2017 Kol Nidre -- "The Yichus of Converts"

Rabbis are sometimes introduced as “descendant of a long line of distinguished rabbis,” or “the scion of a great rabbinic dynasty.” These descriptions are a piece of the credentials. She studied at such and such a school, worked in this community, and her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all rabbis. This idea, that a person gains benefit or authenticity based on their relationship with someone else, is known in Judaism as yichus. This love of yichus isn’t limited to credentialing rabbis, I come across it with some regularity in religious debates. Often people will try and bolster their argument with the statement “I’m the grandson of rabbi so-and-so, I know what I’m talking about.” 

This is not a recent phenomenon. A story is recorded of a student seeking admission to the school of Rabbi Preida.

The students said to Rabbi Preida, ‘Rabbi Ezra, the grandson of Rabbi Avtolos, who is the tenth generation from R. Elazar ben Azariah, who is the tenth generation from Ezra [the Scribe], is standing at the door’ — Said he to them, ‘Why all this [yichus]? If he is a learned man, it is well; if he is a learned man and also a scion of noble ancestors, it is even better; but if he is a scion of noble ancestors and not a learned man, then may fire consume him!’. They told him that he was a learned man, whereupon he said, ‘Let him come in’.”

Rabbi Preida made clear that a person’s yichus was not the be all and end all of personal merit and authority. But he also made it clear that it matters. It will help this Rabbi Ezra gain notice as a student. It cuts both ways though. His famous pedigree will also make him more lamentable if he is not learned, or not a righteous person.

I come from – I think – a long line of undistinguished textile workers. Good people, but not famous or renowned, they were not the leaders of the community. The greatest claim to fame seems to be that my great-great-grandfather was buried sort of close to a Hassidic rebbe. That is the extent of my yichus. My mother converted, she comes from a long line of Irish Catholics. Clara also converted, having discovered and fallen in love with Judaism while in college.

In spite of my stunning lack of yichus, I am proud to have been born Jewish. I never questioned that identity, I never wondered if this was the right religion for me. My Jewish identity was assumed, my status was assured, it developed without any effort on my part. Just as important, no one else ever questioned my identity either. In contrast, the Jewish identities of my mother, and my wife, and of more people around this room than I could easily count, were hard won. I have very little yichus, but when they became Jews, they entered communities with none.

Judaism has had a long and complicated relationship with conversion. Indeed, not everyone in our tradition has been enthusiastic about the prospect. In the Talmud, Rabbi Nehemiah expressed skepticism about the motivations that might bring a person to convert. He said:

Both a man who converts for the sake of a woman and a woman who converts for the sake of a man, and, similarly, a man who converts for the sake of a royal board, or for the sake of joining Solomon's servants, are no proper converts. These are the words of R. Nehemiah, for R. Nehemiah used to Say: Neither lion-converts, nor dream-converts nor the converts of Mordecai and Esther are proper converts unless they become converted at the present time.

R’ Nechemiah’s rejections of these of people all seem to be based in a fear that the potential convert is motivated by an inauthentic desire to gain yichus through the process. Yichus is everything in this worldview – it’s not what you know, but who you know. Yichus is a commodity that must be jealously protected.

However, his opinion was not the one that carried the day, even in the Talmud. Rather, the passage concludes that all of these people are authentic converts. Although it says explicitly that this is the halakhah, seeming to leave no room for disagreement or interpretation, the suspicion of the convert does not go away entirely – rather we see it persist in subtler ways.

For example, The Torah tells us, over and over again, that we must have the same set of laws for the אזרח, citizens, people who are “born Jewish” and for the גר, the stranger. In the context of the Torah, it is referring to true strangers, people who are travelling and find themselves in the land of Israel, or someone who has chosen to spend some time among Jews, but has no permanent relationship that will endure.

However, the Talmud takes this term, גר, and changes it so that it no longer refers to strangers, but to converts. And גר has become the term that we have used throughout Jewish history to refer to converts. This gives us halachic grounding for conversion and regulates the treatment of converts in our communities, but it also permanently describes them as strangers in our midst.

And some in the Jewish community internalize this unease with the convert, as evidenced by the Talmud’s need to directly warn against it. It rules again and again that a convert should be treated no differently than any other Jew. A person should never remind a convert of their previous religion, or of their actions that would now be considered a sin. In fact, the Mechilta makes this connection explicit, and teaches that in an argument with a convert, you cannot use their life prior to Judaism as a point against them. You cannot say: “But yesterday you were worshipping another god, and until now you were eating non-kosher food, and now you dare to argue against me!”

We declare that we are not a proselytizing religion. When a person comes to a rabbi seeking to convert, they are meant to be discouraged or turned away three times. It is meant to be evocative of the conversation between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, when Ruth seeks to follow Naomi home and join the Jewish people. But it also suggests a certain indifference, perhaps even reluctance, towards accepting the convert, which I’m told is an attitude that many converts themselves internalize.

One of the most profound ways that our tradition struggles to determine the place of converts in the Jewish community, comes in the interpretation of a difficult verse. Towards the end of Deuteronomy, Moses reaffirms the covenant between God and the people Israel. He declares to the people: “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” It is because of this eternal covenant that we find ourselves here in synagogue today, the distant descendants of the Israelites who crossed the desert at the command of God.

The rabbis wondered: How can we view converts as part of this covenant? Their ancestors were not present at that moment, nor were they present at Sinai. What justification can we have to welcome them into the community? The rabbis, to be clear, were seeking that justification, and needed a way to align that moral imperative with the text of the Torah.

In response to this question, they interpreted Moses’ statement as applying not only to the Israelites who were present at Sinai, but also to the souls of those who would one day convert in the future. They were also at Sinai.

We are then led to the question, why would the soul of a person who was at Sinai, be born into a non-Jewish body? Why wouldn’t such a person be born Jewish, and save themselves a lot of time and effort?

Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg proposed the possibility that the angel responsible for assigning souls to bodies made a mistake. That these were always Jewish souls, and always meant to be in Jewish bodies, the conversion is merely correcting the fallibility of the angels.

Consistent with this proposal, Rabbi Nachman refers to an accepted point of rabbinic law: a convert is like a newborn child. That is, all past actions are washed away through conversion, and the individual is able to start anew. It also means that all past relationships are dissolved, and the convert does not have any formal connection with the people in his or her previous life.

This is meant, I believe, to be liberating. A person can start from scratch, and build a new life that fits with their new status. They can build a family, and friendships, and a community, all with the purpose of developing a meaningful and fulfilling Jewish life.

This is the guiding logic when converts are given a Jewish name after immersing in the mikvah. Generally, they are free to choose their own personal name, but the second half of the name is set by our tradition: ben or bat Avraham Avinu V’Sarah Imeinu, “the son or daughter of Abraham our father and Sarah our mother.”

In light of the directive not to remind a convert of their status, this is strange. It requires a convert to announce his or her status to the community every time they are called up for an Aliyah. It is a constant reminder of their lack of yichus.

But maybe, it is intended to be just the opposite. By declaring converts to be ben or bat Avraham Avinu V’Sarah Imeinu, a child of Abraham and Sarah, they are saying that they have the highest form of yichus. Someone who is born Jewish has a connection with Abraham and Sarah that is mediated through a chain that is hundreds of generations long. Someone who converts to Judaism has a direct connection to them, there is no mediating chain. Seen in this light, that is a powerful form of yichus.

For many converts this is a profound and satisfying statement of transformation, but for others it negates some of their most treasured family relationships, and undermines core components of their identity.

An interesting alternative midrash describes God offering the Torah and the covenant to all of the nations of the world before turning to Israel – but being rejected by each. It then proposes that it was not the entire nation that rejected this offer, but only the majority, or the leaders of the nation. Converts represent those souls from the other nations that wanted to accept the Torah – and now they are finally able.

Here, we can understand conversion as bringing people in line with the truth and the identity that they have always known. It is not correcting a mistake, but fulfilling a destiny, welcoming someone into the home, not as a stranger, but as a brother or sister accepting a birthright that always belonged to them, waiting for them to take it.

This places an important burden on the community. If each convert is meant to be a part of the Jewish people, if they accepted the Torah at Sinai just like every other Jew, then imagine the tragedy if such a person were turned away by an unwelcoming or judgmental community. If they come to a rabbi, only to feel rejected away by a cold reception and impossible expectations, this would not only be a loss for the individual, and for the community, but a loss for the entire Jewish people.

When we think about converts not as strangers or mistakes, but as brothers and sisters, it allows us to take pride, not only in their return to our people, but in the journeys that led them here. They bring with them their own yichus. They bring with them the relationships that they had before, and that continue into their lives as Jews. They bring with them their histories, and all of their experiences, and all of the history and experiences of their families, just as someone does who was born Jewish.

When my children start understanding the idea of yichus, of being proud of their ancestors and where they came from, I want them to look to my father’s side of the family. I want them to feel the devotion to family and to Judaism that sustained them in Poland, and that my grandfather carried with him to America. I want them to know the stories of sacrifice and heroism that helped him to survive the Holocaust, and that motivated him to make a fresh start. I want them to be proud of their pious great-great-great-grandfather, the one who was buried near the rebbe.

I also want them to understand that their yichus extends beyond that one quarter of their lineage. I want them to be proud of their long history in this country, and the fact that they are related to Horace Mann, the founder of the American public school system.

I want them to look to Clara’s family for yichus as well. They should be proud of their maternal grandmother, who is so passionate about the world that she lives in that she has chosen to run for state office to help shape its trajectory. I want them to learn the lessons of their illustrious ancestor Henry Hudson, a great explorer, whose leadership style inspired his men to mutiny and leave him to die adrift in the Hudson Bay.

These are all parts of the yichus of my children, their lives and their stories have been shaped by all of their ancestors and family members, not just the Jewish ones. They are the children and grandchildren of converted Jews whose places in our people were not assured by birth, but arrived at through their own faith and the love and acceptance of Jewish communities, who embraced them and said to them, in the words of Boaz, when he learned of Ruth’s decision to join the Jewish people, “May the Lord reward your deeds, and may your reward be full from the Lord God of Israel, under Whose wings you have come to take shelter.”