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The Wars of the Lord

By Rabbi Bernard Illowy (1814-1875).

On the Admission of Proselytes.

(The Occident, vol. XXIII, No. 1 [April 1865], p. 30-33)

To the Editor of The Occident, Philadelphia.

Dear Sir: There is, perhaps, no country in the world where the Hebrew communities are so frequently increased by numbers of proselytes, as in this country; and our transatlantic brethren must surely, when they learn from the different American Jewish periodicals these happy tidings, greatly rejoice, and think the time of the advent of the Messiah is nigh, truth commences to dawn over the Gentiles, and break the long night of ignorance and superstition and fill their hearts, as prophesied, with the fear of G-d and the true knowledge of His unity, whilst we here are, to our deepest regret, convinced that it is not G-d, but the "altar to G-d", to which these proselytes are coming. To find or please a husband whom they love, the daughters of the Gentiles join our nation, but by no means our religion; and we must not deceive ourselves, since we are convinced in our heart that it is not the power of truth but the sharp arrows of Cupid to which this rapid increase of our nation, by the sons and daughters of Edom, is to be attributed; for, as heedlessly as they often run away from the father house, following the man of their choice without the consent and blessing of their parents, so they abandon, yet with much less scruple, their church, kneeling down at the altar of the Synagogue, where the heedless maiden expects to be united to the subject of her love.

Reverend sir, by writing this, I do not intend to blame either the proselytes, or those who admitted them into the covenant of Abraham. עת לעשות it is now a time, when to be silent is the best and wisest policy; we must see and hear much and be silent, we see them every day converting Jews into Gentiles, our hearts break על שבר בת עמי, but our lips are mute and we are silent; why should we not be silent when Gentiles are converted into Jews? I merely intend to conquer the erroneous idea of our people in general, who believe that the making of proselytes is one of the most G-d-pleasing actions that can be performed, though, in fact, even if everything is done in full accordance with the law, it cannot be regarded as a מצוה. We are permitted by law to admit Gentiles into the covenant of Abraham, under certain conditions; this, however, is only a permission, רשות, but not a מצוה.

Let me, therefore, exhibit before your readers several passages, by which I may show them what the Talmud thinks of proselytes in general:

  1. Yebamot, 109. Says Rabbi Isaac, רעה אחר רעה תבא על מקבלי גרים, Misfortune after misfortune shall befall those who admit Gentiles into the Covenant of Abraham; to which Tosephot remarks, though it seems to be a מצוה to make גרים, for, if otherwise, Joshua would not have converted Rahab, and Hillel would not have complied with the desire of the two heathens to be converted, still these are but exceptional cases. Joshua knew from the character of Rahab, and so knew Hillel, that they would one day be strict and faithful Jews, יודע היה הלל שסופן להיות גרים גמרים.

  2. Kiddushin, 70. Says Rabbi Helbo: קשים גרים לישראל כספחת. Rashi gives the reason שישראל לומדים ממעשיהם.

  3. Niddah, 11. The proselyte in Israel prevent the coming of the Messiah, הגרים מעכבים משיח.

  4. Abodah Zarah, 3. In the days of David and Solomon proselytes were not accepted; no admission into the covenant was then granted to Gentiles. Though we find that in the days of Solomon over 150,000 heathens embraced the Jewish religion, these, however, says Rabbi Yohanan, Yebamot 79, were but גרים גרורים, which means, as Rashi explains, they made themselves Jews, embraced our religion, but were never accepted or acknowledged as such by our nation, שהיו מתגיירין מעצמן אבל לא קבלינהו. A similar case is found in Esther ורבים מעמי הארץ מתיהדים בי נפל פחד מרדכי עליהם. The word מתיהדים in the התפעל says distinctly they made themselves Jews, but were not accepted or acknowledged as such by the nation.

  5. Sanhedrin, 99. Says Rabbi Azzai: Timnah, a princess, the daughter of a king, desired to become a Jewess, she went for that purpose to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who all refused (not to convert her but) to admit her into the covenant, and recognize her as a member of their family; she then went and became פלגש לאיליפז בן עשו (a concubine to Eliphaz, the son of Esau), and said, I prefer to be a servant-maid in that nation, than to be a princess of any other, מוטב אהיה שפחה לאומה זו משאהיה גבירה לאומה אחרת.

From all these quotations, we can sufficiently see that our sages were never in favor of making proselytes, and when Rabbi Eliezer, Pesachin, 78, says, לא נגלו ישראל לבין האומות אלא כדי שיתוספו עליהם גרים, he does not mean to say that Israel shall make proselytes; for if so, he had better say  כדי שיוסיפו or כדי שיעשו but the word עליהם refers to the preceding word, אומות, and the whole idea is but this: Israel was driven from his country to live with the many different nations of the earth, only for the great purpose of spreading the name and unity of G-d all over the earth, of lighting the light of G-d wherever there is darkness, and, that through us, all the nations of the earth shall know that there is but one G-d.

There is, to my knowledge, but one passage which speaks more favorably of the admission of converts to Judaism, and this is in the ילקוט שמעוני, Section יתרו, where we read as follows: אמר ה' למשה אני המקרב ולא המרחק אני קרבתי את יתרו מכאן אתה למד כשיבא אדם אצלך להתגייר ואינו בא אלא לשם שמים אף אתה קרבהו ואל תרחקהו

What opinion had our sages of proselytes? A very unfavorable one!

Pesachin, 112, we read: Rabbi Judah Hanassi enjoined upon his children before he died, that none of his family should intermarry with proselytes, ד' דברים צוה רבנו הקדוש את בניו לא תנסוב. In Yalkut פ' רות we read: Rabbi Hiyya said "Do not trust proselytes, have no confidence in their piety, not in that of their children, אמר ר' חייא אל תאמין בגר עד כמה דורות שהוא תופס שאורו. This unfavorable opinion we find justified in Sabbath, 33, by יהודה בן גרים, the son of proselytes, (his father and mother were proselytes - Rashi) who denounced Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai before the king, in consequence of which Rabbi Simeon was compelled to save his life by a hasty flight to a cavern, wherein he remained hidden twelve years; and when, after the death of the king, he left the cavern and met the denunciator יהודה בן גרים, he said:כלום יש אדם זה עוד בעולם והביט עליו ונעשה גל של עצמות

Here I beg leave to remark, that, when we meet the very same יהודה בן גרים again in Moed Katan, 9, as the name of a great man to whom Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai sends his son to request his blessing, it is merely a misprint, and instead of ר' יהודה בן גרים, it ought to be ר' יודן גיריא, mentioned in the Talmud Jerusalem, Taanit, sect. 2: אמר ר' יודן גיריא הדין חונה המעגל בר בריה דחונה המעגל (see Mateh Mosheh who also assumes as most probable that this ר' יודן גיריא is the same ר' יהודה of Moed Katan to whom Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai sent his son to be blessed).

From different other places in the Talmud, we learn that it was always regarded as an insult to be called "Son of a Proselyte", see Yoma, 71,  ייתון בני עממיא לשלם.

The rank of a proselyte was inferior to that of a נתין or ממזר, he was next to a freed slave (see Mishnah Horayot 13, כהן קודם ללוי לוי קודם לישראל ישראל לממזר ממזר לנתין נתין לגר גר לעבד משוחרר)

We find that when Ezra found out that many Israelites who came up with him from Babylon to Jerusalem lived with נשים נכריות, he ordered them to be sent away with their children, and so they did. Why did he give them such a cruel command, could they not, as many in similar cases are doing now, make their wives Jewesses, or at least let the children be circumcised and stay with their fathers? Surely for no other reason than this that Ezra did not want to disgrace the nation by making such proselytes, and sport with the holy word of G-d, and make byways and side-doors to the sacred edifice of our holy religion, that every one may smuggle in and out whatever he pleases, and this suit every one's way of thinking, as Ibn Ezra to Ezra, vi., explains: אולי הוציאום שלא היו גיורות גמורות כרות המואביה וחכמיני זל אמרו בנו הוא לכל דבר הוץ מן השפחהץ

Hoping that this may cause our people to change their opinion concerning proselytes, I remain, dear sir,

Most respectfully yours,

Dr. Illowy.

New Orleans, January 19, 1865.