Try to imagine your zeyde, born and bred in Lithuania, dressed as a Pilgrim. I did. Like any other American schoolchild, I learned how the Pilgrims came to these shores on the Mayflower, how they celebrated their first harvest together with the Wampanoag Indians, and how this celebration became the basis for our holiday of Thanksgiving. For reasons that were not clear to me at the time, I tried to picture my Litvak grandfather as a Pilgrim, but the moment I did I started laughing.
It wasn't until years later that I understood what motivated me to engage in this thought experiment. I was taught that American history began with the Pilgrims. (Keep in mind that I began grade school in the '50s.) My ancestors, however, had not come over on the Mayflower. Consequently, I was asking myself: Could I claim this piece of history—in fact, any piece of American history prior to my family's arrival in America in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries—as my own?
The Sages of the Talmud raise a similar question in connection with a commandment appearing at the beginning of this week's Torah portion. We are told that a farmer bringing first fruits to the Temple was to recite a declaration briefly reviewing the Israelite experience of exile and bondage in Egypt and recounting the divine acts of redemption that brought them to the Land of Israel. The question arises as to whether a ger, a convert to Judaism, should recite this declaration. The question was raised because of the wording of the prologue to the declaration: "I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us" (Deut. 26:3). In fact, no such promise was made to the ger's biological ancestors; therefore, perhaps it is inappropriate for him to make this declaration. The Mishnah rules in the negative: "A ger brings [first fruits] but does not make the declaration" (Mishnah Bikkurim 1:4).
Many centuries later, a Jew who had converted from Islam and taken the name of Obadiah (a common name for converts in both Christian and Muslim countries because of a tradition that Obadiah the prophet was a ger) asked Maimonides, the twelfth-century Egyptian Sage, whether or not he should recite phrases like "our God and the God of our fathers" at the beginning of the 'Amidah. After all, Obadiah was not a descendant of the Patriarchs; would it not be dishonest for him to claim them as his own?
In fact both the aforementioned Mishnah and the Palestinian Talmud discuss this question. The Mishnah continues, "When [a ger] prays privately he says 'the God of the fathers of Israel' and praying in synagogue he says 'the God of your fathers.'" However, the Palestinian Talmud cites the view of R. Judah who, contrary to the Mishnah's view, requires a convert to recite the declaration of the first fruits—and presumably would also instruct a ger to say "our God and the God of our fathers" in his prayers—as well as several Sages who rule in accordance with R. Judah.
Maimonides could have begun his response to Obadiah by citing the Talmudic passage. Instead, he begins by designating Obadiah and all those who turn to the worship of the one true God as the children of Abraham. In saying this, Maimonides is drawing upon a midrashic tradition (a version of which is cited in the passage in the Palestinian Talmud) that Abraham and Sarah brought many converts under the wings of the Shekhinah. He is also introducing a notion that would both be familiar to a former Muslim and would function as a counter narrative to Qur'anic tradition. The Qur'an describes Abraham as the first to practice Islam, which means literally submission; Abraham is the first human being to submit himself entirely to God's will. Maimonides acknowledges this special role of Abraham, one that is confirmed numerous times by biblical and rabbinic tradition, but also insists that the submission in question is to Torah, not to Muslim doctrines.
Maimonides continues by observing that most of the Israelites who left Egypt were idolators and that at Sinai both they and the non-Israelites who had accompanied them were in equal need of the teachings they received at Sinai, particularly those forbidding idolatry. Finally, buttressing his claim with a verse from Isaiah, Maimonides assures Obadiah that if those born as Jews can claim the pedigree of being the Patriarchs' descendants, then Obadiah, as a ger, can claim the distinction of having adopted God Himself as his parent and protector.
It is only after this elaborate sermon that Maimonides finally introduces the Talmudic discussion of the question. Why is this? We see here Maimonides' ability to perceive the unasked question lying behind the question that Obadiah actually poses. His question is not merely technical. What he wants to know is: Am I as much a Jew as anyone who was born a member of the Jewish people, or am I only a second-class citizen? This is particularly an issue for those converting to Judaism, because ours is a religion that draws heavily on history and historical memory. All Jewish holidays and many commandments commemorate in some way a part of the Jewish past. How can someone who only recently has become a member of the Jewish people claim that history, and the commandments that reflect and celebrate it, as her own?
Maimonides' answer is essentially to portray Judaism as a faith community, implicitly de-emphasizing its historical character. Being the descendant of Abraham is of no significance, argues Maimonides, if one has not accepted the belief in Abraham's God. Conversely, anyone who does so is as much a member of the community of Israel as any other Jew; pedigree is irrelevant.
I think that Maimonides' answer is an important one. However, there is another way of responding to Obadiah and all those troubled by his question; this response is important not only for gerim but for all Jews. When someone comes to convert to Judaism, says the Talmud, we say to her, "Why would you want to convert? Do you not know that at present the people of Israel are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?" Whatever else is intended in making this initial statement, it is a reminder to the potential convert that she is not only accepting upon herself a set of beliefs and practices but is also electing to share the often precarious and sometimes tragic fate of the Jewish people. She is becoming a member of what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik calls a "community of destiny." Anyone willing to remain faithful to Jewish belief, practice, and peoplehood through any future challenges that might befall the Jewish people is entitled to claim all of the Jewish past, with its many tragedies and triumphs, as her own.
And so, finally, I return to my grandfather, the Pilgrim manqué. My grandfather's ancestors did not come across on the Mayflower; in fact, he probably would have been hard pressed to tell you what the Mayflower was. But he accepted and embraced what is special about these United States of America, its invitation to live freely and proudly regardless of race, religion, or creed. In so doing he committed himself to safeguarding that right for his fellow citizens, his children and grandchildren, and for all future generations. He was as American as the passengers on the Mayflower who, like him, were seeking a land where they could start anew, free of religious persecution.
When we, born and bred in America, turn to consider the new arrivals to these shores from countries across the globe, we would do well to think of Maimonides' response to Obadiah. Being an American does not depend on having a particular history, speaking a certain language, having a certain skin color, or practicing a specific religion. Furthermore, as Americans, these immigrants are the rightful inheritors of the narrative delineating the journey over the centuries from intolerance and slavery toward acceptance and equality, a narrative to which they contribute with their own words and actions. Anyone attracted by the promise of freedom, equality, and tolerance and willing to grant and protect these rights for others has a place here, and it is our duty to welcome them into the community of true Americans.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.