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 biblical book of Numbers sets out this principle of civil law:

"When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow, breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall repay the injured party and add a fifth to it. If the [injured] man should [die and] and have no relative to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to the Lord… " (Numbers 5:5-8). 

What Israelite could possibly have no relative, if one goes back far enough? The answer, as the second-century sage R. Ishmael recognized, is that this passage refers to converts, who are guaranteed the same civil law protections as native Israelites (cf. Sifre Naso 2). imageRight20

The medieval midrash Numbers Rabbah further explains that since these laws in Numbers seem to repeat similar laws from Leviticus 5, "the Holy Blessed One wrote a section into the Torah to deal [explicitly] with the relations of [native] Israelites and converts." The midrash then identifies six different cases of repeated language between the passages in Leviticus and Numbers. From the perspective of rabbinic exegesis, the problem of the repeated language necessitates reading the passage in Numbers as applying to a different case, and the problem of who would lack an Israelite relative resulted in the specific identification of Numbers 5 with converts.

From a rhetorical perspective, Numbers Rabbah already assumes that Numbers 5 deals with converts. The listing of the six cases of near-identical language serves as a tour de force proving that "converts are, in their essence, the same as [the rest of] Israel" (Numbers Rabbah 8:1).

Numbers Rabbah 8:2

The midrash immediately explains that God's love for converts is a response to the love expressed by the converts themselves:

"'The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord protects converts' (Psalms 146:8). The Holy Blessed One said, 'I love those who love Me.' This is as it says, 'I honor those that honor Me' (I Sam 2:30). 'They love Me and so I also love them.'"

"Why does the Holy Blessed One love the righteous? Because they have neither inheritance nor family. Priests and Levites have an ancestral house, as it says 'House of Aaron, praise the Lord. House of Levi, praise the Lord' (Psalms 146:19). If someone wants to be a kohen (priest) or a Levite, one cannot because one's father was not. But if someone wants to be righteous, even a non-Jew can, since that is not dependent on ancestry."

The midrash continues with a parable about a stag that attaches itself to the king's flock. Daily, the king instructs his shepherds to take care of the stag, and they ask the king why he cares so much about this one animal.

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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.