On Loving the Stranger — Parashat Kedoshim

This week, we are returning once more to Parashat Kedoshim, filled with its many interpersonal mitzvot. In the opening verse of the 19th chapter of Leviticus, God enjoins us to be holy, for God, Godself, is holy. The chapter then lays out ways in which we are to be holy, including proper ritual and interpersonal conduct. Many verses from this portion cry out to be drashed—interpreted. We learn about proper treatment of individuals in our communities who have disabilities, the elderly, as well as how to properly treat workers.

Our Torah commands us to love the stranger some thirty-six times, including this week. “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34, JPS 1985 translation).

The injunction to love the stranger is an oft-repeated one in Jewish discourse, invoked as a means of providing a religious framework within which to position social justice initiatives and to explain why welcoming all is of absolute import. We are incredibly blessed; blessed to be living in a Jewish community rich with diversity, yet we are often not ready or able to take the vital step of opening up our minds and hearts to the beauty within this diverse tapestry.

Gerim—strangers—were Biblically understood to be those individuals born non-Jews who opted to join the Jewish community in some fashion. To the best of my knowledge, there was no proscribed conversionary rite akin to what we have today. In the rabbinic imagination, the term ger began to be used to refer to a person who had chosen to convert to Judaism and this is how the term is understood today as well.

What does it mean to love the convert? Our community has made incredible strides towards welcoming converts. Converts enrich our communities in immeasurable ways and indeed are the backbone of many of our synagogues and other communal institutions. We are also incredibly privileged to see a steady increase in the numbers of converts choosing to serve our communities as rabbis, cantors and lay professional leaders. Despite this, however, our communities can be difficult places. The inquisitive looks and questions, the difficulty that so many people experience having their Jewish identities and senses of self accepted on a par with those born Jewish. Converts put in countless hours studying Torah, learning how to do Jewish, and learning the ins and outs of Judaism more thoroughly than most born Jews. There are still too many people in our communities who perceive Jewishness and Jewish identity narrowly and who, no doubt unintentionally, may leave a convert feeling like their Judaism is not as authentic, not as legitimate as that of their born Jewish counterparts. Sadly, it has been my personal experience that subconscious attitudes of this sort exist even amongst those who have dedicated their lives to bringing converts to rest under the wings of the Divine Presence. This dynamic must stop. As a future rabbi God willing, I consider it my sacred responsibility to do all I can to work towards a community that is embracing of all.

As important as is the injunction to love the convert, we also have an equally important injunction not to remind a convert of their past, as such was seen by our Sages as an incredibly invasive and insensitive thing to do. What ways can we concretely move towards a welcoming community for all Jews, those who were born Jews and those who had the tremendous privilege of embracing Judaism of their own accord?

Though it may seem obvious, no two converts are alike and every convert has the right to define themselves and their Jewishness in whichever way is authentic for them. We extend this courtesy to born Jews, so, too, must we extend it to converts. Further, converts have the right to their stories, to tell them or not, as is their preference. Some may wish to keep this part of their journey private—and that is a right that we must respect absolutely. It is an unfortunate reality that some converts benefit from passing privilege—being perceived as part of the majority—far more than others, and this reality is one I pray will be alleviated speedily in our days. A rule to always keep in mind—if you would not want someone asking you a question about your identity or past, refrain from asking it, and always, always ask permission of the individual before asking questions related to their conversion or Jewish journey, recognizing that they have the right to decline to speak about it. No one owes you information related to their conversion process. If someone chooses to share any of that with you, do not spread that to others. And, finally, never question another’s conversion. If you weren’t on their beit din, you have no standing to do this.

May we never cease working together towards a community in which all of us have a home.

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