Shiur #09: Jewish Peoplehood (2): Conversion and Community – Part 2

  • Rav Dr. Judah Goldberg

            The last shiur discussed the degree to which a convert can be absorbed into the experience of Jewish peoplehood in its fullest sense.  In contrast to Rabbeinu Tam, who would not allow a convert to lead birkat ha-mazon (Grace After Meals) because of certain references to Jewish history to which he cannot relate, the Rambam ambitiously claims that “there is no difference between us and you for any matter” (Responsum #293).


            This shiur will further test the Rambam’s hypothesis.  There are several halakhot that, at first glance, seem to hold the convert apart from the mainstream Jewish community.  Do these halakhot pose a challenge to the Rambam’s view of conversion or the inclusive view of Jewish peoplehood that emerges from it?


“The Congregation of God”


            Kiddushin 72b records a dispute about a convert’s eligibility to marry a mamzeret (bastard).  Rabbi Yehuda forbids this, equating the convert with all other Jews.  Rabbi Yossi allows this marriage, for the verse only states that a mamzer may not enter into “the kahal [congregation] of God” (Devarim 23:3), and “the congregation of converts is not called a congregation.”  Rabbi Yehuda’s position, at first glance, is consistent with his inclusive opinion cited in Tosefta Bikkurim (discussed at length in the last shiur), which encourages a convert to count himself among the progeny of Avraham.  Rabbi Yossi seems to exclude the convert from the larger community, such that a mamzer who marries a convert is not “contaminating” the community.


            The Gemara concludes that a convert “is permitted [to marry] a mamzeret like Rabbi Yossi[’s opinion]” (73a), and this ruling is cited by the Rambam (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’a 15:7; also see 16:1).  Is this not a stinging retort to the Rambam’s embracing message to R. Ovadia the convert?   Does it not leave converts outside “the congregation,” looking in?  Indeed, relates the Gemara, so disturbed were the converts of Machoza by this possibility that they pelted Rabbi Zeira with fruit when he dared teach that a convert may marry a mamzeret!


            We can gain a better understanding of this dispute, and of Rabbi Yossi’s opinion specifically, by examining its basis.  The Gemara says that Rabbi Yossi includes various groups in the prohibition of mamzerim based on the Torah’s repetition of the term “kahal” five different times:  “One is for kohanim, one is for leviyim, one is for yisraelim, one is to allow a mamzer to marry a person of uncertain lineage and one is to allow a person of uncertain lineage to marry a Jew.  The congregation of converts,” however, “is not called a congregation,” as there is no additional use of the word “kahal” in the Torah that would include yet another group (see Rashi).


            What emerges from the Gemara is that there is not one “congregation of God,” but several congregations of God.  The term “kahal” does not describe a single, unified entity that excludes the solitary convert, but refers to multiple subgroups within the Jewish people—kohanim, leviyim, etc.—each of which is individually called a “kahal.”  This point is even clearer in the Tosefta:


Rabbi Yehuda says, “There are four congregations [kehillot]:  the congregation of kohanim, the congregation of leviyim, the congregation of yisrael [and] the congregation of converts; and everyone else may marry each other.”  The Sages say, “There are three congregations:  the congregation of kohanim, the congregation of leviyim [and] the congregation of yisrael.”[1]  (Kiddushin 5:1)


If so, the convert may not be excluded from the community but simply falls between the cracks of its composite parts.  When conceived as a whole, the nation is all inclusive, but when it is broken down into individual “kehillot,” there will be some people who remain unclassifiable.  Inasmuch as mamzerim are not prohibited to Jews as individuals but only to Jewish congregations as social units (in contrast to, say, gentiles, who are prohibited to each individual Jew), a convert’s permissibility to a mamzer does not reflect a deficit in his Jewishness, but simply a lack of membership in a particular subgroup.


            What is Rabbi Yehuda’s position?  We could potentially explain his stance in two different ways.  In keeping with our initial approach, we could say that Rabbi Yehuda thinks “kahal” is an all-inclusive term that refers to the entire community of Jewish people, converts included.  This might be suggested by the Gemara’s tracing of his opinion to the verse, “The ‘kahal,’ one statute for you and for the convert” (Bamidbar 15:15).  The language of the Tosefta, however, points in a different direction.  Rabbi Yehuda might give converts their own subgroup, a fourth “kahal” known as “the congregation of converts.” [2]


            Finally, considering these two possibilities within Rabbi Yehuda’s opinion leads us to reassess and refine our understanding of Rabbi Yossi’s position.  On the one hand, Rabbi Yossi may maintain that converts are, in a limited sense, disenfranchised.  For all of our welcoming them into the Jewish people as a whole, they are loners who neither fit into specified subgroups nor form one of their own.  Alternatively, Rabbi Yossi may agree with Rabbi Yehuda that converts coalesce into their own, distinct congregation, but he may still maintain that this congregation is not enumerated among those that must exclude mamzerim.


            This last point becomes evident upon examination of the Rambam.  To the Gemara’s statement that “the congregation of converts is not called a congregation,” the Rambam adds one word.  He writes that a mamzer may marry a convert because “the congregation of converts is not called ‘a congregation of God’” (15:7).  A congregation it is, but not a “congregation of God” that the Torah forbade from accepting mamzerim.  The Rambam further reinforces this point when recording the prohibition against appointing a convert (or a pure descendant of converts) as king:  “We do not appoint a king from the congregation of converts, even after several generations, until his mother is a native Jewess (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:4).[3]


            According to all interpretations, though, it seems that the convert’s permissibility with mamzerim is a limited exception, rather than a reflection of incomplete absorption into the Jewish people.  Rabbi Yossi does not leave converts outside of the nation, just outside of any of the mainstream congregations.  While membership in the individual kehillot is indeed based on personal lineage, membership in the Jewish nation as a whole is not.  Just as a yisrael cannot “convert” to the congregation of leviyim or of kohanim (and vice versa), so too a convert to Judaism cannot join any one of these groups. Nonetheless, his participation in the collective national experience is identical to that of anyone else. 


Converts and the Priesthood


            Although any convert may marry into the Jewish people from the moment of conversion (see Rambam Hilkhot Issurei Bi’a 12:17), a female convert may not marry a kohen.  The source and nature for this prohibition is subject to a debate between the Rambam and the Ra’avad (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’a 18:3). 


The Ra’avad follows Kiddushin 78a, which cites a verse from Yechezkel that kohanim should only marry “virgins from the seed of the house of Israel” (44:22).  From this verse, Rabbi Shimon derives an exception for girls who were converted when they were less than three years old. The Sages, who prohibit any convert from marrying a kohen, presumably rely on the same verse but reject Rabbi Shimon’s interpretation.  The Rambam, on the other hand, interprets Yevamot 61b as including a convert within the category of “zonah,”[4] whom the Torah explicitly forbids a kohen from marrying (Vayikra 21:7).  Tosafot (Yevamot 61a) agree with the Rambam and explain that the verse from Yechezkel, according to both Rabbi Shimon and the Sages, is ultimately grounded in the Torah prohibition of zonah.[5]


In what sense can a convert be called a zonah?  Rashi (Yevamot 61b)suggests that she is a zonah because “she had relations with gentile men while she was a gentile.”  Several commentaries[6] assail this explanation, first, because the presumption about her past behavior is speculative, and second, because it cannot possibly explain why the Sages argue with Rabbi Shimon regarding converted toddlers.  The Rambam and Tosafot, in contrast, do not base her identity as a zonah on her behavior but upon the very fact that she was born to a gentile nation.[7]  Similar to Chazal’s contention that members of gentile nations are described as spiritually “uncircumcised,” regardless of whether the foreskin has been removed or not (Nedarim 31b), Tosafot claim that they are also described as “promiscuous,” regardless of actual conduct. 


Thus, the Rambam and Ra’avad reach the same essential halakhic conclusion,[8] but their respective explanations differ in significant ways.  According to the Ra’avad, a convert is prohibited from marrying a kohen simply because she was not born Jewish.  As much as she has been fully absorbed into Jewish peoplehood, not being “from the seed of the house of Israel” remains a barrier in this one limited context.  According to the Rambam, however, the Torah never insists upon native Jews per se for kohanim.  Rather, the convert carries a particular designation of “zonah” (an admittedly unflattering term, though not one that suggests impropriety—see Hilkhot Issurei Bi’a 18:5-6) from her pre-Jewish life, and, like other women with the same designation, she remains prohibited to kohanim for life.[9] 


Descendants of Converts and the Priesthood


            Up to now we have discussed the case of a gentile woman who herself converted.  What about a descendant of converts?  The Mishna records a dispute on this point that also involves Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi:


Rabbi Yehuda says, “The daughter of a male convert is equivalent to the daughter of a challal [defiled priest; thus she may not marry a kohen]…  Rabbi Yossi says, “Even a male convert who married a female convert, his daughter is fit for [marrying into] kehuna.” (Kiddushin 77a)


According to the ensuing Talmudic discussion (78a), Rabbi Yehuda learns his rule from a comparison to others whose daughters may not marry kohanim.  The common denominator to all of them, including a convert, is that they are not “be-rov kahal”—none of them is part of the mainstream “congregation,” albeit in very different ways.[10]  As a result, the convert invalidates both his wife and his daughter from ever marrying kohanim.


            Why does Rabbi Yossi argue with Rabbi Yehuda?  According to the Ramban, Rabbi Yossi accepts Rabbi Yehuda’s logic but nonetheless derives from the aforementioned verse in Yechezkel that anyone born Jewish may marry a kohenTosafot (Yevamot 77a), however, explain that Rabbi Yossi rejects Rabbi Yehuda’s statement that a convert is not “be-rov kahal,” as a convert can marry into the congregation.  Therefore, he shares nothing in common with the other figures that Rabbi Yehuda invokes.[11] 


            Tosafot’s opinion leads us to a double paradox.  Whereas Rabbi Yehuda includes the congregation of converts in the prohibition against mamzerim, he labels converts as “not mainstream” and thus disqualifies their wives and daughters from marrying kohanim.  Rabbi Yossi, on the other hand, claims that converts do not belong to a “congregation of God” but says that they are nonetheless part of the mainstream community and therefore can marry their daughters to kohanim!


            We can perhaps resolve this difficulty by reconsidering Rabbi Yehuda’s position that “the congregation of converts is called a congregation.”[12]  Incorporation of a loose social group can have two opposite consequences for its members.  On the one hand, it strengthens their social standing and puts them on equal footing with others, but at the same time, it can further isolate them from other, similar groups.[13]  This is exactly what Rabbi Yehuda’s opinion does to converts.  Calling them “a congregation of God” both empowers them and weakens them.  They, too, must exclude mamzerim from their midst, but they now stand apart even more distinctly as not being “be-rov kahal.”


            As for Rabbi Yossi, he can dispute any one of Rabbi Yehuda’s assumptions to varying degrees.  He may simply reject the concept of “be-rov kahal” as a halakhically significant designation.  Alternatively, he may be willing to consider that possibility but nonetheless argues with its application to converts because he rejects their full incorporation.  Either he sees converts as unclassified individuals who live among the congregations without belonging to any one of them, or, according to the Rambam, he acknowledges that converts possess some degree of collective identity, but not one that competes with the congregations of God and thereby isolates converts from them.[14]  For Rabbi Yossi, the converts’ weakness is their strength, in that their lack of incorporation allows them to participate fully in the mainstream community, including marrying their daughters to kohanim.




            This shiur considered three possible challenges to a convert’s ability to participate fully in berit Avot and be completely absorbed into the Jewish people.  Restrictions for converts, and possibly their descendants, from marrying kohanim and the lack of a prohibition regarding mamzerim seem to suggest that the convert is not as fully integrated as we would like to think.


            Careful, halakhic analysis, however, can parry these challenges.  Rabbi Yehuda, who, at first glance, seems to offer more respect for converts’ standing by forbidding them from marrying mamzerim, actually distances them further from the mainstream population by asserting that they are not “be-rov kahal.”  Rabbi Yossi, on the other hand, whom the halakha follows on both points, denies the full status of a “congregation of God” to the community of converts, but in doing so he more easily allows them to live in the midst of the mainstream community.


            Separately, whereas the Ra’avad claims an independent rule that kohanim may marry only women who were born Jewish, the Rambam subsumes converts’ impermissibility to kohanim under the known prohibition against marrying a zonah.  While both approaches lead to the same exclusion, the Rambam puts less emphasis on lineage per se.   According to the Rambam, genetics on its own poses no barrier to the convert’s full integration into the community, even as the designation of zonah (admittedly a byproduct of the convert’s birth identity) and the lack of membership in one of the main congregations may each have particular consequences for a convert.  The Rambam’s claim to R. Ovadia the convert that “there is no difference between us and you,” then, rings true, at least at the level of national identity (Responsum #293).


Conclusion: The Uniqueness of Jewish Conversion


            Finally, in reflecting upon the dual nature of the convert’s transformation, it is important to note how unique this proposition is, both in the modern world as well as the ancient one.  On the one hand, many contemporary faiths see religion as universal, thus denying the possibility of a people with a unique destiny.  Mori ve-rabbi R. Aharon Lichtenstein observes how the concept of integration into peoplehood is noticeably absent from Christian discussions of conversion, which mostly associate the phenomenon with personal repentance (“Conversion: Birth and Judgment,” in Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living, 204-205).  In other words, they broadly identify with the spiritual awakening encapsulated by entry into berit Sinai—acceptance of mitzvot—but they have no parallel for the experience of joining berit Avot.  To the extent that community exists in many religions, it usually describes the community of believers, rather than a people whose sense of historical destiny transcends the dicta of religious faith.


            On the other hand, to the extent that Judaism embraces a strong concept of peoplehood defined as “the progeny of Avraham,” it is just as surprising that foreigners can so easily gain access to this identity.  Mori ve-rabbi R. Hershel Schachter notes that this, too, is a unique feature of Jewish peoplehood.  Halakha views the gentile nations as extended clans or tribes and thus relies upon a purely genetic definition of identity.  We do not know of any way to become a Moabite or an Ammonite, for instance, other than to be born into a Moabite or Ammonite family.  Thus Nazir 61b comments that a gentile “does not have a congregation [kahal],” and as the Rosh explains, “a congregation of gentiles is not called a congregation.”  In contrast, halakha treats the Jewish people as an incorporated “nation” whose identity transcends the individual familial networks that connect its members (Eretz Ha-tzvi, siman 17).[15]


            Moreover, R. Schachter traces this conception of Jewish peoplehood back to God’s original covenant with the Avot.  Regarding the blessing to our forefathers that “‘ve-nivrekhu’ in you all the families of the earth” (Bereishit 12:3, 28:14), the Rashbam explains that “ve-nivrekhu” is derived from the verbs “mavrikh u-markiv,” which mean to replant and to graft.  According to the Rashbam, God is telling the Avot that “all the families of the earth will blend into your family,” a reference to conversion.[16] 


In other words, conversion is not just anticipated as a possibility by berit Avot but is actually a direct consequence of the vision for peoplehood that berit Avot introduces.  Had Avraham been promised merely a future spiritual revelation (at Sinai) for his progeny, foreigners might not have had any access to membership in this community.  Even if they could have embraced the Jewish faith and religion, they could not have joined the Jewish nation any more than they could become Amalekites or Canaanites.  Forging a formal covenant around peoplehood, even as it is anchored in the direct progeny of Avraham, raises it above a natural, familial definition and allows for a communal experience that transcends time, space, and even genetics.[17] 


In the words of Chazal, “it came to teach and instead it has learned.”  While berit Avot initially gave us the tools and language to describe the complex experience of Jewish conversion, conversion has ultimately deepened our understanding of what berit Avot envisions in the first place. 


For Further Thought:


1.  In evaluating the extent of the convert’s integration into the Jewish people, this shiur focused on marriage.  A full treatment of the topic would also need to address a convert’s limitations from assuming positions of authority.  In brief:

·         With regard to appointing a king, the Torah states that “you may not place upon yourself a foreigner who is not your brother” (Devarim 17:15), which the Sages interpret as excluding a convert (see Rabbeinu Bechaye and Rambam Sefer Ha-mitzvot negative commandment #362).  This prohibition extends to all positions of authority within the community (Yevamot 45b).  We can perhaps lessen the “sting” of this exclusion, however, by noting that the term in the verse that the Sages focus upon is “your brother” (see Yevamot 45b and Bava Kama 88a).  This suggests that the problem with a convert’s leadership is not his personal identity, but his connection to his peers.[18]  The Torah requires that a leader emerge “from among your brothers” (Devarim 17:15) in order to be able to lead his constituency.[19]  Thus, Rava explains that a convert cannot exert power over native Jews, but he can over fellow converts (Yevamot 102a).[20]  He is not denied authority per se, but simply limited in his ability to effectively wield it.[21]

·         Rashi and Tosafot argue about the scope of a convert’s limitations in serving as a judge.  Rashi (Yevamot 102a) maintains that a convert is only limited by the concerns for authority above and therefore can judge a fellow convert even in capital cases.  Tosafot believe that a convert is barred from ever serving on a court of twenty-three judges, based on the Gemara’s derivation that such judges must be similar to Moshe Rabbeinu (Sanhedrin 36b).  This could refer to exclusion either from judicial appointment[22] or from the ability to preside over weighty matters.[23]  What, if anything, does Tosafot’s position tell us about converts in general?

·         Regarding a court for chalitza (freeing a woman from a potential levirate marriage), the Talmud Yerushalmi (Yevamot 12:1) quotes two opinions whether a convert may serve.  In explaining the opinion that he may not (which the Talmud Bavli Yevamot 102a adopts), commentaries differ whether a convert may not serve only because of the various concerns above (see Ramban 102a and 45b) or whether there is an independent requirement for a judge in a case of chalitza to be born of two native Jews (see Rashi, Tosafot 101b and Tosafot Yeshanim 45b).  According to the latter approach, the uniqueness of chalitza may be related to the particular role that levirate marriage has in maintaining continuity of lineage and inheritance (see Devarim 25:5-10 and Sifrei), which is not directly relevant to converts.


2. Over the last two shiurim, we have seen three positions of Rabbi Yehuda: 1) A convert can say “the God of our forefathers;” 2) “the congregation of converts is called a congregation;” and 3) the daughter of a convert may not marry a kohen.  Can we reconcile all three positions?  On the other hand, can we explain the Rambam’s rulings and the accepted halakha, which accept the first position but reject the latter two?

3.  Regarding footnote #14:  Does the Rambam’s definition of the “congregation of converts” hold for Rabbi Yehuda as well, or only for Rabbi Yossi?  In other words, regarding Rabbi Yehuda, would the Rambam agree to the position of Tosafot and the Ran?


4.  If, according to the Rambam, the congregation of converts is a congregation, in what sense is it not a “congregation of God?”  Is this related to the Rambam’s negative definition in footnote #14, or is the congregation of converts inferior in other ways?  Also see Kiddushin 70b.


5.  At what point did berit Avot become capable of absorbing converts?  On the one hand, the Sifrei (Devarim 32 [Finkelstein ed.]) tells us that the people that accompanied Avraham on his journey to Canaan (Bereishit 12:5) were his converts, but we never hear about them again.  The next converts appear at the time of the Exodus (see Shemot 12:38 and Tosefta Pesachim 8:7).  Is it possible that Avraham’s students embraced his theological teachings, but only the mature Jewish people that emerged from Egypt could absorb outsiders into their destiny?  However, see Rambam Hilkhot Avoda Zara 1:3.


Questions or Comments?


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[1] Also see parallel texts in Sifrei Devarim 247 (Finkelstein ed.) and Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4:1.

[2] Indeed, the Gemara itself might just be finding another use of the term “kahal” that would allow us to count converts as a fourth group.

[3] The Rambam repeats the phrase “congregation of converts” every time he mentions this prohibition.  See Sefer Ha-mitzvot negative commandment #362, as well as the abbreviated list of mitzvot in the introduction to Mishneh Torah and the listing of mitzvot preceding Hilkhot Melakhim.

[4] Though “zonah” typically refers to a promiscuous or adulterous woman, the term is more difficult to define in the context of kehuna (see Yevamot 61b).  See the Rambam’s sprawling definition:  “According to tradition, we have learned that the ‘zonah’ mentioned in the Torah is anyone who was not born Jewish, or a Jewess who had intercourse with a man whom she is prohibited from marrying by a universal prohibition, or one who had intercourse with a challal [defiled kohen], even though she may marry him” (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’a 18:1).

[5] Also see Ritva and Meiri 60b.

[6] See, for instance, Rashba and Ritva 60b.

[7] Also see Ritva Kiddushin 78a.

[8] The nafka minah (practical distinction) between their positions is the punishment for a kohen who marries a convert.  According to the Rambam, he has violated a negative prohibition and is liable for lashes, but according to the Ra’avad, he has not.   

[9] The convert’s inability to completely remake herself through conversion and shed any prior labels may depend on a dispute between Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish in Yevamot 62a.  According to Rav Yochanan, a convert has fulfilled the commandment to procreate through children born to him prior to his conversion; likewise, the first child born to him after conversion will not be designated as a bekhor [firstborn] and will receive the standard inheritance.  According to Reish Lakish, a convert must bear more children, and the first will be considered a bekhor, for “one who has converted is like a newborn babe.”  Reish Lakish apparently takes this concept literally, in which case we can ask whether a convert could similarly escape a prior designation as a “zonah.”  Rav Yochanan presumably does not reject this well-known dictum but limits its scope.  Identity is renewed, but personal history remains a part of the convert.

[10] See Rashi s.v. she-einan:  “This one [a challal] was born from sin, and this one [an Egyptian] may not marry into the congregation [see Devarim 23:8-9], and a convert is not “be-rov kahal” because he comes from unfit seed.”

[11] Also see Tosafot Ha-Rosh Kiddushin 78a.

[12] Part of the impetus to resolve this paradox is Yevamot 57a, which juxtaposes these two disputes between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi without ever acknowledging the logical problem that they pose. 

[13] Consider, for instance, the complex consequences of an underprivileged or discriminated population’s decision to form a political party around its specific interests.

[14] The Rambam’s position is ameliorated somewhat by his negative definition of the “congregation of converts,” which is composed only of individuals with no native Jewish ancestors.  Anyone who has a native Jewish parent, however, whether father or mother, belongs to the congregation of God and is forbidden to marry a mamzer (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’a 15:9).  Thus, even according to the Rambam, the congregation of converts is merely a collection of disenfranchised individuals but not an independent congregation that passes on its own familial heritage.  Tosafot (Kiddushin 74b and Yevamot 84b [see Tosafot Ha-Rosh]) and the Ran (Kiddushin 30b in Alfasi) disagree, contending that the usual principle that lineage follows the father (see Kiddushin 66b) applies to the child of a male convert as well.

[15] While the term “goy” is non-specific, “kahal” seems to be used in Chumash exclusively for the Jewish nation, beginning with blessings given to Ya’akov (Bereishit 28:3, 35:11, 48:4).

[16] Rashbam’s commentary to Bereishit 12:3 is lost, but in his commentary on 28:14, he notes, “I have already explained this in Parashat Lekh Lekha.”  Also see edition by David Razin (New York, 1949), 12, n. 5.   

[17] Similarly, see the Rambam’s description of the “house of Avraham” in Hilkhot Avoda Zara 1:3 and Responsum #293, discussed in the previous shiur.

[18] Similarly, see Rambam Hilkhot Melakhim 1:6.

[19] Even today, many countries require that a candidate for the presidency be born a citizen, most notably the United States. 

[20] Tosafot present two opinions about whether a convert may judge a pure descendant of converts (Yevamot 101b-102a, Ketubot 44b).

[21] Tosafot (Sota 41b) and Ramban (Yevamot 45b) raise the requirements for king above those for other officials.  The Rambam, however, does not differentiate (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:4-5).

[22] See a similar idea in mori ve-rabbi R. Hershel Schachter’s Ginat Egoz 35:1 in the name of R. Soloveitchik.

[23] See Ramban Yevamot 45b, who explains that a convert may not serve on a court of three judges for chalitza (freeing a woman from a potential levirate marriage) “for the Torah was stringent with this as with capital cases.”