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‘Tough are Gerim’: Conversion to Judaism in Medieval Europe

The Talmud’s paradigmatic maxim on the acceptance of gerim is Rabbi Helbo’s saying ‘gerim are as hard for Israel as a scab’
Avraham (Rami) Reiner has a doctorate in Jewish thought from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a lecturer in the department of Jewish Thought at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. His main area of research is the history of the halakha and interpretation of the Talmud in the Middle Ages. He is currently researching 1,500 12th and 13th century tombstones found in Wurzburg, Germany, as well as co-editing a new edition of Sefer

In the turbulent days of 1096, as Europe’s clergy and nobility led the mobs in the First Crusade, a local drama unfolded in the German city of Mainz. In the words of the Jewish chronicler Rabbi Shlomo ben Shimshon: 
There was a very kind man, named Mr. Ya’akov son of Sulam, and he was not descended from a high-ranking family, and his mother was not Jewish, and he shouted loud and clear, to all who were present, thus: "So far you have done nothing but disgrace me and now behold what I shall do." And he took the knife in his hand and thrust it into his own throat before all who were present and slaughtered himself in the name of the Almighty. 
In those days, public suicide as an act of kiddush hashem (sanctification of God’s name) was a last resort for Jews who were forced to become baptized at the point of a sword. But our chronicler provides details indicating that the drama at hand was likely triggered by somewhat different circumstances.
Ya’akov’s lowly origins – he was born of a convert mother and a father not "descended from a high-ranking family" – had apparently caused him to suffer "disgrace" at the hands of Mainz Jews. The fact that he was "a very kind man" seems to have borne little if any weight against the hostile community. It seems, therefore, that Ya’akov’s public suicide was an act of defiance directed at his own community.
Havruta - A Journal Of Jewish Conversation, from Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, Israel. Click on the picture to subscribe online  
Describing events in the shadow of anti-Jewish persecutions that same year in another German city, Xanten, the chronicler says: 
And there was also a slave of God who was a ger tzedek (convert to Judaism), and he asked our Rabbi Moshe Cohen Gadol, saying: "If I should slaughter myself in His great name, what shall become of me?" And [the rabbi] replied: "You shall dwell with us…" 
The convert is worried that his eternal reward, even if he sanctifies God’s name, may not be guaranteed. Moreover, this convert is not identified by name, but as "God’s slave who was a ger tzedek." Is this only coincidental? Or did many converts of the period and the locality remain nameless and faceless in their death, and perhaps also in their lives? The Memorbuch (“Book of Remembrance”) of the Jewish community of Köln included two converts in its listing of the victims of 1096. One of them is a woman named Hatziva, and the other is a man identified only as a "ger tzedek whose name was not made explicit." Such a nondescript appearance in a commemorative document that mentions the names of all the other victims indicates that just like his counterpart from Xanten, this ger had sunk into the abyss of anonymity.
The 12th century witnessed a further decline in the situation of the Jews in northern Europe. Anti-Semitic stereotyping flourished in the popular mind, and anti-Jewish polemic on the part of Christian authors reached unprecedented proportions. As the Israeli historian Jeremy Cohen has observed, “increased cultural contacts, including interreligious debate, intensified Christian sensitivity to contemporary Jews and Judaism, aggravating the perception of them as a threat to the integrity of Christendom . . . [L]eper, heretic and Jew became virtually interchangeable designations in twelfth-century Christian taxonomies of society, exemplifying marginality and an impurity that threatened the essential fabric of Christian existence.”
It is reasonable to assume, under such circumstances, that few non-Jews would feel motivated to convert to Judaism. Any economic benefits that might result from joining the Jewish community were eclipsed by the hazards of membership in a despised, marginalized minority. Those who did choose to cross religious lines were thus special individuals, surely worthy of greater respect among Jews than had been afforded converts a century earlier.
Halakhic discourse of the period reflects these historical changes. In France, two authors of the Tosafot – Talmudic commentaries that are widely studied to this day – figured prominently in the debate over the acceptance of gerim as full members of the community. Rabbi Ya’akov ben Meir (1100-1171), known as Rabbenu Tam, was a grandson of the illustrious Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105). Rabbi Yitzhak ben Shmuel of Dampierre (Rabbi Yitzhak the Elder, ca. 1110-1189), a nephew of Rabbenu Tam, challenged the rulings of his renowned uncle and teacher – and those of Rashi, his great-grandfather, as well. Contemporaries and younger disciples in France and Germany adopted Rabbi Yitzhak’s views and applied them in their own communities. As a result, religiously motivated converts became increasingly accepted by congregants and rabbis, tipping the scales of this halakhic impasse to the side of greater acceptance and leniency.
Ancestral credentials
The benediction confirming God’s promise of the Land of Israel to His people places the convert in a delicate position. From a genetic point of view, a Jew not of Jewish lineage would be untruthful if he or she were to recite the standard formula: "Which God had sworn to our ancestors to give unto us."
The Mishnah and Talmud diverge on this point. The Mishnah reads in Tractate Bikkurim: 
These may bring [bikkurim offerings to the Temple on Shavuot and throughout summer] but do not read [the Torah portion read when bringing bikkurim offerings]: the ger may bring but does not recite because he cannot say: "Which God had sworn to our ancestors to give unto us." But if his mother were an Israelite, he may bring and recite. And when he prays privately, he says, "O God of the ancestors of Israel;" and when he is in the synagogue, he says "O God of your ancestors;" and if his mother were an Israelite, he may say, "O God of our ancestors." 
According to this passage, when praying, a ger must not imply he is descended from the forefathers, because they are not his ancestors. Even when that ger prays at the synagogue publicly, as shaliach tzibur (cantor), the Mishnah requires that he recite "The God of your forefathers." The social implication of this position is that the ger is constantly reminded of his otherness, in both the private and public spheres. But the Jerusalem Talmud (also known as the Palestinian Talmud), quotes Rabbi Yehuda as saying that the ger may bring bikkurim and recite the words “our ancestors” like any other Jew. Why? Because of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 17:5: “For the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.” Rabbi Yehuda maintains, in other words, that "our ancestors" are also the ancestors of the ger, since Abraham fathered many nations.
In the Middle Ages, Rabbenu Tam and Rabbi Yitzhak debated a similar point. A halakhic query of the period poses the following situation: There was a ger who used to recite the benediction at meals, and others disputed this practice, saying, how can he say "We thank The Lord our God for having given a lovely and spacious land to our Patriarchs and Matriarchs"?
Rabbenu Tam forbade gerim from reading this benediction at meals, basing his ruling on Tractate Bikkurim and other arguments appearing in the Mishnah. But Rabbi Yitzhak disagreed, basing his argument on the above passage from the Jerusalem Talmud. Rabbenu Tam’s position, echoed in other Responsa – rabbinic correspondence on halakhic questions – is that gerim are not entitled to express themselves as full Jews. Rabbi Yitzhak, on the other hand, is more concerned with sparing gerim from the sense of alienation engendered by formulations such as "the God of your forefathers."
The ancestral rights of Jews who were not born Jewish involved more than just their sense of belonging. They also had serious pecuniary and legal repercussions. Rabbenu Tam received a query from one Rabbi Moshe of Pontoise, whose brother taught a ger "Torah and Mishnah night and day." The ger deposited a considerable sum of money with his teacher. Ailing as he was, the ger sought to transfer ownership over the deposited money to his nephew, also a convert to Judaism. The dying man had even managed to express his wish to bequeath the deposit to his nephew by declaring on his deathbed before witnesses "all of my assets shall be registered in the name of X who is my sister’s son."
The Talmud overrules a ger’s bequest to his descendants under the principle of, "A ger converted is like a child newly born”- his or her family ties prior to conversion lose their legal significance. By extension, a ger can also not make a gift in contemplation of death. On the other hand, a well-known Talmudic principle holds that "it is a mitzvah to uphold a dead person’s word."
In light of these conflicting stipulations, is the teacher bound by the ger’s dying wish? Or is the ger’s deposit hefker (property without rightful owners) in the absence of any legal heirs, in which case the teacher is entitled to claim the money for himself?
Rabbenu Tam sided with the traditional view by which the ger is divested of the halakhic right to bequeath property. By disqualifying the gift in contemplation of death, Rabbenu Tam’s ruling invalidates the decree "it is a mitzvah to uphold a dead person’s word," and endorses the expropriation of ger assets from their rightful heirs into the hands of the members of the "original" Jewish community.
Rabbi Yitzhak, here as elsewhere, moved away from halakhic conventions. We learn from his Tosafot commentary on Tractate Bava Batra that he considered the principle "it is a mitzvah to uphold a dead person’s word" to be equally valid in relation to gerim. Accordingly, gerim are able to transfer their assets easily to their natural heirs de-facto, although he does not seek to change their status in this respect de-jure. By finding a legal loophole that allowed converts to execute wills, Rabbi Yitzhak challenged the notion that "A ger converted is like a child newly born," and encouraged the recognition of a convert’s family as normative within the Jewish community.
A new conception of equality
Rabbi Yitzhak’s opinion on another fine point of inheritance law demonstrates his determination to reevaluate social norms without compromising halakha. There is a ruling, in the Talmudic Tractate Kiddushin, that a Jewish debtor who borrowed money from a ger is exempt from repaying his debt if the lender dies before the money is returned. Because the conversion of the dead man was interpreted by the Talmud as the severance of family ties with his heirs, all ownership rights over the debt are lost. But in discussing the debtor’s prerogative to repay the debt voluntarily, the Talmud presents two contradicting opinions: one states "Should he repay, sages shall not be content," i.e. the debt should not be repaid voluntarily; the other asserts the contrary "Sages shall be content." The Talmud’s ruling on this clash of opinions is: 
There is no difficulty here, one refers to a case in which his conception and birth were not bekdusha (“in holiness”) and the other to a case in which his conception was not bekdusha but his birth was bekdusha
The accepted interpretation of this ruling, as articulated by Rashi, is that the heirs to a ger conceived and born to non-Jews (not “in holiness”) should not be repaid. As a person born and raised in non-Jewish society, the convert is subject to the principle "A ger converted is like a child newly born." He is excluded in this context from the legal arrangements that bind his fellow community members. Only a ger with more significant ties in the community, thanks to having been born to a mother who converted prior to his birth, would leave the sages content with the loan’s repayment.
Once again, Rabbi Yitzhak sees the matter otherwise: But Rabbi Yitzhak interpreted: conceived not bekdusha and born bekdusha – sages shall not be content, for he is close to being like Israel and therefore is not a complete Israelite.
In Rabbi Yitzhak’s opinion, sages should approve of debt repayment to a "standard" ger whose conception and birth are not bekdusha! Since these gerim constituted the overwhelming majority of converts, the discrimination against gerim born after their parents’ conversion – bekdusha – impacted a very small group of individuals. In the rare event that a non-Jewish mother converted to Judaism during her pregnancy, her descendant from that particular pregnancy would have encountered difficulties in certain instances pertaining to marital laws. Rabbi Yitzhak saw no reason why this minor technicality should infringe on the hereditary rights of most gerim, and sought to have the same rules apply to both types of Jews – by descent or by choice. Thus, his ruling implies greater equality for gerim under Jewish law. Rabbi Yitzhak’s arcane distinction may strike the contemporary reader as leaving non-ethnic Jews in an inferior position to full Jews. But the practical implication of this interpretation is revolutionary: according to the readings of Rashi and Rabbenu Tam, a ger whose conception and birth were not bekdusha was completely stripped of legal rights within the halakhic system. They based this ruling on the view that born Jews and gerim are inherently different, and that this should be reflected in halakhic law. Rashi and Rabbenu Tam therefore seem oblivious to the sensibilities, needs and even economic rights of the ger. On the other hand, Rabbi Yitzhak’s commentary and rulings reveal an effort to shape a strictly halakhic world in which the economic and personal status of the gerim is stable, safe and equal.
The tough life of the ger
Rabbi Yitzhak’s project of legitimizing gerim was not restricted to the practical sphere of halakha. He invested a similarly intense effort, as did his disciples, in revising the meaning of popular Talmudic aphorisms.
The Talmud’s paradigmatic maxim on the acceptance of gerim is Rabbi Helbo’s saying "gerim are as hard for Israel as a scab [kashim gerim leYisrael ke sapakhat]." Appearing four times in the Talmud, the maxim is itself a linguistic play on Isaiah 14: "And the ger shall join himself with them and they shall cleave [nispekhu] to the house of Jacob."
Sapakhat is commonly identified today as psoriasis, and is derived from the Hebrew verb sapakh, which means “to join” or “to cleave.” This bifurcation between the inclusiveness of nispekhu, and the derogatory sapakhat, has allowed exegetes to choose between endorsing Isaiah 14 and embrace converts, or to consider them as a burdensome lot whose attachment to the skin of the nation must be deplored.
Rabbi Yitzhak’s inclusive interpretation seeks to blunt the edge of Rabbi Helbo’s aphorism. In the Tosafot commentary on Tractate Niddah the following saying is attributed to Rabbi Yitzhak: 
Therefore those who integrate into Israel are tough, and [Rabbi Yitzhak] said: in [the chapter] ten levels of pedigree [in Tractate Kiddushin], Shekhina [the personification of God] inheres only among the families of high descent in Israel. 
Rabbi Yitzhak’s working assumption is that gerim do integrate and are expected to marry within their new community. The integration process will inevitably dilute the high social standing of the descendants, and therefore may hamper the infusion of Shekhina. In this sense, gerim are tough as the scab, because their integration leads to this undesirable consequence. Nevertheless, Rabbi Yitzhak makes it equally clear that there is neither an obstacle nor a wish to prevent marriage between gerim and other members of the community. In his commentary on another invidious remark by Rabbi Helbo, "Woe after woe shall befall those who accept gerim," he says:
… [this saying pertains to cases] where [gerim] are either coaxed into becoming Jewish or assimilated immediately, but if they convert wholeheartedly we must accept them, for we have learned that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob did not take in Timna who sought to convert, and she wandered astray to become a concubine to Eliphaz son of Esau, begetting for him Amalek, Israel’s tormentor… 
Here Rabbi Yitzhak rules unequivocally that it is a mitzvah to embrace any person wishing to convert, limiting Rabbi Helbo’s warnings to cases where gentiles are encouraged or cajoled into converting. But a ger who converts voluntarily, in Rabbi Yitzhak’s view, is not "tough" and certainly isn’t likened to a scab. The vast majority of gerim in the dangerous climate of 12th century France were surely voluntary converts; therefore, this interpretation in a sense released the converts living in the area under Rabbi Yitzhak’s influence from the unpleasant burden of Rabbi Helbo’s maxim.
As we have seen, Rabbi Yitzhak not only defied the exclusionary approach of the Rashi-Rabbenu Tam school, but was the harbinger of a more inclusive approach in halakhic practice among his contemporaries. Subsequent commentaries in the Tosafot literature on Rabbi Helbo attest to the popularity of Rabbi Yitzhak’s approach. For example, an interpretation attributed to two contemporaries of Rabbi Yitzhak asserts the following: 
Since the gerim are knowledgeable in mitzvot and are meticulous about them, they are tough for Israel as the scab, for the Lord uses their example to remind Israel of its iniquities when His will is not followed. 
Evidently, Rabbi Yitzhak’s school harbored a genuine change in the relationship to gerim, both on the theoretical and the practical aspects of halakhic discourse. It seems this approach found resonance in German Jewish communities of the same period. Sefer Hasidim, attributed to the influential Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid (ca. 1150-1217), contains the following passage:
Any kindhearted man who takes a kindhearted gioret (female convert) – who comes from stock that are modest, charitable and pleasant in commerce – it is better to marry with their seed than marrying Israelites who do not possess such virtues, for the seed of the ger shall be upright and kind.
While Rabbi Meir Ben Baruch of Rothenburg (known as the Maharam, ca. 1215-1293) quotes Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid as follows: 
The son of David [Messiah] does not arrive before all souls expire in the body. There is a chamber in the heavens called guf [body] housing all souls destined to enter humans, and an angel appointed to oversee pregnancies takes [souls] from that chamber and implants them in women’s bellies. Occasionally [the angel] errs and places a soul worthy of a gentile in a Jewish woman’s intestines and her baby becomes meshumad [apostate]. And occasionally he places a soul worthy of a Jew in a gentile woman’s intestines and her baby becomes a ger. 
It therefore emerges that the souls of those born bekdusha and those not born bekdusha come from the same source. In light of this insight, the chasm separating them from the interpretations of Rabbenu Tam and Rashi emerges as nothing short of astounding.
Rabbi Yitzhak of Dampierre and his followers enabled a genuine shift in the treatment of gerim in both France and Germany. It seems reasonable to conclude that such halakhic creativity was motivated, at least in part, by historical conditions. If the world at large was getting harder for Jews, should not Jews be easier on converts?
Moreover, converts were an asset. Jewish-Christian relations in the 12th century were typified by the intensification of inter-religious polemics and disputations. A significant number of Jews converted to Christianity and actively represented their new community, serving Christian interests not only with argumentation grounded in Jewish knowledge, but by becoming living examples of the veracity of Church dogma. This phenomenon was matched on the Jewish side of the fence by the increasing acceptance of gerim, who in later periods became an asset to Jewish propaganda.
Thus in a Jewish German chronicle from the second half of the 13th century we read about a man who apparently left a monastic order to become a Jew: 
Rabbi Avraham bar Avraham Avinu of France, leader of the barefooted, who came to reject idols and came to dwell under the wing of the Eternal Soul, and died sanctifying the Name.
This elaborate, admiring and loving tribute could not be more different from the description of Ya’akov ben Sulam, son of the convert and "not descended from a high ranking family," whom we encountered in the tragic Mainz chronicle of 1096.
Adapted from an article in Havruta , V. 1, No. 1, July 2008.   

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