. I do so because two things changes.
1.    The woman at the center of the controversy converted.
2.    The Houston Jewish community has been painted with broad strokes as not welcoming her ad questioning her conversion.
Let me say at the outset that the Beit Din that performed the conversion is an unimpeachable Beit Din and therefore I consider the woman at the center of the controversy to be Jewish and fully welcomed in this community.
I have also informed her that I would be willing to convene a Beit Din to convert her son (all he needs is immersion in the mikvah).
I want to share with you a number if halachik considerations. These halachot apply equally to all converts.
1. The biblical obligation to love the convert.
This obligation is spelled out in the biblical verse
“Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Maimonides points out that the commandment to love the convert to Judaism actually is doubly powerful as it is superimposed on the existing obligation to love one’s fellow Jews.

Here are Rambam’s words:

“Loving the convert who has taken refuge (lit., ‘came and entered’) beneath the wings of the Divine Presence [comprises] two positive obligations, one because he is included in ‘fellowship’ (and so is included in the obligation to love one’s fellow as himself (Levit. 19:18)), and two because he is a convert and the Torah said, ‘You shall love the convert’ (Deuteronomy 10:19). [The Torah] commanded to love the convert as it commanded to love G-d (lit., ‘His Name’), as it is stated, ‘And you shall love the L-rd your G-d’ (Deut. 6:5). G-d Himself loves converts, as it is stated, ‘…and loves [the] convert’ (ibid., 10:18).” (Hilchot De’ot Chapter 6, Law 4)
Notice that Rambam also compares the love due a convert to the love due God and that God himself loves converts.

In a Responsum, Rambam writes that the obligation to love a convert is even more intense than the obligations we have towards our parents. In relation to our parents we are obligated to respect and fear them – both of which can be accomplished without loving them. In fact, the Torah never commands the love of parents. However, regarding the convert we are obligated to develop actual love for them.

Perhaps the Torah especially commands us regarding loving the convert because it is not always so easy to do so. Often converts come from different cultures, look differently and speak differently than those they are trying to join.
There are often cultural barriers that make it difficult for converts to be fully embraced by the Jewish community.
To all of this, the Torah says: Love the convert – we must work on it and develop love in our hearts.
2. The biblical prohibition of oppressing a convert

This prohibition is spelled out in the biblical verse:

“And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Sefer Hachinuch elucidates two very important ideas related to how we treat converts in our midst.

First he notes that the capacity to sanctify God’s name or to desecrate God’s name is in our hands in terms of how we treat converts.

“At the root of the precept lies the reason that the Eternal Lord chose the Israelites to be a holy people to Him, and wished to make them meritorious. He therefore guided and ordered them onto the ways of kindly grace and compassion, and adjured them to adorn themselves with every desirable and precious trait of character, to find favor in the eyes of all who behold them, that they should say, “These are the people of the Lord.”

The Sefer Hachinuch ascribes great power in terms of how communities accept and treat converts. Certainly in this local controversy their has been a tremendous chillul Hashem – desecration of God’s name. We have the capacity, to a degree, to reverse the chilul Hashem by carefully adhering to the Torah commandments of loving and not oppressing theconvert.

Secondly, the Sefer Hachinuch sensitizes us to the challenges overcome by a convert. “ Well, how much a way of gratification and delight it is to adopt loving kindness and do good for a person who left his nation and the entire family f his father’s and mother’s house, and came to shelter under the wings of another nation, in his affection for it, and in his preference for truth and hatred of falsehood.”

Many of us are aware of the great personal, social and economic struggles endured and sacrifices made by converts to Judaism. It is no easy task to leave behind the religioun on one’s upbringing, family customs and social network. Those who do that must be treated with dignity, respect and maybe even awe.
3.The obligation to pray for the welfare of converts.
The thirteenth blessing in the Amidah includes an explicit prayer for righteous converts. According to some the phrase “Tzadikim” – “righteous” is that blessing refers to converts as well. We are obligated to prayer for the welfare and wellbeing of the converts among us.
Finally, I wish to clarify something very important: There have been press reports painting all of Houston Orthodoxy with one brush in their claims that she has not been welcomed and that her conversion is being questioned. While I do not accept those media reports as being entirely accurate, I do wish to make it clear, that the UOS community fully welcomes her as a member of Am Yisreal.

The famous Ovadiah the convert to whom Rambam famously ruled that he, even as a covert, may recite: “Our God and God of our forefather” in the amidah once complained to Maimonides that his Rabbi has been mocking him for tings he said. In response Rambam addresses Ovadiah ad says: ” He who blessed Abraham your teacher, and gave Abraham his reward in the world and the world to come, should bless you and give you your reward in this world and in the world to come and lengthen your days…”

These words should direct our approach to all Jews by choice in our midst.

6 Responses to The Converts In Our Midst – Rabbi Barry Gelman

  1. RyanP says:

    I am somewhat taken aback by the fawning over this beit din as being the closest thing to royalty, and precisely by many people and groups who plead for ordinary pulpit rabbis to be able to do conversions (instead of centralized authority). This fawming plays into the strategy and objectives of those who seek to consolidate the decision powers for conversion “on high”. In addition, it almost creates the aura of a cast system of converts, whereby those who converted with the rabbinut are “unimpeachable”, while the poor shlubs who only make it to the local pulpit or Hillel rabbi are, what?, …impeachable?

    It would seem to me that any special credence lent to this particular Beit Din because of its standing essentially flies in the face of an argument against centralization of conversions with the “Chief Rabbi” in Israel.

  2. Stranger says:

    Rabbi Gelman,

    That’s both very impressive and sad that she got to convert by the Israel beth din. Was it because you and your community refused to convert her that she had to travel all the way to Israel to find rabbis willing to convert her and now you want to say your community accepts her too, after the fact? She obviously couldn’t find a local beth din who wasn’t torturing her.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      For the record, I was never invovled in her conversion process. She was involved with another Beit Din in Houston.

  3. amandel says:

    Why did Shannon need a conversion at all? According to her My Space page, listed below, she was Jewish prior to 8/19/2009 (her last login date). Just check out her “details” below her picture and see for yourself! Her conversion was supposedly done 1/7/10. Also, now she claims she has Jewish ancestors on her mom’s side. Please tell us the truth about Shannon and why Rav Wender said she wasn’t ready for conversion 3 weeks ago. Why shouls we accept her?

    http://www.myspace.com/shannonorand

  4. Schvach says:

    Bravo Rabbi Gelman; kol hakavod! The serious and dedicated convert to Judaism should be embraced rather than disgraced by Klal Yisrael. So too with the ‘lost souls’ of the Jewish community – those from India, South and Central Americas, from Ethiopia, and from other places, who seek to return to Klal Yisrael. In Israel especially, the Ethiopian olim have been accorded a rude ‘welcome’. I greatly appreciate your supportive position toward converts to Judaism and hope you feel the same toward returnees. (Just for the sake
    of understanding, I am a Jew by birth).

  5. Yael says:

    As a convert (modern orthodox, Israel) with seven children – currently facing a situation in Israel where Various beit din have taken the power to Annul conversions – often decades after the date – thus suddenly annulling the Judaism of innocent Israeli Jewish children, I have one major point:
    A convert must accept herself. A relationship with ha Shem cannot be given or taken away by anyone. She should stand in the truth and wisdom of her own heart. Take responsibility for the kind of Judaism she expresses to the world.
    If Jews were to look to each other for acceptance and the right to exist – we would all be totally disempowered. The in-fighting between Jewish communities within Israel makes peace with any other nation a joke.
    Perhaps part of the blessing of a convert is that she brings a certain unity in Jewish communities when they unite to reject her.
    Also, I’m female. Arrest me for I have spoken.
    Love to all from the heart of it all.

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