Sunday, February 5, 2012

Ger - Convert

According to the Webster’s dictionary, word ‘convert’ can be understood as follows:  edify, sanctify, keep holy, beatify, regenerate, inspire, consecrate, enshrine.
As a verb, the definition of the word “convert” would make it seem an absolutely positive thing to being one. What could have a more admirable value than to regenerate, sanctify or bring these kinds of inspirations to people?
Keep holy, enshrine – says the Webster’s Dictionary? There is nothing more desirable than that.  There is no difference in what anyone holds as a holy or worthy thing to protect,  regardless of how one defines ‘sacred’ or what one is trying to inspire.
The fact alone, of being able to act with those higher principles in ones actions, appears to be something that can never be despised.
However, word ‘convert’ in its noun form, can also be understood as a direct opposite of the synonyms listed above.
The very same Webster’s dictionary contains an extremely different list of how this word can be used: turn coat, turn tippet; rat, apostate, renegade, proselyte, deserter; backslider; blackleg, crawfish, scab, mugwump, recidivist.
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
I can’t even imagine a worse person than the one described with the words above.
But Webster’s dictionary mirror only how most people see converts, no matter what they are converting to. The conversion itself is a despicable act according to this definition.
It could be from one religion to another, from one political party to another group, even a simple changing of one’s point of view on a certain topic, no matter what it’s about it usually is viewed as a lack of moral spine, an act of treachery.
It can make a Muslim happy to see a person converting to Islam or a Catholic person when someone joins his Catholic confession.
By other religions, the fellow people will attend a specially celebrated initiation, then participate in the fêted meal and tell the friends and coworkers a story about how the convert just found the “truth”.
It makes the person happy, more confident and assured about the thing he believes in. In his eyes, the value of not only his congregation but mostly of himself increases.
He feels good about being a member of a group that has the power to attract others from abroad, but that’s where his approval ends.
Somewhere deep, deeper than the skin, in the depth of his heart he feels something else about a convert and a convert’s conversion. The questions are raised. First of all what does the convert gain from it? Did he really act without an inferior motive? What about all those celebrations? Was there perhaps $ involved? What about that special treatment from the fellow believers toward the convert? Of course, the person who now is full of suspicions doesn’t realize that his fellow believers have the same thoughts and doubts as he does and the “special treatment” is only of superficial character.
Most of his own people see something strange in the fact that a convert is ready to sacrifice his previous lifestyle, friends and sometimes even family, for their new beliefs. They don’t understand that he relinquishes everything his parents and teachers implanted and invested in him for years.
That’s how it is in most societies, especially where they don’t build their way of life by intensive preaching in order to “save” the others, where conversion becomes the positive value in its own right.
So … the convert is an individual of rather weak character or a person who at certain a moment of his life lost his convictions and certainty (and – or) support of his old community.
This most definitely caused him to look for other solutions, a new beginning, and a new chapter of life, despite his past.
He deserted, betrayed and perverted his original ways. It will never make him trustworthy in his new society. He will be always viewed as an uncertain and week individual. Not necessarily because of his recent change and possible ties to his old society. He will be distrusted precisely because he was not firm and faithful to his own former religion or beliefs.

Judaism is a system of law and beliefs that is not looking to increase the number of its adherents by converting other people. It is prohibited by Jewish law to convince a gentile to become Jewish. It is the convert himself who actualize his internal desire by becoming a Jew. This process is also directed by the Law of Torah.
Who is a Convert – a Ger according to the Jewish teachings? Is there anything common between the Jewish and non-Jewish definition of the word? Hebrew - Ger, and its English translation Convert or as it is more often used title, stranger? 
The word “Stranger” carries even more negative emotional weight than word “Convert”.  How can one understand the word Ger according to its articulation in the Holy Language?
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, was the leader of the German Jewish community in the nineteenth century and I believe him to be one of the greatest teachers and interpreters of the Torah in all of Jewish History.
He translates and explains the word Ger as: alien, stranger, uprooted, land-less, without support for his feet, without the roots, someone without the rights. This Shoiresh - the root of the word is used as: cast away, without the ties, separated uncovered, without protection of skin, naked. It is also a root of, young animal, a small lion taken away from its mother and unable to stand independent.
In general, someone who is an individual with a disadvantage by being within a group of people possessing something he does not.
How is such person to be treated by a Jew? Above all, is there any difference between the two categories of gerim?
One category being a Ger Toshew, a person who submits himself to the seven mitzvos (commandments) of Bnai Noah, and become known as the children of Noah. And second category is a Ger Tzedek, a Convert to the Jewish way of life – a person who submits himself to the fulfillment of the entire Tariag Mitzvos – 613 commandments of G-d, given by Him to His chosen nation. 
In our daily Morning Prayer, we say: “Hashem Shomray es Gerim – Hashem protects Gerim”. This statement doesn’t differentiate between the two categories of Gerim; G-d loves them both and obligates his nation to protect them.
Rav Hirsch explains in his comment on the Mitzva of Shabbos; he elucidates that there is a substantial difference between the words GerGer Tzedek and Garechu - Ger Toishev. Both of those categories implicate that they must be protected and helped on different levels, each according to their relationship to chosen nation.
The Law of Chalacha teaches us how this protection must be shown and expressed.
What is the striking difference between the Jewish and the non Jewish understanding of the term and phenomenon of Ger – Covert? It is the feeling portrayed through the person, the inclination, and the approach toward something or someone different.
Martin Buber explains that any strange or alien fact or in this case, a person, naturally causes a reaction of loathing for a single reason – he is unknown, unfamiliar.
In light of Buber’s observation, the Webster’s definition of the word is described as it is something that comes naturally.
The normal reaction for a strange person is animosity, a baseless hate or at least some measure of dislike. However the Torah teaches us the extreme opposite. Therefore it should cause an entirely different feeling in the heart of a Jew, it should, but unfortunately that is not always the reality.
It should be a reaction of understanding, friendship, love and readiness to help a needy person, especially as a Ger is listed among the other needy of Yisroel – which are namely orphans and widows.
A convert must not serve for some kind of self approval; he must not be someone looking for a sweet self consent for his doings because of who we are.
There is more in the writings of Chazal (the Sages of blessed memory) about the special status of a Ger Tzedek among the people of Yisroel, but this is sadly not the place to discuss this. 
I will allow myself just one more quote from Rav Hirsch’s commentary on Chumash for it would seem dull without it:
“In the Jewish law it is not the nationality that gives man his rights but the right of man that give nationality” Shmos 1:14.

This Essay was previously posted on my website before it was redesigned. 

Matys Weiser

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