Maimonides on Conversion

Image: Portrait of Maimonides, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Parashat Ki Tavo contains the famous formula for bringing the first fruits to the Temple, the same formula that we recall in the Passover Haggadah, beginning:

My father was a wandering Aramean. – Deut 26:5

This line was the subject of a question sent to Maimonides (1135 – 1204) by a man known to us only to us as Obadiah the Proselyte. “Proselyte” is a fancy word for “convert.” Obadiah wanted to know if it was permissible for a convert to Judaism like himself to refer to Jacob as “my father” when in fact Jacob was not his physical ancestor. He extended the question to phrases such as “Our God” and other phrases that suggest familial relationship. 

Maimonides’ gracious answer has been a comfort to gerim [converts to Judaism] ever since. “Yes!” he writes in return, “You may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least.” Maimonides reminded Obadiah that Abraham brought many souls into the covenant, and that ever since then, all those who have adopted Judaism are counted among the disciples of Abraham. Maimonides concludes by admonishing Obadiah: “Do not consider your origin as inferior!”

So, too, do the blessings, curses and commandments in this portion apply to all Jews, not only some. We are one people, whether we became Jewish in the waters of the womb or in the waters of the mikveh.

This d’var Torah appeared in slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.

Shabbat Shalom! – Ki Tetzei

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetzei (“When you go out”) and it includes many commandments, some of them quite difficult to understand. The commandments for a woman taken in war are here, as are the commandment concerning an unloved wife and the one concerning a disobedient son. Those are just in the first eleven verses!

Many of these commandments continue to perplex us as we struggle to see how to live lives of Torah. Some concern matters we’d rather not think about at all. Some seem to propose impossible acts!

For instance, the rules for dealing with lost property begin with verses found in this portion. If we take the commandments literally as written, then any time we find any object that might be lost, no matter how beat up it is, no matter how hopeless it is to find the original owner, we must keep that object and search until we find the owner! If we read it literally, then every observant Jew would lug around a huge bag full of lost pennies, broken ballpoint pens, and other detritus, searching for their owners. This is where the process we know as “Talmud” kicks in – the Talmud is the record of our communal struggle with seemingly impossible or unfair commandments. (If you want to learn more about that, I refer you to the post What is the Talmud? elsewhere in this blog.)

Lots to talk about in this portion! So without further explication, here are some divrei Torah on Ki Tetzei:

On Right Relationship with Each Other – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

At Home and On the Road – Rabbi Dan Fink

Whether You Believe in the Metzaveh or Not – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Shimon Peres: Pursuer of Peace – Rabbi Sharon Sobel

Honor – Rabbi Kari Hofmeister Tuling, PhD

To Wear is Human – Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Rabbi Reuven Zellman

Shabbat Shalom! – Shoftim

This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim [Judges.] It is a fascinating portion because it describes an entire idealized societal structure for the Israelites. It also contains the oft-quoted line, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” [Justice, Justice you must pursue.”]

Divrei Torah on Parashat Shoftim:

The Problem of Prayer by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Major Injustices and Minor Slights by Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD

Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue by Hannah Perlberger

Kingly Indulgence by Benjamin Elterman

Righteous Justice by Anita Silvert

Don’t Judge Others, Begin with Yourself by Rabbi Andy Gordon

Different Visions of Divine Reflect Truest Self-Image by Rabbi Mychal Copeland

What Do We Owe the Poor? Re’eh

Image: A woman huddles on a sidewalk, her belongings in a cart. Photo via

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11)

With this statement, Parashat Re’eh explodes the fantasy that someday there will be no poor people. The passage begins with the rules for shmittah, the Sabbatical year, but this verse carries it far beyond. With a stark economic fact— There will always be poor people in the land—and the follow-up, which could be paraphrased, “And you have responsibilities to them,” the Written Torah undergirds the huge body of Oral Torah addressing tzedakah and economic justice.

When Maimonides set out to make a systematic study of our responsibilities to the poor in the Mishnah Torah, he looked to this passage and commentary on it, as well as the commandments and commentary for tithes and the corners of the field. As a collection of verses from the Torah, it seems a motley collection of agricultural laws, tax law trivia, and the law for the Sabbatical year.

However, by Maimonides’ day Oral Torah had developed these raw materials into a well-reasoned program for the care of the poor. This public welfare program of Jewish tradition is not a “War on Poverty.” Grounded in gritty realism, it is a relatively modest program that accepts the existence of poverty without “sending messages,” “teaching lessons,” or punishing the poor for their poverty.

It accepts the idea that some people seem chronically lazy, some are chronically unlucky, some are victims of politics or circumstance, and some have temporary setbacks that require assistance. 

The tradition as Maimonides lays it out is full of surprises for the modern reader.  If someone says they are hungry, Maimonides demands that we not ask any more questions, but feed them immediately. If they ask for money for clothing, however, we are allowed to make more inquiries about the real need, because that lack is not as likely to kill them as lack of food. If a person is accustomed to riding a horse, he says, then we should supply a horse to them (a very expensive proposition – the equivalent might be a luxury car today!) The dignity of the poor is a matter of great concern to Maimonides: he is willing to stretch the community’s charity budget to avoid shaming a person who has fallen into poverty.

Indeed, all of this is rather alarming reading to have in mind when faced with a panhandler on the street today. Our circumstances have changed in many ways. However, if someone says to me, “Can I have a dollar for food?” I remember Maimonides’ teaching and either offer to buy food or hand them a grocery card that will let them buy a little food. If I have to say no, I remember his teaching and say no as kindly as possible. Above all, I make sure to support the local food bank that feeds anyone who needs it.

What do we owe the poor? We owe them the means to live, and more than that we owe them dignity, no matter our opinion of them or their actions. Jewish tradition sets a  high bar even while it acknowledges that “there will always be poor people in the land.”

Part of this d’var Torah previously appeared in the CCAR Newsletter.

Shabbat Shalom! – Re’eh

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov Elul!

This Shabbat marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. With so much going on, our divrei Torah are particularly rich; our writers examine the confluence of the month, the texts, and world events.

Just as Passover preparation requires turning the house upside down in the search for chametz, the High Holy Day preparation of Elul requires that we turn our internal houses upside down to seek out the issues that we may have hidden from ourselves. Whom have we hurt or offended? With what behaviors do we hurt ourselves? This month calls for rigorous honesty and that, in turn, calls for courage. Fortunately the texts will support us in our preparation.

This week’s parashah is Re’eh, “See!” which is the longest of all the parshiot in the Torah.

All Who Are Thirsty Come to the Water by Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Believing is Seeing by Hannah Perlberger

To See or To Be Seen by Barbara Heller

Show Me the Money! by Rabbi Harry Rothenberg (VIDEO)

Blessing and Curse by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Time to Prepare, Time to Pardon by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

What Do We Owe the Poor? by Rabbi Ruth Adar


Shabbat Shalom! Eikev

Parashat Eikev might be termed “Parashat Deja Vu.” There is material here that may give us the feeling, “Haven’t I heard this before?”

We hear the story of the Golden Calf again, which we heard once before in Exodus. We hear the story of the making and breaking and remaking of the tablets. We also hear smaller, more recent repetitions: in Deuteronomy 9:1, we hear the formula “Shema, Israel” that we heard earlier at Deuteronomy 6:4.

Why is Moses repeating himself?

We could say, well, Moses was old. He was nearing his 120th year and he was exhausted. Maybe his mind was slipping a bit.

But more likely he had had time, over the forty years, to think about all these stories, and he understood them differently now than he had when they first occurred. Moses has learned and grown, and he is sharing those new insights with his people before his death, and before they enter the Land.

Also, Moses has a new audience: these are the children and grandchildren of the Israelites who left Egypt.

Some insights on the portion:

Thanks for the Memories by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Walking and Listening by Rabbi John Rosove

Walking on the Heels of God by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Stuff Doesn’t Just Happen by Rabbi Don Levy

Jon Stewart and Moses on BS by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

Ekev: On Wealth

Remember the Eternal your God, for it is God who gives you power to get wealth, so that God may confirm the covenant sworn to your ancestors, as God is doing today.

–Deuteronomy 8:18

It seems to be human nature to give ourselves primary credit for wealth and prosperity.  When a person has worked hard and for many years to reach a place of security, it is only natural take credit for all that work. Parashat Ekev warns us never to forget that no matter how well we have done, humility still applies.

The word usually translated “wealth” In Deuteronomy 8:18 is “Chayil,” the same word we know from Eshet Chayil, the song written out in Proverbs 31, usually translated “A Woman of Valor.” Brown Driver Briggs, the major dictionary for Biblical Hebrew, offers a four part definition of chayil: “strength, efficiency, wealth, army.” If it is strength, it is strength is like that of an army, like that of the woman in Proverbs 31: interconnected, efficient, valorous.

The choice of words in this week’s Torah portion reminds us that whatever wealth we have is not simply our own doing, but the result of a complex mix of effort, energy, valor, persistence, and good fortune – all from God, and interconnected with other human beings, as well.

An entrepreneur works hard for success. Making a business go requires long hours and great risk. But it also requires other factors, interconnections to others. A physical location for business requires roads to reach it, water and sewage, power lines and other businesses to serve it. We may pay for those services, but unless we are on a desert island, we do not have to dig wells for water, build roads for service, pipe the sewage away, and build a power plant! We can call the police or the fire department; we do not have to invent them.

And face it, luck is also a factor. Smart people sometimes bring businesses into being, only to be hit with a stroke of bad luck: a drought, a recession, a change in tastes, an accident, and then instead of wealth, they have nothing but debt.

Opportunity is not equal anywhere in this life. Some people prosper either through their own effort or by inherited advantage. Others never get a chance.

Many people work hard all their lives and have little to show, even though they have done nothing wrong. Others through no fault of their own are disabled by physical or mental illness and are unable to work. We must hold any goods we have with humility.