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Parashat Ekev

August 4, 2009

By Rabbi Dorit Edut

There is a juxtaposition of two verses in this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, which relate very well to a modern-day phenomenon. Moses, just prior to his death, exhorts the People of Israel to stop blocking themselves from belief in and loyalty to God (Deuteronomy 10:16):

Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.

Three verses later, Moses emphasizes that we are to emulate the greatness of God through our actions, specifically (Deuteronomy 10:19):

You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

The Hebrew word for “stranger” is “ger” which has also been used to mean “convert.”

In other words, we are being asked to look at our own practices and open ourselves us up to developing a deep and abiding relationship with our Creator, the One Who is concerned about all those created. And then, to follow through by putting our insights and beliefs into concrete action, we are asked to reach out especially to those we consider “strangers” in our midst – which could today, of course, include immigrants, physically and mentally challenged, homosexuals, and other minority groups. But if we focus on the meaning of stranger as convert to Judaism, I think we will see an issue that we need to address.

It is not without intention that Moses, and later the Prophet Jeremiah (4:1-4) uses the term “circumcise” in urging the Jewish people to carefully remove that which obstructs their hearts, minds, and souls to doing what God expects of us. We know that circumcision or brit milah is the ritual by which Jewish males accept the Covenant that God first made with our forefathers; every male convert to Judaism must undergo this ritual too, in order to be fully recognized as a member of the Jewish people. It certainly demands a high level of commitment to be willing to undergo circumcision, especially as an adult. This comes only at the end of the long process of study, introspection, and practice which any potential convert to Judaism goes through today. But what is this circumcision of the heart that those born into Judaism are asked to consider here?

In the Talmud (Tractate Sukkah 52a), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi identifies the “thickening around the heart” as the yetzer ha-ra, the inclination for wrongdoing or moral insensitivity. The question then is today, how are we treating those who have converted willingly to Judaism? Also, are there things that we can learn from these converts?

While no formal studies of these questions have been made, there are informal writings by those who have converted that point to an area that needs our attention. In all of our organizations today we have many new “Jews By Choice” who have freely chosen to be part of our people – like the beautiful biblical example of Ruth. They have been led to believe that the Jewish people will embrace them fully once they have converted. And yet… especially for those Jews of Color, they are often treated politely yet never accepted socially on an equal footing. Some have expressed worry about the chances of marrying another Jew or having their children fully accepted in the community. Some Jews of Color have decided to form their own congregations, as in Chicago or New York, where they do not have to deal with any such prejudices. Other converts who become active members of our congregations, often ask where are all the many other Jews whom they assumed would also be attending services, observing our holidays, and contributing to the life of their religious institutions.

Indeed it is from the enthusiasm, the curiosity, and the deep faith of our modern gerim that we can all learn and be inspired. The blockages around our own hearts and minds which have led many of us away from an active and committed Jewish life can be opened up when we hear just how and why the newest members of our people have come to join us. We need to hear this specifically from each one of our gerim – what is their story? What is it they love about Judaism and being Jewish?

If we listen carefully to what our new Jewish converts are saying, then we will see just where we must circumcise our own hearts – to find ways to fully embrace these members of our people and to generate greater enthusiasm, activity, and commitment to our own Jewish identity.

Questions for discussion:
1) How could we become more welcoming and accepting of converts today, especially Jews of Color?
2) What do you know about the impact of Jewish converts on our history?
3) Do you know what a person must study about Judaism in order to convert? Do you need to have this kind of study, too?


Rabbi Dorit Edut was ordained by AJR in 2006 and is the rabbi of Temple Israel of Bay City, Michigan.