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Outward Turn of Conversation

04/20/2022 06:44:09 PM


Rabbi Brent Spodek

The Torah says that a Jew “must leave the edges of his field and the gleanings of his harvest for the poor and the stranger,” and the Talmudic tradition decided that this particular commandment is an indispensable part of the process for conversion to Judaism.

A prospective convert to Judaism must immerse in a mikva and if male, be circumcised in the name of conversion. Also, the rabbi must inform the convert of the persecution Jews often face, as well as a few simple and a few complicated commandments. Additionally, the rabbi is specifically required to teach the convert about the commandment that a Jew must leave the edges of his field and the gleanings of his harvest for the poor and the stranger. That is the only particular commandment that a prospective convert must learn. Not Shabbat, not prayer, not kashrut nor any of the other mainstays of Jewish life. Just this one.

From the time of the Torah to today, there have been Jews who have been very interested in observing the particulars of ritual life and Jews who have been less interested – but few have doubted that they are Jews. But compassion is seen as such an indispensable part of what it is to be Jewish that a Jew who is cruel is suspected of not being Jewish at all. There are no cruel Jews because a cruel person waives his right to be considered a Jew, no matter to whom he was born or how or where he davvens.

According to the rabbis of the Talmud, King David declares that mercy, modesty and benevolence are the characteristics which define who could be considered part of the Jewish people (Yebamot 79a). It is as if King David is saying “Jews who don’t believe in God, or don’t care about Shabbat, or who aren’t interested in kashrut can be Jewish in essence. But can there be Jews who are cruel and indifferent to suffering? No – that’s impossible.” Hundreds of years later, the Rambam codified this story into Jewish law (Isurei Biah 19:17), establishing that, for communal purposes, someone who is hateful or cruel is suspected of not really being a Jew.

The Talmudic tradition takes our particular verse and uses it to make it clear that to be a Jew is to be constantly turned towards others with a generosity of spirit. Our forefather Abraham was confronted with three strangers, who – unbeknownst to Abraham, were agents of the Holy One. Of course, so is every stranger that we met. Abraham ran to offer them water, food and shelter and those of us who imagine ourselves as the heirs of Abraham, either through blood or through conversion, inherit this difficult tradition of unending concern for the well-being of other people.

In establishing the instruction to leave the corners of the field for the hungry and the stranger, as the sina qua non of conversion, the rabbis were saying that there are many aspects to being Jewish, but only one of them is essential – to be perpetually turned outward in a posture of compassion, to be perpetually concerned about others.

With that in mind, can we merit to call ourselves Jews?

Mon, September 25 2023 10 Tishrei 5784