Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – February 5, 2010
The Torah portion of Yitro begins (Sh’mot 18:1-12): “Jethro, the minister of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard everything that G-d did for Moses and for Israel His people…And Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, came to Moses with his sons and wife, to the desert where he was encamped…And Jethro rejoiced over all the good that G-d did for Israel…Now I know [Jethro says] that G-d is greater than all the gods…And Jethro … took a burnt-offering and feast-offerings for G-d, and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moses before G-d.” In light of our Sages’ comments, as cited by Rashi, we understand that Jethro explored all the religions in the world and after much thought and introspection came to recognize the truth of the Torah. Thereupon, he converted and became one of the most prominent proselytes among the children of Israel. Jethro did not take his conversion lightly. He did so only after much thought and with great sincerity – an approach that is greatly encouraged in Jewish law.
In R. Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 268:2, we are informed: “A proselyte about to embrace Judaism…is asked, ‘What did you find [in Judaism] that you come to convert? Do you not know that Jews at present are persecuted, oppressed and harassed, and beset by afflictions?’ If he answers, ‘I know, but nevertheless I wish to join them’…he is then informed of the fundamentals of the [Jewish] religion, viz. monotheism and the prohibition against idolatry…and is informed of some of the more lenient precepts as well as some of the more stringent commandments…and some of the punishments for [transgressing] the commandments…If he consents, he is circumcised…and he undergoes proper ritual immersion.” This entire process which transpires before a panel of three judges serves to help ensure one very crucial point: the sincerity of the proselyte. One ought not undergo conversion to become an Israelite for any other reason than one’s sincere desire to observe the Torah’s laws and precepts and to be among and part of the people wherein these laws can best be performed. To do otherwise only makes light of what the people of Israel represent and the gift of the Torah that they possess, and it is concerning such insincere proselytes that we are told by our Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47b), “Proselytes are as hard for Israel to endure as a sore is to an individual”. Of a sincere proselyte, however, whose decision to join the people of Israel has been well thought out and whose decision is for the right reasons, we are warned in the Torah: “And a proselyte you shall not wrong, neither shall you oppress him” (Exodus 22:20), “And you shall love him as yourself” (Vayikra 19:34).
Indeed, the relatively few proselytes who, over the centuries, have adopted the Torah as their Torah and the people of Israel as their people must be looked up to with admiration. There was the 6th century Yemenite king Yussuf Dhu-Nuwas who adopted the faith of his Jewish subjects. There was the case of the Khazars, possessors of a stretch of land near the Volga river for several centuries until their 10th century downfall, whose king, known as the Khagan Bulan, led them to conversion to the ways of the Torah. And in the early 11th century, a Christian cleric, Father Wecelinus, chaplain to the emperor’s cousin in Germany, dropped the cloak of Christianity for that of Judaism. These are but some of the more celebrated cases. Throughout the centuries, there have been individuals who have resolved to cease the lifestyles to which they have been accustomed all their lives to adopt a totally new way of life. These individuals did not take this step to gain economic advantage – none could be gained thereby. These individuals did not take this step to acquire social recognition – none could be acquired thereby. And these individuals did not take this step to appease a murderous inquisitor – no individual forcing them to such a decision existed who could be appeased thereby. In fact, their decision often diminished their economic status, reduced their social recognition and invited oppression. Only their burning desire to pursue the truth launched this step.
These individuals resolved not to express faith in beliefs based on blatant textual and historic distortion as well as an infiltration of various long-standing and accepted pagan practices. Nor did these proselytes seek to minimize their own responsibility in the midst of a fervor to place guilt for one’s own problems – real or imagined upon others. They chose not to be enticed by claims of newfound divined revelations to and principles espoused by a few, not publicly witnessed, which randomly mix long-existing Torah and Talmudic teachings, and emphasis on more readily acceptable moral directives, a de-emphasis of less popular “legalistic” directives, and a number of pagan conceptions and practices all of which could only serve to produce mass appeal for the newly espoused faith, and which, in the end, resort to vicious, aggressive and hostile hatred and scapegoating of a people different from others. “And you shall love the proselyte” (Devarim 10:19). We should appreciate those who have sacrificed untold material advantages to pursue the truth. We should admire those who have given up temporal economic and social advantages for the sake of everlasting spiritual bliss. May we be even half as strong as these courageous proselytes in guarding the precious possession with which we have been bestowed – the Torah, its laws and its principles.