Ger Tzedek and Ger Toshav (2)
We know the drill when a potential convert comes to the rabbi, or at least we think we do. The rabbi is supposed to say something like, “Why do you want to become a Jew? It’s hard to be a Jew. We have 613 commandments to observe. Moreover, we are a persecuted and isolated people.” This is supposed to give the potential convert an opportunity to either back out or say something like, “I know this and even though I am not worthy, I still want to become a Jew.” At which point we are supposed to welcome the person with open arms and then, depending on which school of thought is closest to our own, we require the person to engage in a period of study.
As I listened to the recording of the sessions I convened in response to Reb Zalman, I heard Reb Laura Duhan Kaplan read a different version of this moment from a secondary source, which she later provided for me.* When I searched for copies of this medieval document, I found that the relevant section came in two versions. The first one I found read closer to the familiar drill we already know, although with more detail than the Talmud uses to describe how terrible the situation is in which the Jewish people finds itself.
Another version, however, contains the words which Reb Laura cited, which shift the emphasis from one of joining the Jewish people as its primary focus to becoming God’s servant.
As I write in the document still in progress, I learned to understand the giyur process as a tension between these two fundamental understandings of what it means to be a Jew. One is that we are a special people, made so by the intensity of the faith of our patriarchs and matriarchs culminating in God’s choosing us at Sinai and our acceptance of the status of being a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The other is that we are a people committed to a way of walking with God and the essence of becoming a Jew is to affirm that belief and commitment.
Thus, while we think we know what is supposed to happen, in fact there are at least two sets of different understandings of how we receive a potential convert. What is even more interesting is that both of these approaches are represented by different versions of the very same text!
I have attached both versions in pdf form for you to see.
Next, I want to return to the question of whether two sets of options exhausts the possibilities.
Blessings to all of you for a good secular new year. May this be the year that we finally realize how much we all need to work together to redeem ourselves and the planet which is our shared home.
*Shaye J.D. Cohen The Beginnings of Jewishness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 199. It is an excerpt from the “post-talmudic tractate Gerim…first attested explicitly around 1300.”