Parashat Ki Tavo

By Rabbi Halina Rubenstein

One of the most rewarding experiences of my rabbinical career has been teaching conversion classes. It is exhilarating seeing the students learning Judaism step by step and then witnessing their evolving Jewish identity when everything you have been teaching congeals and becomes love and acceptance. The close relationship that the students and I develop through many months of weekly sessions is essential for this transformation to happen. Working through their struggles, their strengths and weaknesses, their joys and tribulations, together, creates a strong connection and gives them the support to go through the last stage of the conversion process -which is usually charged with anxiety – the meeting with the Bet Din and the mikvah ceremony. This rite of passage which marks their ‘official’ acceptance is a powerful ritual usually accompanied by a dialogue between the Bet Din and the convert in which she renounces all past religious loyalties and accepts her new Jewish identity.

In the Torah we have the instance of an Israelite who is required to go through a ritual of identity declaring loyalty to his heritage and his people; this is the opening theme of Parashat Ki Tavo. One of the obligations of the Israelites once they take possession of the land is to bring the gift of the first fruits to the temple and recite the following to the priest:

“My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a might hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents; He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which you, Oh Lord, have given me.”

The text of the parashah continues with a dictum to enjoy the bounty “together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst” but it is not clear if the stranger, the ger, is also obligated to recite this “declaration of identity.”

Last year in my conversion class we were reading this passage in the Passover Haggadah and one of my students asked if she, as a convert, could actually recite this declaration. Per chance I had in my files a copy of the Rambam’s Letter to Ovadyah, the text of a shiur taught in one of our AJR retreats. Rabbi Ovadyah was a righteous convert into Judaism who asked this same question. Moreover, Rabbi Ovadyah wondered about all the blessings and prayers that have inclusive language such as “who commanded us.”

It appears that Rabbi Ovadyah’s question was prompted by an anonymous mishna (Bikkurim 1:4) that states: “[These may bring the first fruits but may not recite the confession]: the convert may bring them but he may not recite the confession since he cannot say, ‘which the Lord swore to our fathers to give to us’ … and when he prays in private he should say ‘our God and the God of the fathers of Israel,’ and when he prays in the synagogue, he should say ‘The God of your fathers.'”

The Rambam advises Rabbi Ovadyah that he should recite all blessings and prayers in the prescribed manner just like any native Israelite. The principle, Maimonides explains, is that all converts up until the end of generations are students of Abraham, our father. In the same way that Abraham was able to bring the members of his generation under the wings of the Shekhinah
– God’s presence – so too he has caused all future converts to return by means of the commandment to his son, Isaac, and household after him. Abraham is a father to the worthy seed who follow his ways. Therefore, no difference exists between “us” and “you.” In fact, the Torah was also given to the convert as it states (Numbers 15:15): “One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger (ger) that sojourned with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations: as you are so shall the stranger be before the Lord.”

How about the Mishnah just cited above? In the final statement of his letter Rambam brings a statement from the Jerusalem Talmud (Bikkurim 1:4) that sets the record straight as far as Mishna Bikkurim 1:4 is concerned:

“We have learnt in the name of Rabbi Judah: The convert himself brings and recites the confession. What is the reason? “For a father of many nations have I made thee” (Genesis 17:5). In the past you were a father to Abraham, from now on you are a father to all people. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: the halakhah is according to Rabbi Judah. There came a case before Rabbi Abahu and he ruled according to Rabbi Judah.”

I am grateful for the wisdom of the Rambam’s letter. I personally have come to admire every person who can love our people to the point of uniting their destiny to ours. We Jews are not especially loved by the world; anti-Semitism is our eternal scourge. Just last week, not long after a group of Jews in New Jersey, with no ties whatsoever to the State of Israel, were charged with profiting from unlawful trafficking of human organs, an article in the popular Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet appeared claiming that Israeli soldiers capture innocent Palestinians, kill them and harvest their vital organs for transplantation. This is not much different to the blood libels of the recent past.

We carry the heavy responsibility of being a witness to the world. Let us embrace all who want to be part of our people, who commit to share in our heritage, who love Torah and walk in paths of justice and righteousness.

Shabbat
Shalom.

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Halina Rubenstein was ordained at The Academy for Jewish Religion and is a member of Chavurah Rosh Pinah in Hastings-on-Hudson.