Ger and Convert

My teachers and virtually all Rabbis hold up the story of Ruth as the prototypical story of conversion (it got its own megillah, after all). Ruth is the prototypical proselyte. "Ruth" is the name taken by many female proselytes (in fact, in the community I lived in while in school, it was all but expected that a female convert would take the name "Ruth" -- mind you, this was in traditional community; in such al community the fact that a person had converted was never discussed).

Ruth is not, of course, the first proselyte in Torah. Her story is not even the first reference to proselytization in Torah. The first proselytes are associated with the first patriarch, Abram. (And if, from this, you infer that proselytization is an ancient and honorable obligation of Jews, you'd be spot on. See Bereshit Rabbah, xxvii -- the early Rabbis were expected to convert at least one person a year, the more the merrier. In fact, early Rabbis held competitions in proselytization. It is only much later that the Rabbis banned proselytization.)

When Abram journeys forth from Haran (Lech Le'cha), we are advised that

And Abram took Sarai, his wife, and Lot his brother’s son and all the wealth they had gathered and the souls they had made in Haran -- Bereshit 12:4 (emphasis added)

“And the souls they had made.” How did Abram make souls? Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz, in his commentary, tells us that

The Rabbis take the word “souls” to mean the proselytes whom Abram made among the men, and Sarai among the women. These converts became subservient to God’s law and followed their master in his spiritual adventure.  

Significantly, we are not told how these "souls" converted. Certainly they did not go before a beit din; there were none as yet. Neither were they circumcised; circumcision isn’t the sign of the covenant  until after Abram has arrived in Canaan, sent a large army to rescue Lot (14:14)*, Ishmael’s birth and had his name is changed to “Abraham.” In other words, Abraham does not know about circumcision for many more years.

There are many further references in Torah, if one reads with a sensitivity to the culture of the times, to new adherents joining the tribe.  

Three generations later, consider Asnat. Don't remember her? She is the wife of Yosef. How did she become Jewish - as we presume she must be - and the mother of two of the tribes of Israel? (Or did she? At the time "Jewishness" seems to have followed the father.)

We are not told because either it's irrelevant or we're assumed to know. In the world at that time one often adopted the gods of the household in which one lived (hence the term “household gods”), particularly if one had voluntarily allied themselves with that house. That is, when you joined a household, you joined the household. That's how all the matriarchs become "Jews" (talk about a male-oriented society!).

In short, "Jewishness" followed the father; matrilineal decent is an adoption of a Roman custom in the third century CE. This change, however, served us well later, in the depredations of the Crusades, ensuring legal status of the children of crusader rape. Of course, changes are in the air by the time of Ezra (Ezra 10:17 ff):

ג  וְעַתָּה נִכְרָת-בְּרִית לֵאלֹהֵינוּ לְהוֹצִיא כָל-נָשִׁים וְהַנּוֹלָד מֵהֶם, בַּעֲצַת אֲדֹנָי, וְהַחֲרֵדִים, בְּמִצְוַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְכַתּוֹרָה, יֵעָשֶׂה. 3 Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of the LORD, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.

and, as the previous verse pertains to Israel, of Judah (note, children are not mentioned this time) we are told:

יט  וַיִּתְּנוּ יָדָם, לְהוֹצִיא נְשֵׁיהֶם; וַאֲשֵׁמִים אֵיל-צֹאן, עַל-אַשְׁמָתָם.   19 And they gave their hand that they would put away their wives; and being guilty, [they offered] a ram of the flock for their guilt.

There is no record if this actually happened or if the men simply left with their wives. But Ezra is over 1500 years after the patriarchs and the period we are talking about.

Throughout ancient (and not so ancient) history, conquerors rarely tried to convert the conquered to the conqueror’s religion; it was assumed that the gods of the conquering power, along with its laws, would be adopted by the conquered. "Their god beat my god; therefore, their god must be more powerful." That was the way of the world: the god was responsible for the outcome of endeavors; as Yehezkel Kaufman demonstrates in The Religion of Israel, this is the way one talked and thought in the near east. (To all appearances, we continue to see the echoes of this way of thinking all around us to this day.)

Moving forward a millennium and half, it should be clear why Alexander of Macedon felt no pressing need to force Israel, or any of his occupied territories, to adopt hellenic religion and ways. He just assumed that, in time, his culture would be adopted (granted, he did actively encourage "early adoption" by establishing Greek cities wherever he went and populating them with his own functionaries and retirees from his army). This explains why Jewish history looks favorably on Alexander: he didn’t try to forcibly convert us, he didn't try to convert us at all. It also explains how badly his successors, the Seleucid Greeks, miscalculated when they did try to change the Temple into a pagan shrine. (Christianity chose the wrong Greek to emulate, didn't it?)

So, then, how did Ruth convert? This time, Torah does tell us.

She made a declaration, “Your people shall be my people and your G-d shall be my G-d” (note which allegiance is asserted first). She did not make this declaration publicly. She did not go through any educational process. No bet din. She did not go to a mikvah (the mikvah, too, is several centuries in the future). She was not vetted in any way. She simply disavowed paganism (I'm making a bit of a leap here) and declared her allegiance to am Yisrael. That’s it.

So, how did the Biblical “ger” (sojourner, stranger) become synonymous with “proselyte,” “convert” which it clearly is not in Torah? Proselyte by Joseph Jacobs and Emil G. Hirsch (from The Jewish Encyclopedia) shows that translating "ger" as "convert" is a later, post-Biblical usage and, with it, the conversion procedures are also post-Biblical.

Among other things, this means that “there shall be one law among you both for native born and the stranger [ger] alike” (Shmot 12:49, Bamidbar 15:15) is a much more sweeping ethical prescription than it would be on reading “ger” as “convert.” In other words, "there shall be one law..." does not simply mean that converts are no different than native born, it means that all people must be treated equally (thus, the birth of the notion of "human rights").

Conversion, as we know it today, appears to be an evolving Rabbinic response, first, to address issues arising out of the substantial number of Roman proselytes (1st century C.E. -- according to some sources, perhaps as much as 10% of the Roman empire were Jewish or wanna-be’s) and, later, further requirements were added in the face of Christian proselytization (possibly, to ensure sincerity).  This, at least, is what I see apologists claim. But it neither bear any resemblance whatever to anything in either Torah or Tanakh nor does it, on its face, make sense given Israel's earlier history of active proselytization.

So, current conversion practices may be less than 1000 years old. Before this, foreswearing paganism, circumcision (where appropriate -- in fact, at first, circumcision by itself may have been all that was required, at least that's the impression one gets from the Torah itself, and the forced conversion of the Idumaeans confirms this) and, later, public declaration (later still, in front of three competent witnesses) were sufficient.

The Military Historian, Gunther Rothenberg (late of Purdue University)** once asserted that to be "Jewish" was, essentially, a political act. Given that a child born of a Jewish mother is Jewish regardless of religious profession and the most observant person born of a non-Jewish mother (and not converted) is not***, Gunther is obviously correct. But by characterizing "Jewishness" in this way, he correctly, I think, reminds us of one of the essentials of Torah: we're a family, first and foremost; Israel is a tribe, a kinship relation - granted a tribe that can be expanded by coventing, not strictly DNA-limited - but, before anything else, Israel is a people.


© 2009-15 S.H. Parker


Read more:
  Proselyte, "The Ger" by Joseph Jacobs and Emil G. Hirsch

* From the figure given, 318 armed men, I guestimate that Abraham's camp would have had a total population of about 1500. In those days, this was a good sized city. Abraham was a force to be reckoned with, a man of substance.

Is the figure of 318 reliable? Well, such a precise number is almost unique in Torah. I would therefore infer that there was a very strong tradition associated with this battle and that it was passed down faithfully.

** Gunther E. Rothenberg, Professor Emeritus, Purdue University, passed away 26 April 2004. A historian of the first order, Professor Rothenberg authored more than a dozen books and scores of articles. With fifty years of teaching and scholarship, his influence in the field of military history is profound. Among his best-known works were Napoleon's Great Adversary: The Archduke Charles and the Austrian Army, The Military Border in Croatia, The Army of Francis Joseph, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon and most recently The Napoleonic Wars. He contributed regularly to the Journal of Military History and was on the editorial advisory board of War in History. He was renowned among students at Purdue --more than 250 students subscribed annually to his undergraduate course on the Second World War. Professor Rothenberg directed legions of graduate students during his tenure at Purdue. He took care of his students. He was a mentor and friend to all of them. Professor Rothenberg was born in Berlin in 1923. Upon Hitler's accession to power in 1933, he and his family fled to Holland and then England. Rothenberg left his parents and traveled to Palestine. He joined the Zionist movement and in 1940, at the age of 17, volunteered for the British military. Rothenberg served in North Africa with a unit composed of German-Jews. After recovering from wounds, he joined the 4th Commando, serving in Italy and Yugoslavia. He left the British Army and returned to Palestine where he became a captain in the Haganah. Rothenberg fought in Israel's War of Independence. In 1949, he reunited with his parents, then in the United States. He volunteered for the US Air Force and served during the Korean War. Afterward he attended the University of Chicago on the GI Bill. He received his doctorate from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. He taught at the University of New Mexico for more than a decade, before moving to Purdue University in 1972. There he remained until his retirement in 1998. Professor Rothenberg relocated to Melbourne and then Canberra, Australia, where his wife Eleanor Hancock is on faculty at the Australian Defense Force Academy. Although retired, Professor Rothenberg remained professionally active, taught at the academy, wrote reviews and two books. He returned to the United States in February 2004 to present the keynote address at the 34th Annual Conference of the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe where he enjoyed a warm reception offered by his former students, colleagues and friends. He will be deeply missed. 

Frederick Schneid 
High Point University

Gunther was a vital member of the Jewish community of Lafayette, IN when I was at school there. He was a leader in the movement to stop talking about "the Holocaust," using the term "Shoa" instead.

He argued that "Holocaust" had three meanings:

  1. a vast conflagration
  2. one of the sacrifices in the Temple
  3. an act of G-d

As he said, the attempt to destroy European Jewry certainly was "a vast conflagration." It also was a sacrifice but he wasn't sure that it would qualify for the Temple. But, his main point was that the events of 1933-45 were absolutely not an act of god. What happened in Europe during those years was absolutely, unequivocally, irredeemably an act of man....

*** Also note that, at first, "Jewish-ness" followed the father. The p'shat is crystal clear on this. Matrilineal counting of Jewish-ness comes much later. "But, that's another story."