Border Crossings: A Tale of Two Converts
The Tora enjoins the Israelites upon their entrance into the Land of Israel to love the stranger—36 times.1 Moses gives the people a historical context to this commandment, he reminds them to love or in some instances to not oppress the stranger “for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.”2
This thread of commandment and of memory weaved throughout the Tora argues that the memory of displacement, disenfranchisement, and oppression should inspire an attitude of care and concern for those on the margins of society, those without the socio-economic networks that would protect them in times of need and the family networks that would give emotional and physical protection from the vagaries of life. In Biblical times this stranger—the Ger—was a foreigner who found their way to the land of Israel and sought shelter among the people of Israel. The Tora does not define the religious status of this foreigner, instead it focuses on the responsibility of those on the inside, of those firmly rooted within the social matrix of power and security, to make space for this stranger. Those who are rooted are enjoined both to not harm the strangers, and to go one step further and to actually love them.3
I want to stop and consider the ways this powerful moral injunction, which is grounded in an appeal to the past, to the foundational nation-building experience of slavery and redemption, enlightens, inspires and complicates the experience of those who seek entrance into the community. History can only go so far in helping us understand the present. And yet, how else do we understand the pedigree of our ideas? Through historical analysis we can see that things are both more similar and more different than we assume—to make the familiar strange and the strange more familiar.
I want to use the example of two pre-modern converts to Judaism to think about the ways that outsiders can find their way into the heart of a new community. In doing so I hope to explore the ways that bonds of faith can complicate and break through barriers of blood and tribe. In both cases we have people whose ethnic origins are not only foreign but often considered hostile to the community they desire to integrate into. Both individuals had to leave the comfort and familiarity of their homes and the privilege of their class to follow their search for religious truth and forge a new sense of belonging.
The foundational narrative of the righteous convert is threaded with kindness, self-sacrifice and transcends blood-lines, allowing for an outsider to be the mother of the nation’s redemption
In this way they follow in the footsteps of the prototypical “righteous convert,” Ruth. Ruth’s Moabite origin placed her on the short list of nations with whom the Israelites were enjoined to avoid. In fact it is the case of Ruth that establishes the rabbinic ruling that the prohibition against allowing Moabites to enter into the Congregation of Israel applies only to Moabite men, not women. She leaves the comfort of her homeland, her family and all that was familiar to follow her widowed mother-in-law, who had nothing to offer her, to a land she did not know and to live at the behest of people who would at best look at her with suspicion. Ruth is well aware that her mother-in-law cannot provide children to wed or money or land to provide for her needs. Her decision to follow Naomi is not based on “anything of this world.” She declares in Ruth 1:16-17:
וַתֹּ֤אמֶר רוּת֙ אַל־תִּפְגְּעִי־בִ֔י לְעָזְבֵ֖ךְ לָשׁ֣וּב מֵאַחֲרָ֑יִךְ כִּ֠י אֶל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֵּלְכִ֜י אֵלֵ֗ךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּלִ֙ינִי֙ אָלִ֔ין עַמֵּ֣ךְ עַמִּ֔י וֵאלֹהַ֖יִךְ אֱלֹהָֽי׃ בַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּמ֙וּתִי֙ אָמ֔וּת וְשָׁ֖ם אֶקָּבֵ֑ר כֹּה֩ יַעֲשֶׂ֨ה ייי לִי֙ וְכֹ֣ה יֹסִ֔יף כִּ֣י הַמָּ֔וֶת יַפְרִ֖יד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֵֽךְ׃
But Ruth replied, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”
For Ruth her connection to Naomi is inextricable from her willingness to embrace Naomi’s nation and to make her God her own. It is hard to detangle Ruth’s religious motivation from her attachment to Naomi. The book of Ruth does not have her call out to the God of Israel or receive prophecy or brave martyrdom; it is her selfless dedication to her mother-in-law that is a key factor that brings her to the attention of her eventual “redeemer,” Boaz. Boaz takes her as a wife and restores her and Naomi’s fortunes. More fundamentally, the narrative ends with a genealogy which begins with Ruth the Moabite, a stranger with a checkered past, but ends with David the King of Israel and the root of the Messiah. So the foundational narrative of the righteous convert is threaded with kindness, self-sacrifice and transcends blood-lines, allowing for an outsider to be the mother of the nation’s redemption.
Despite the focus on caring for the stranger, and even the celebration of the righteous convert in the story of Ruth, there are many factors that dampened and complicated the Jewish embrace of the stranger in the pre-modern period. In the diaspora, Jews were a tolerated minority whose tolerance was partially based on their respect for the religious hegemony of their hosts. So there would be no conversion of Christians in the lands of Christendom and no conversion of Muslims in the lands of Islam. To be involved with any part of such a conversion was punishable by death. These laws developed with the rise of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century and were in force up to the modern age.
Another complicating factor facing the would-be convert lies at the heart of Judaism’s identity as both a national and a religious community. You are born into Judaism and yet Judaism is a set of ideas, beliefs and most importantly actions.Anyone who embraces those ideas and deeds can join, regardless of their ethnic or national origin. Conversion is a fundamental avenue of entry and thus the tribe, where bonds are formed through blood and family and a shared past, paradoxically can always be expanded to include members who do not share any of those tribal bonds.
The Jews are referred to as the Children of Israel- the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel and yet what does it mean to be a child of Israel? Is it in the blood or is there something else that makes up Israelite paternity?
The 12th-century Andalusian-Egyptian polymath, Maimonides received a query from a convert named Obadiya who felt that because he could not trace his lineage back to the forefathers of the Jewish people he could not invoke their names in his prayers. We know a little about this intrepid religious searcher from documents uncovered in the Cairo Geniza. 4
Maimonides tells Obadiya the convert that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are his fathers because he follows their teachings. Obadiya left his family and home behind in search of religious truth just like Abraham who left behind all that was familiar to follow God’s voice. Maimonides identifies the convert’s commitment to the right ideals and sacrifice on behalf of those ideals as the mark of inclusion in the group. By discounting the power of blood, Maimonides welcomes this outsider in.
שֶׁנִּכְנַסְתָּ תַּחַת כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה וְנִלְוֵיתָ עַל ייי אֵין כָּאן הֶפְרֵשׂ בֵּינֵינוּ וּבֵינְךָ, וְכָל הַנָּסִים שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ כְּאִלּוּ לָנוּ וּלְךָ נַעֲשׂוּ. הֲרֵי הוּא אוֹמֵר בִּישַׁעְיָהוּ [נ:ו] וְאַל־יֹאמַ֣ר בֶּן־הַנֵּכָ֗ר הַנִּלְוָ֤ה אֶל־יְהוָה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר הַבְדֵּ֧ל יַבְדִּילַ֛נִי יְהוָ֖ה מֵעַ֣ל עַמּ֑וֹ אֵין שָׁם הֶפְרֵשׁ כְּלָל בֵּינֵינוּ וּבֵינֶיךָ לְכֹל דָּבָר. וּוַדַּאי יֵשׁ לְךְ לְבָרֵךְ ‘אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר בָּנוּ’ וַ’אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָנוּ’ וַ’אֲשֶׁר הִבְדִּלֵנוּ,’ שֶׁכְּבָר בָּחַר בְּךָ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, וְהִבְדִּלְךָ מִן הָאֻמּוֹת, וְנָתַן לְךָ הַתּוֹרָה.
Because since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. Thus is said in the Book of Isaiah, “Neither let the son of the stranger, that has joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, ‘The Lord has utterly separated me from His people’” (Is. 56:3). There is no difference whatever between you and us. You shall certainly say the blessing, “Who has chosen us,” “Who has given us,” and “Who has separated us”: for the Creator, may He be extolled, has indeed chosen you and separated you from the nations and given you the Tora.
Belief in the One God, sacrifice, and commitment to Divine Law is what secures Obadiya the convert’s place within his new community. His foreignness, his gentile blood, is no longer relevant because he has embraced the ideals of his new community and thus has forged his place within their fold. Maimonides is unable to provide a robust family network for this foreigner but he can assure him a spiritual space among his religious brethren.
How can it be that I—who descend from such vicious Jew-haters have a place beneath the wings of the Divine Presence?
In the early modern period we find another example of an outsider, tormented by the weight of his foreign blood, with all that it conjures up in the racially charged Atlantic world of the 17th century. Manuel Cardoso de Macedo was born into a well-to-do Old Christian 5 family in the Azores and through a surprising series of religious transformations—he first embraces Calvinism while living in England and then discovers Judaism during his time in the prisons of the Lisbon Inquisition—he found his way to the Jewish community of Amsterdam where after a formal conversion he lived out the rest of his life as a devout Jew.6
Cardoso de Macedo adopts the Jewish name of Abraham Pelegrino Guer—Abraham the convert, the pilgrim, the wanderer. He wrote an eloquent spiritual autobiography about his religious journey that he begins with a fundamental question: How can it be that I—who descend from such vicious Jew-haters have a place beneath the wings of the Divine Presence?7
He talks about how deeply his father and his whole Portuguese society sought to destroy all vestiges of Judaism. He says that for his father “there would not be enough wood to burn all of the Jews”! Confronted with the weight of his blood, Cardoso seeks to retrace his steps towards the Law of Moses and the people of Israel in his autobiography and somehow write his way into the Jewish fold.
Cardoso focuses on two essential features of his religious journey and his decision to convert: his commitment to the truth and his self-sacrifice on behalf of his new coreligionists. His story begins in England where his father sent him to study and apprentice with some of his mercantile partners in the textile and dyestuffs trade. There the teenage Cardoso is fascinated by the variety of Christian sects and decides to explore them. He goes to London and buys “seven books of seven different sects and resolved to see which one was closest to reason.” He settles on Calvinism. While in England he is quite brash about his new religious commitment; when he meets fellow Spanish and Portuguese expatriates he does nothing to hide his rejection of the Catholic faith and slowly word makes it back to the Bishop of his town in the Azores. On a return trip home he is interrogated about his heretical dabbling and he declares to the Bishop: “I am a Calvinist and a Calvinist I will die, unless you can show me my errors through reason.” Intellectual curiosity and bravery are hallmarks of his religious quest.
His defiance gets him sent to the prisons of the Lisbon Inquisition where he, by chance, meets a New Christian, Henrique Dias Milão, who was accused of a full list of Judaizing heresies. Cardoso, whose Protestant heresy was all about the centrality of the Bible, is shocked to actually meet someone who (was at least accused) of practicing the laws of the Holy Bible. This threw into doubt his faith in Calvinism—he realized that if the Bible was central then certainly the laws of the Bible should be practiced. He resolves to learn more about Judaism.
He is penanced at the Auto da Fe of April 5, 1609 and then sent to a reform school along with other penanced heretics. There he seeks out other Conversos who were accused of secretly practicing Judaism and furtively seeks to learn more about Judaism from his fellow heretics. However, this is not only an intellectual quest. In discovering information about Judaism he becomes close to Jews of flesh and blood, and grows connected to their plight. He tells the reader that he “began to feel affection for the Nation.” He helps organize an escape for some of the Dias Milão family. The plan was foiled and all were arrested but Cardoso would not turn on his Converso accomplices. He withstood the abuse of the inquisitors and shielded his co-conspirators from further persecution. He made a second attempt at escape and eventually, together with a group of Conversos, made it to the religious liberty of Hamburg where he finished his process of conversion within the embrace of the small Sephardic community.
But his travails were not over. He finds work with a son of his former cellmate, a member of the Dias Milão Family in the port of Danzig, helping to manage the family’s sugar refinery. The family was accused of ritually murdering one of their Christian servants and a riot was forming against them. Cardoso urged his bosses to flee and that he would stay behind to watch over the property. Cardoso was beaten by the angry mob and then thrown into prison after the house was ransacked. He declares that he would take a month in the Inquisition over a day in that terrible prison. He leaves prison with a limp that he will live with the rest of his life. He makes it to Amsterdam and becomes part of the growing Sephardic community in that bustling center of trade. And it is there, in the security of Amsterdam, that he writes his autobiography, which if read carefully reveals a portrait of a religious searcher who found the truth but who is left uneasy about his place within the community of the faithful. He rehearses his acts of sacrifice on behalf of the Nation to convince himself and his readers that despite his past, despite the legacy of Jew-hatred he inherited from his father, he belongs with the Children of Israel.
He ends his journey by invoking the same words of Isaiah (56:6-8) that Maimonides used in his letter to Obadiya over four hundred years before. Cardoso ends his narrative by calling out to the “children of the strangers”—the outcasts of society—who find their way to God’s law:
Y hijos de los estranhos, los ajuntados a A[donay], para servirlo y p[a]r[a] amar a nombre de A[donay], p[a]ra ser a Elle por siervos, todo guardando Sabat, de abiltarlo travantes en my firmamento, traer-los-hé en monte de my santidad, y alegrar-los-hé en caza de my orasión, y sus alsasiones y sacrifisios por voluntad sobre my ara, que my caza caza de oración será llamada; dicho de A[donay] Dios a todos los pueblos apanhan enpujados de Israel, aun apanharé a él a sus empujados.
And children of the strangers, those who join unto A[donay], in order to serve Him and in order to love the name of A[donay], in order to be His servants, guarding the Sabbath from profaning it, holding fast to my covenant, Lo I will bring them to my holy mountain, and I will rejoice with them in my house of prayer, . . . For my house will be called a house of prayer; so says A[donay] God, to all of the nations, the oppressed of Israel will be gathered, I will still gather unto Him his oppressed ones.8
In this remarkable document we can see Manuel Cardoso transform himself into Abraham Pelegrino Ger, a stranger but one who can find his place on God’s mountain. Cardoso uses his autobiography as a way to write himself into the Jewish people. He showcases his passion for religious truth, his investigation of multiple religious paths, his sacrifice for his beliefs and his suffering on behalf of other Jews whom he shielded from Inquisitorial persecution and other assaults. He earns his place within the community because his heart was pure, his commitment was strong and his dedication to his new community was tested by sacrifice. He overcomes the powerful barriers of family and blood that organized both his original community of Catholic Portugal and the Sephardic community of Amsterdam. He integrates himself into his chosen community by his acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of fellow Jews and by his devotion to Judaism. By emphasizing his commitment to the ideals of Judaism and to the welfare of his adopted community, Cardoso, like Maimonides and like Ruth, discounts the power of blood, and claims a space for himself based on what he can share with his fellow Jews; this allows him to transcend his past and the weight of his blood.
Mutatis mutandis. . .
Obadiya and Cardoso found their way to cosmopolitan centers of global trade—12th century Cairo and 17th century Amsterdam—where people from all over the world came and went with their shipments of goods, and which allowed for a degree of anonymity, freedom of movement and self-expression. Neither of these spiritual wanderers had to contend with being considered “undocumented,” let alone “illegal” people, but they did have to find their place within tightly knit communities based on strong family ties and ethnic solidarity. The experience of these two individuals cannot be translated seamlessly into policy for a modern nation-state; rather, their examples serve to highlight an ethical and psychological dimension. In both cases, we can see that bonds of blood, family networks, and the psychic weight of ethnic identities are real; often enough they are felt more strongly by the outsider trying to enter than those already situated securely within the ethnic matrix. The outsider asks, “Can I ever fully be part of the new community?” The community where the stranger has sought refuge, however, has to stretch itself beyond their comfort to let this person in, to see them as one of their own and to ease their doubts.
Cardoso and Maimonides uphold Abraham, the first Jew, as the model for the ideal convert with his mixture of personal sacrifice, courage, and devotion to the truth. However, the Rabbis of the Talmud turn to Ruth as their model for the process of conversion. For example, a convert is supposed to be discouraged from joining the Jewish people, just like Naomi discouraged Ruth. In this exegetical model, perhaps we can draw another lesson for welcoming outsiders. Not only can outsiders become integral members of the community, perhaps they, like Ruth can bring with them the unexpected promise of redemption.
Due to the variable nature of our posts and the wide spectrum of ideas exchanged, we feel it is important to clarify that the thoughts and opinions shared in posts and articles reflect the opinions of the author and are not representative of our contributors as a whole.
- This article is adapted from a version originally published in Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth, by Stuart W. Halpern, Yeshiva University Press, 2019.
- For a penetrating psychological reflection on these verses see Yisroel Campbell’s performance at the “Jerusalem Sermon Slam” December 22, 2013
- Rabbi Jeremy Weider discussed the intricacies of these laws in both their Biblical and Rabbinic contexts during the panel dedicated to “Immigration and Identity” at Yeshiva University May 2018 where this paper had its earliest iteration. My paper does not propose a halakhic or concrete policy regarding outsiders seeking entrance into the community but I hope these historical meditations can provide much needed context and nuance to this charged issue.
- The translation is based on the updated edition of the epistle found in Y. Sheilat, Maimonides’ Epistles, vol. 1 ]Hebrew] (Maale Adumim: Sheilat, 1995), 233–241. Therefore, it differs slightly from I. Twersky’s translation in his A Maimonides Reader (New York: Behrman House 1972), 475–476.
- Old Christian describes those Iberian Catholics who did not come from recent Jewish or Muslim Converts and the descendants of Converts known as Conversos or New Christians. These distinctions arose out of anxiety about the assimilation of Jewish and (to a lesser extent) Muslim converts into Iberian society.
- Cardoso is the central figure in chapter five of my recent book, Narratives from the Sephardic Atlantic: Blood and Faith (Indiana, 2016).
- This fascinating document survived in an 18th century manuscript copy and was transcribed and edited by the Dutch historian Bernard Teensma. I am currently working on an English translation of the text. To consult the Portuguese original see “La vida del buenaventurado Abraham Pelengrino.” Ed. B. Teensma, Studia Rosenthaliana vol. x 1976. pp.1-36.
- This is my translation of Cardoso’s Spanish- which is heavily marked by Portuguese- version, which may either be based on the Spanish translation commonly used in Amsterdam or on his own rendering from the Hebrew. These verses are part of the Haftara recited on the Shabbat of Repentance that falls between Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur according to the Western Sephardic custom. These are not obscure verses, but ones with living resonance for Cardoso’s readers.