Conversion: Then and Now

Vayishlah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 27, 2004 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

During my recent visit to Israel, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a decision of great import on the subject of conversion. It found that since the Ministry of Interior already registers Jews converted abroad who make aliyah, there was no legal or logical reason not to register Jews by choice who had been converted by a Reform or Conservative rabbi in Israel. The present law gives the Chief Rabbinate exclusive authority only in matters of marriage and divorce, not in matters of conversion.

However, in order not to appear too intrusive, the high court granted the Knesset a period of time to pass a law that would govern the area of conversion as well. In the spring, the court is scheduled to take up an appeal by the Masorti (Conservative) movement to compel the Ministry of Interior to register the several non-Jewish Russian children converted at our movement’s Kibbutz Hanaton last year. If no legislation has been passed by then, the court most likely will enforce its judicial decision as the law of the land. To no one’s surprise, the Orthodox parties in Israel have denounced the decision as fraught with fateful consequences, and quickly mobilized to stampede the Peres government into sponsoring legislation that would plug the loophole by expanding the religious monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate.

I raise the issue of conversion not only out of deep concern, but also because it is touched upon in our parasha. Toward the end in the genealogy of Esau, an unexpected detail gives rise to a midrash that roundly condemns the rejectionist camp on converting non-Jews. The verse reads: “Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz (Genesis 36:12).” Two things caught the eye of the author of our midrash: Why should the Torah, generally so stingy with words, trouble to tell us the name of Eliphaz’s concubine? And why should Amalek, the archenemy of Israel, have issued from that unsavory union?

The following narrative is woven to answer these questions: Timna is noteworthy because she was a member of the aristocracy, the sister of Lotan, a prince of the Horite nation (Genesis 36:22). She was attracted to the lofty new faith of the patriarchs, but each one rejected her when she came to convert. In despair, she finally settled to serve as the concubine of Esau’s son, on the premise that it was preferable to be a maidservant in Israel than a princess of another people. Amalek emerged as their offspring in punishment for the patriarchs’ unrelenting cold shoulder.

This is hardly a piece of dispassionate exegesis. The author adroitly manipulates two extraneous biblical facts into a tirade against the ethnic purists of his day. He believes in the superiority of Judaism and its world-wide mission. Had the patriarchs understood God’s will, Israel would have been spared the recurring wrath of Amalek.

Nor is this midrash an isolated example of a universalistic and lenient view on conversion. The preponderant number of statements in rabbinic literature are favorable and echo an era when many rabbis still posited an expansive mission for Judaism. Thus the early Aramaic translation of the Torah (the Targum) envisions Abraham as having won many converts to his beliefs before he departed from Haran (Genesis 12:5). Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat, at the end of the third century, proclaimed that God had exiled Is

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Vayishlah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.