Denying conversions is denying the Divine voice – Parashat Bo

Denying conversions is denying the Divine voice – Parashat Bo

This is the cliffhanger. In Parashat Bo we witness the last three plagues aimed to shake us loose from our bondage; they are afflictions so palpable and devastating they resonate across the ages and through layers of meaning. These three – locusts, darkness, and death – force us to take shelter and comfort with one another during these last moments before the Exodus and establish us, our families, and homes as uniquely woven into a Jewish covenant. Indeed, we are commanded to do so (Ex. 12:7, 22). We hold our breath and continue to be bound together as a people by the Divine Presence as we cross the Sea of Reeds toward Sinai in our next two parshiot.

But here in Bo, we find ourselves in our most formative stage as a people, huddled together in a swirl of faith, courage, and fear. Yet hurled out into our newfound freedom, we immediately find that an integral part of our journey is embracing the erev rav (mixed multitude) (Ex. 12:38) who join with us along the way. So it has been from the very beginning of our peoplehood.

Over the millennia¸ the Biblical erev rav in our communities have different names. The rabbis of our Talmud created the categories of the ger tzedek and ger toshav. In modern civic terms we might analogize these as the naturalized American citizen and the legal resident alien or Green Card holder. In modern Jewish life, they are perhaps best identified as the convert and members of our extended families who have not chosen that route. In our tradition, members in both categories are recognized as having distinct rights, responsibilities, and honored status. Implied, therein, is our responsibility to teach and to welcome them. The presence of the discussion itself in our sources belies the tension wrestling with our competing instincts. The competition lies in balancing how we embrace people and things from different origins versus how we are strengthened by and find comfort in what is most familiar and in our interpretations of truth.

Sources from the Talmud, Shulhan Aruch, and into modernity clearly state that if after acquainting a conversion candidate with some (not all) of the minor mitzvot (first) and (then) some of the major mitzvot, while he is neither persuaded nor dissuaded too much, if the candidate understands and accepts, he is immediately converted (through circumcision and mikvah) and is immediately accepted as an Israelite in all respects.

While some of our communities and families today still struggle with the role of the ger toshav (associate members of our tribe), all our sources are very clear that those who choose to convert have absolute and equal status to those who inherit their identity through birth. Rambam and others teach us to go out of our way not to marginalize Jews by choice in any way. Moreover, when three times a day we pray the Amida, we ask that we be judged in the category of people that converts share with the most righteous among us. (See the al ha tzadikim or 13th benediction of the Shmonei Esrei.)

This may be theoretically reassuring, but today, more than ever, we are engaged in our own debate over Jewish immigration legislation.

But again, back to Bo. Often translated as “go” (or move away as in “Go to Pharaoh,” Ex. 10:1), the word bo means the exact opposite, come (or approach). Of all the other Hebrew words that actually do mean go, why does the Torah use that word? Why are we coming toward in order to leave? If God is releasing us, why do we need to come before Pharaoh?

We come/bo because we have to stand before, face down, and reject the hard heart of Pharaoh. He is at once that from which God is freeing us, and the paradigm of our dysfunctional formative past. We come not only to face and reject our oppressor, but also to reject internalizing our oppression. Pharaoh is our oppressive past. He represents Romans, medieval Europe’s discriminatory church laws, institutionalized American quotas before the 21st century, Nazi racial criteria, even the Arab states’ animosity strangling Israeli peace. The knowledge of how long this tragic list continues is grafted into our people’s DNA.

Ten times we get a reminder of how easy – even natural – is the instinct to internalize our oppressive and marginalized past and stay in Mitzrayim. So 10 times God sends us the message that the covenant means resisting and fighting that urge. Just like children, history teaches us to live what we learn. We are given Torah to teach us to resist the instincts that keep us from leaving Mitzrayim.

Recently, some of our religious leaders have interpreted and acted upon a radically narrowed and misguided definition of an appropriate conversion. Worse is the insidious delegitimization of both those who join our people with whole hearts and full intention and the learned rabbis who sensitively facilitate their conversions.

In world Judaism’s mixed multitude of 5770 and with these decisions, some rabbis and many in our beloved community are plagued by the fear, suspicion, paralysis, and regressive instincts that characterized our past oppressors’ attitude toward us.

We see this evidenced in England and very close to home where rabbis have attempted to deny Jewish children entry into Jewish schools; in Spain where rabbis have denied Jewish burial; and in Israel where rabbis attempt to retroactively revoke conversions and obstruct full participation in Jewish life – just to recall some recent headlines and the shame they evoke.

The penultimate plague of darkness in Bo is described as so thick that people couldn’t see one another, a darkness so paralyzing they couldn’t move from their positions (Ex. 10:23). The warning of this plague is to guard ourselves from being so blinded from the pain of that oppression that we can’t see the integrity of those before us who come to Sinai from a place different from our own. God gives the Israelites light in their homes. That is compassion.

So do we say go away or come? What is the most authentically Jewish? Do we exclude those who have evidenced their commitment by word and deed from the most sacred elements of Jewish life? Or do we trust in what is wonderful and wise, expansive, and Godly about living and being Jewish? Because, remember, God says bo/come. It’s Pharaoh who says go. (l’chu/tze’u/Ex:10:8, 24, 31) To be worthy, whose voice do we internalize? Which voice do we obey?