Loving and Not Mistreating the Convert

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The mitzvah of loving the convert, found in Devarim 10;19 and recorded as Obligation 207 in Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, adds to the general obligation to love all fellow Jews. Rambam reminds his readers we/they have already seen a similar additional obligation for converts when it came to verbal or financial mistreatment, ona’ah, in Mishpatim, where the prohibitions of ona’ah towards regular Jews were stated in Behar.

Because it will not take long, I will describe all three, the obligation to love the convert, and the prohibition against mistreatment with words or money. I take it as a good moment to remember some mitzvot, as important or vital as any other, can nonetheless be presented briefly.

I remember the one time I heard Nehama Leibowitz speak, she commented on how students retain the rules of eved ‘Ivri, a Hebrew indentured servant, much better than the idea lying is prohibited by the Torah, despite the verse for that prohibition appearing in the same parsha, mi-devar sheker tirhak, stay far from falsehood.

She explained: Lying is tossed off in one sentence, don’t do it, where eved ‘Ivri, with multiple laws, garners a longer discussion, maybe a homework or a quiz, and students remember what they spent more time on.

We have to be careful not to confuse quantity with significance. [And, since it came up, it is a good moment to remind ourselves truth is important, lying is bad, that R. Hanina taught us, Shabbat 55a, the seal of God is truth. We need this reminder because in the past few years, I have met more than a few observant Jews, even accomplished Torah scholars, who happily overlook consistent lying from people who give them other goods they want.]

Loving the Convert

Perhaps highlighting how it only adds to a previous mitzvah, Rambam does not define loving the convert, because the one just before it was to love the fellow Jew. There, Rambam said it meant to want for other Jews what we want for ourselves, that we are to care about other Jews’ health and wealth as we would care about and for our own.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 253 had echoed Rambam regarding the mitzvah to love a fellow Jew, but in 431 thinks the love for a convert covers more ground, obligates Jews to avoid causing the convert any distress, to do as much good and kindness for them as is worthy and within our abilities. (By ra’ui, worthy, I think he means sensible).

Rambam attributes the additional verse for a convert—superfluous because the convert is a full Jew, covered by the existing obligation to love a fellow Jew, and for Rambam there was no added element to this love—to the convert’s having chosen to enter our way of life (nichnas be-Torateinu, entered or joined our Torah, a phrasing to notice, because we today would likely focus on the convert’s having joined the Jewish people).

Sefer Ha-Hinuch, too, stresses the convert’s having left his/her previous religion and joined ours. I might have thought that would then explain the reason for the mitzvah, we should love the convert as an acknowledgement of the sacrifice s/he made. Instead, Sefer Ha-Hinuch says the mitzvah comes to train us in compassion, for us to become people whom other nations admire, to lead them to concede we are truly God’s people.

For him, our treating well a person who left family and friends to join our nation will be a marker of our good traits, helping us merit God’s beneficent Presence and good treatment.

Not Taunting the Convert

In our mitzvah of loving a convert, Sefer Ha-Hinuch included an idea Rambam had put into Prohibition 252, not to wrong a convert.  Rambam had quoted Sifra to Shemot 22;20, we may not remind a convert of his/her past, phrased in Baba Metzi’a 58 as not to say to him/her “remember how you used to act.”

As we will see, Rambam seems to have understood this to include all forms of wronging, financial as well as verbal. His Sifra version tells us we may not say: yesterday, you worshipped idols and now you’ve come to worship God, mocking his religiosity.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch includes it all in the love, too, thinks anyone who troubles a convert, is derelict in helping them avoid personal or financial loss, treats the convert disrespectfully because s/he is a convert with no obvious protection in society, has failed in the mitzvah to love the convert.

Unless he started it, Minhat Hinuch 63 suggests. In Mitzvah 338, Sefer Ha-Hinuch had allowed responding in kind to a fellow Jew who initiated a verbal conflict, because the Torah does not require Jews to be like stone (Sefer Ha-Hinuch wrote; I am not sure we see the issue the same way in our times, that it’s understandable to meet fire with fire; for another time).

The same would seem to be true if the convert started the altercation, Minhat Hinuch agrees, although he is loath to be lenient without specific sources. [He is implying we might indeed have to react to a convert’s verbal assaults more passively than to an ordinary Jews, because of the extra obligation to love a convert. This would be a way our love for a convert imposes additional obligations as compared to the love for a fellow J]

Inappropriate Power Must Not Be Wielded

What’s left for Mitzvah 63, not to wrong the convert with words, for Sefer Ha-Hinuch? Not much definitionally; he emphasizes the convert’s vulnerability, his/her having come into a new people with no support system, where ordinary Jews have family to protest or step in if they are mistreated. Mistreatment might also lead the convert to give up and return to his/her original people (a disaster, since we think the convert will then be a lapsed Jew, not a non-Jew).

In the prohibition, Sefer Ha-Hinuch attributes the reason for the mitzvah in line with his concern about the convert’s being an easy target. Where the mitzvah taught us positive qualities, love and compassion for those who align themselves with God, here he sees a lesson in restraining ourselves from taking advantage where we are able.

Tempting as it is to take what we can, the Torah is teaching us to take only what we may, not to see the vulnerable as fair game. The more we hold ourselves back, the more elevated in our characters we will be.

What Kind of Convert?

The obligation to love a fellow Jew, Vayikra 19;18, refers to re’acha, your fellow, where the prohibition, Vayikra 25;17, speaks of not mistreating amito, a word the English fudges with the inexact term “another.” Minhat Hinuch points out the Gemara in Baba Metzi’a reads an amit to refer to one like us in observance, working to fulfill God’s Will.

A Jew who has left the path no longer fits the verse, an idea cited by Rema, Hoshen Mishpat 229, to say prohibition does not apply to the non God-fearing [obviously a tense topic in our times, how we view/treat those who are not observant, with many layers of nuance I cannot entertain here, and fortunately need not, since this is not our mitzvah].

Minhat Hinuch takes for granted—he says it is pashut, simple or obvious—the rule against mistreating a convert applies regardless of his/her state of observance. [I think he is, first, noting the Torah did not speak of re’a or amit, words implying a limitation, and also assumes the Torah’s worry about how we treat converts is less about what they deserve than for fellow Jews. With converts, our insistence on treating them well improves our characters by virtue of not taking advantage of the vulnerable, and helps keep them from returning to their idolatrous origins. I can imagine other ways to read the issue, but this is not the place to speculate.]

Minhat Hinuch 64 also is sure these laws apply to children converts as well.

How Long Is a Jew a Convert?

Sanhedrin 94a warns us against denigrating non-Jews in front of a tenth-generation convert, for Sefer Ha-Hinuch a marker of how far we have to go to avoid causing a convert any distress, but which implies a tenth-generation descendant still counts as a convert for these purposes.

Minhat Hinuch 431 does not note that source when he questions who qualifies for the obligation to love a convert. The first-generation is easy, but he suggests any children born purely of a convert line (one convert marries another, they have children, who also all marry either converts or the children of converts, and so on) might still be mandatory recipients of our extra love. Until a Jew born of originally Jewish parents mixes in the lineage, some halachot continue to treat them as converts, suggesting to Minhat Hinuch these laws may also apply to them.

For him, Sanhedrin was not limited to legal converts, since the Gemara seemed to rule out denigrating non-Jews in front of a tenth-generation descendant who had any such ancestor. [I suppose he might have restricted that Gemara to a tenth-generation Jew all of whose ancestors were converts, but I think the Gemara would have made that clear if that was what it meant.]

Not Oppressing the Convert Financially

Prohibition 253 codifies the rest of the verse in Mishpatim, we may not wrong a convert in business or other monetary interactions. Baba Metzi’a 59b says one who cheats a convert violates three prohibitions. Rambam held the three were the one against wronging a Jew financially, wronging a convert in any way (although we had focused on the verbal), and for financial wrongs, lo tilhatzenu.

Maggid Mishneh was bothered by Rambam’s list, since the Gemara had cited Shemot 23;9, ve-ger lo tilhatz, meaning it had two verses regarding financial pressure, where Rambam assumed the third prohibition was the general one against ona’at ha-ger, mistreating the convert.

If so, wonders Minhat Hinuch 64, shouldn’t any mistreatment of a convert be also part of ve-ger lo toneh, such as stealing from him/her? He instead argues it is about pressuring the convert in a financial situation, the pressure a form of oppression.

The Seriousness of It

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 63 stresses the significance of the mitzvah, repeated in twenty-four places in the Torah, and that Hazal made a point of the Torah using the same verb, ahavah, for God as for the convert [I did not find the Midrash he and Rambam reference]. Minhat Hinuch corrects the numbers, since the Gemara speaks of thirty-six or forty-six places, and is sure the number here is a copyist’s error.

Aruch HaShulhan does not have much to add, and perhaps refrained from a full discussion because of what he lets us know in an interesting parenthesis. In 156;8 he brings up loving a convert and adds be-yamim kadmonim, in days of yore, I think because converting to Judaism was prohibited where he lived.

As we remember the importance of treating converts well, and certainly not mistreating them, we can celebrate our living in a time when conversion is allowed and available to all who wish to join God’s Jewish service.

About Gidon Rothstein

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