With Gratitude for Converts: Parashat Naso
George Burns once said: "Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family -- in another city." Jewish culture is rich in jokes about themishpokhe, the extended family - probably because family is at the heart of Jewish identity. In the old country, and in the early part of the 20th century, when hordes of Jewish immigrants crowded together in tenements, the generations lived together. Grandma or Grandpa might live with their children, or just upstairs in the duplex. Brothers and sisters would often grow up and move into houses in the same neighborhoods as their parents. When my mom grew up her favorite aunt lived just down the street and she would baby-sit every day for her cousins.
Even today, when many Jewish families are separated geographically,mishpokhe still stands at the center of our consciousness. We know both the comforting warmth and the sometimes stifling intimacy of belonging to a close-knit, caring family.
"Life is With People," is the title of a popular sociological study of traditional Jewish culture. And the popular notion is that no Jew is alone. There is always an uncle somewhere, or a second cousin once removed, some godparents or perhaps a slightly nosy neighbor who takes on the role of honorarybubbe.
So when our Torah portion for this week refers to an Israelite who has no relatives, our rabbinic commentators don't know what to make of this. How can there be a Jew, they ask, who has no family, nomishpokhe at all?
The Torah passage deals with a person who has been the victim of theft, and who has died leaving no relatives who can be compensated for the crime. Our Sages conclude, eventually, that the text must be referring to someone who has converted to Judaism, and whose birth family has rejected him or her. Thus we have the anomalous case of a Jew who has nomishpokhe.
This passage was of special interest to medieval Jewish commentators, for they well appreciated how lonely, even dangerous, it could be to convert to Judaism in their time. Once upon a time, early in Jewish history, Jews eagerly welcomed and even sought converts, but after the Emperor Constantine made conversion to Judaism a capital crime in the 4th century, it was a rare and courageous individual who would risk leaving the security of Christian society to affiliate with a despised minority people. Even today, some of those who choose to become Jews earn the disapproval of their birth families and must endure the pain of rejection by those closest to them.
Thus, our Sages taught that we must have special care and consideration for the convert, for he or she stands in an especially vulnerable position. Converts have left behind the normal social supports of kin and community; they are dependent on their new community to offer them shelter and protection. So, for instance, while it is certainly against Jewish law to rob a fellow Jew, it is an even more serious violation to rob a convert, or to cheat, exploit or harm a convert in any way.
Moreover, the convert has probably chosen to join the Jewish people because he or she cherishes Jewish ideals of justice, compassion and fairness. By mistreating a convert we have betrayed his good faith and trust, and may cause him to doubt the very basis of his conversion.
Converts have always been a precious gift to the Jewish people. But especially now, in this post-Holocaust generation, they are an infinite blessing, helping to build and strengthen our community, which came so close to being destroyed. Whenever I officiate at a conversion ceremony for one of these brave and generous souls, I think of a parable in themidrash: Once there was a stag who came to graze among the king's flocks of sheep. The king ordered his servants to be especially kind and generous to the stag, because, the king said, "it has left its own kind to come and join my flock." [Num.4.8:2] So may we always cherish those who come to join our Jewishmishpokhe.