The previous letter – “The Healing Power of Converts” – featured the story of Ahuvah Gray, and it cited the following statement of Ahuvah:
“When people ask me what made me want to undergo the difficult and radical transformation of becoming a Jew, I tell them, ‘I was inspired by God’s Divine call to our father, Abraham.’ ”
The idea that Abraham is also the “father” of Ahuvah, who was not a physical descendant of Abraham, is a radical and spiritual idea which challenges those Jews who define our people in strictly ethnic or national terms. In this letter, I will discuss sources within our tradition which support Ahuvah’s statement.
According to the Torah, the farmer is to bring the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple, and he should then say to the officiating kohen (minister):
“I declare today to Hashem, your God, that I have come to the Land that Hashem swore to our forefathers to give us” (Deuteronomy 26:3).
The Torah records that the Land was promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If a convert, who is not a physical descendant of our forefathers, brings first fruits to the Temple, can he proclaim to the Kohen, “I have come to the Land that Hashem swore to our forefathers to give us”? An answer is given by Maimonides – Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam. He was a leading 12th century sage who was recognized as a great authority on the “halacha” – the detailed requirements of the Torah path; moreover, he wrote a monumental code of halacha known as, “Mishnah Torah.” In this code, the Rambam states that a convert who brings the first fruits to the Temple can definitely say, “I have come to the Land that Hashem swore to our forefathers to give us,” for Hashem said to Abraham, our first forefather:
“For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5).
The Rambam comments:
“He is therefore the father of everyone in the world who enters under the wings of the Shechinah.” (The Laws of the First Fruits 4:3)
As we discussed in a previous letter, our tradition views the process of conversion as coming under the wings of the Shechinah – the Divine Presence. In addition, we cited the kabbalistic teaching which reveals that the Shechinah is called “tzedek” (righteousness).
In another letter, we explained that a convert is called a “ger tzedek” –a convert for the sake of tzedek. This is because the convert accepts the responsibility to fullfill the mitzvos of the Torah, the Divine path of tzedek. As King David said to Hashem: “All Your mitzvos are tzedek” (Psalm 119:172).
In the era of the Rambam, there was a noted ger tzedek known as Ovadiah, who lived in the Land of Israel. He wrote a letter of inquiry to the Rambam as to whether he, a ger tzedek, could pray with the People of Israel certain inclusive phrases from our classical prayers, such as: Our God and the God of our forefathers, Who sanctified us with His commandments, Who separated us, You have given to our forefathers as a heritage (the Land), Who brought us out of the land of Egypt, and Who did miracles to our ancestors. In his moving reply, the Rambam opens with the following words:
“Thus says Moshe, the son of Rabbi Maimon, one of the exiles from Jerusalem who lived in Spain: I received the question of our teacher and master, Ovadiah, the wise and understanding ger tzedek. May Hashem recompense his work, and may a full reward be given to him by Hashem, God of Israel, under Whose wings he has sought shelter.”
With regard to Ovadiah’s question regarding certain inclusive phrases in our liturgy, the Rambam writes:
“You should recite them all, just as they are formulated. Change nothing! Just as every native-born Israelite prays and recites benedictions, so you should do, whether you are praying as an individual or as the representative of the congregation (cantor). The main reason for this is that Abraham, our father, taught all the people and enlightened them. He revealed to them the path of truth and the Unity of the Holy One, Blessed is He; moreover, he spurned idolatry and repudiated its worship. He brought many people under the wings of the Shechinah, teaching and instructing them. And he commanded his children and household after him to keep the path of Hashem, as it is written in the Torah:
‘For I have known him, because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of Hashem, to do tzedakah (righteous benevolence) and justice’ (Genesis 18:19).
“Consequently, whoever converts till the end of all generations – whoever unifies the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, as it is written in the Torah, and whoever enters under the Law of Moshe Rebbeinu, the law of truth and tzedek – is counted among the disciples of Abraham our father, and they are the members of his household; he brought them all back to the good. And just as he caused people of his generation to return (to Hashem) through his words and teaching, so too, he caused to return all those who will convert in the future through the testament he left to his children and household after him.”
The Rambam adds:
“Therefore you should pray, ‘Our God and the God of our forefathers,’ because Abraham, peace be upon him, is your father!”
The Rambam also discusses with Ovadiah the following related idea:
“Certainly, you should bless, Who has chosen us, Who has given us (His Torah), Who has separated us, for the Holy One, Blessed is He, has already chosen you, separated you from the nations, and given you the Torah. For the Torah was given both to us and the converts, as it is written:
‘O Congregation! There shall be one statute for you and for the convert who sojourns; it is an eternal statute for your generations: The convert will be equal with you before Hashem.’ (Numbers 15:16)
“And know that the majority of our ancestors that left Egypt were idolaters in Egypt; they mingled among the Gentiles and learned from their ways, until the Holy One, blessed is He, sent Moshe Rebbeinu and the Master of all the prophets. He separated us from the peoples and brought us under the wings of the Shechinah – us and all the converts – and placed before all of us one statute.”
As we previously mentioned, there is a mitzvah to love the ger tzedek. May the above teachings help us to fulfill this mitzvah with a deeper love.
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. The Hebrew term “halacha” is derived from the Hebrew word “holech” – walking, going. A literal meaning of “halacha” is “the way to go” – a reference to the steps on the Divine path of mitzvos. In his letter to Ovadiah, the Rambam also mentions a different halachic opinion found in a Mishnah in the Babylonian Talmud (Bikurim 1:4). It states that a ger tedek who brings the first fruits cannot say the verse which mentions “our forefathers”; however, the Rambam writes that the halacha is not like the view expressed in this Mishnah. The Rambam states that the halacha is according to the view of Rabbi Judah in the Jerusalem Talmud who states that a ger tzedek can recite the verse which mentions our forefathers (Jerusalem Talmud, Bikurim 1, Halacha 4).
2. The Chofetz Chaim was a leading sage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wrote the halachic code “Mishneh Berurah” which is highly respected by all Torah-observant communities. He writes that a ger tzedek can pray, “our forefathers,” as Abraham is the father of a multitude of nations. (Commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 53, Mishna Berurah, 50)
3. Ovadiah also asked the Rambam to comment on a dispute that he, Ovadiah, had with one of his teachers. His teacher said that the Ishmaelites (Arabs) were idolaters, due to a certain custom they had in Mecca, while Ovadiah argued that they were not idolaters. In addition, the teacher personally insulted Ovadiah for his view.
In his letter of response to Ovadiah, the Rambam explains that although the Muslims err in certain areas, they are not idolaters, for they recognize the Oneness and Unity of Hashem. The Rambam then tells Ovadiah that his teacher did a “great sin” by insulting him, and the teacher therefore needs to ask him for forgiveness; moreover, the teacher should fast and pray to Hashem for forgiveness. The Rambam mentions that his teacher seemed to forget that in thirty-six places the Torah cautions us about proper treatment of a ger tzedek, including a prohibition against causing a ger tzedek pain with words (Exodus 22:20).
One of the early manuscripts of the Rambam’s letter to Ovadiah mentions that Ovadiah was an Ishmaelite who became a ger tzedek.
4. There are a few slight variations among the early manuscripts of the Rambam’s letter to Ovadiah. This is why one may encounter a few slight variations in the various English translations of this letter.