Con­verts are part of us — at all lev­els

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Ben Ju­dah mi Nasi, Av Beit Din, Ben Ju­dah is the author of ‘This is Lon­don’ dhim-

ONCE UPON a time, Ju­daism was a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. Tucked away in a small Ma­ronite vil­lage in Galilee are the tombs of two sages, Avalon and Sh­maya, now so for­got­ten their ex­is­tence is al­most a se­cret. The Mish­nah tells us they were the right­eous of their gen­er­a­tion; they were a light unto the na­tion. Sh­maya was the or the pres­i­dent of the San­hedrin, and Avalon, the or his vice-chair. Both were con­verts.

When they were buried here, in Is­rael’s wooded north, when the Jewish peo­ple were last in their land, around a cen­tury be­fore the de­struc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple, the Jewish peo­ple were proud and not ashamed of con­verts.

This could be seen to any­one walk­ing in Jerusalem in the first cen­tury CE. North of the City of David, the pil­grim com­ing for Yom Kip­pur would have passed the tow­er­ing palaces of Queen He­len of Adi­a­bene and Monobaz II. They were con­verts, and never seen as any­thing but Jews.

The Tal­mud, proud of this royal house rul­ing in North­ern Iraq, is gush­ing: how they do­nated gold ves­sels to the Tem­ple, founded To­rah acad­e­mies in their cap­i­tal Ar­bela, and fought hand-to-hand as Jews against Rome, the King’s broth­ers even fall­ing, as Jews, into cap­tiv­ity.

Our present at­ti­tude to con­verts, and to Ju­daism’s his­tory of con­verts, are the re­flexes of the old, hu­mil­i­ated di­as­pora. The re­flexes of rab­bis fright­ened to con­vert, let alone sing the praises of the con­vert, for fear of be­ing sliced by a Pol­ish Prince. They are the re­flexes of Is­lam’s sta­tus, where any con­ver­sion had to be kept as se­cret as pos­si­ble, for it un­der­mined the Ko­ran’s claim to ut­ter fi­nal­ity. Con­ver­sion to Ju­daism was more of­ten than not a crime; one that fearful com­mu­ni­ties were made to pay for in blood.

With our own state, and our own suc­cess, we don’t have to live like this any more. When the Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent’s daugh­ter is proud to be a Jewish con­vert, it is time for Jews to re­claim the rich his­tory of the con­verts who are — along­side, of course, the Is­raelites — our an­ces­tors.

We should be proud of Kha­nia, the warrior Queen of a con­verted Ber­ber tribe; and proud of the King­dom of Him­yar, from the fourth to the sixth cen­tury, in Ye­men. Why should we for­get King Abu Kariba, who, healed by Jewish doc­tors while at war, con­verted in grat­i­tude.

Want­ing to for­get the con­verts in our blood is a re­flex of a di­as­pora with­out a state. A re­flex of a time when the Jews, per­se­cuted, felt only by claim­ing pure blood­lines would their long­ing for Is­rael be seen as le­git­i­mate by the ethno-racial­ist Western mind of 1948.

This is why we choose to for­get the Royal House of the Khaz­ars, who from the sev­enth to the eleventh cen­tury ruled be­tween Ukraine and the Cau­ca­sus.

His­to­ri­ans dis­miss as fan­ci­ful the idea that all Ashke­nazi Jews stem from the Khaz­ars: it was prob­a­bly only ever a Jewish aris­toc­racy. But his­to­ri­ans of Ju­daism equally dis­miss as fan­ci­ful the idea all Jewish fam­i­lies today, no mat­ter how pi­ous, are purely de­scen­dent from the ex­iles.

All Jewish fam­i­lies de­scend di­rectly from the first Is­rael, but also from con­verts. Not warrior kings but lit­tle, for­got­ten con­verts from Pol­ish and Moroc­can vil­lages, who took huge risks to join a Jewish peo­ple they loved; whom the To­rah not only asks us, but re­quires us to love.

There is noth­ing to be ashamed of in our past. The time of trem­bling is over: we can be proud of how com­plex we re­ally are. And re­claim our for­got­ten king­doms.

The time of trem­bling is over. We can be proud of who we are

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