Truly a Child of Abraham and Sarah

Image: Head and shoulders of the Maimonides Memorial in Córdoba, by Amadeo Ruiz Olmos. (Photo Yair Haklai via Wikimedia Commons)

A convert named Obadiah wrote with questions for the great rabbi Moses Maimonides. The rabbi’s reply has come down to us:

Thus says Moses, the son of Rabbi Maimon, one of the exiles from Jerusalem, who lived in Spain:

I received the question of the master Obadiah, the wise and learned proselyte, may the Lord reward him for his work, may a perfect recompense be bestowed upon him by the Lord of Israel, under whose wings he has sought cover.

You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments,” “You who have separated us,” “You who have chosen us,” “You who have inherited us,” “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt,” “You who have worked miracles to our fathers,” and more of this kind.

Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation. The reason for this is, that Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God; he rejected the idols and abolished their adoration; he brought many children under the wings of the Divine Presence; he gave them counsel and advice, and ordered his sons and the members of his household after him to keep the ways of the Lord forever, as it is written, “For I have known him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). Ever since then whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace be with him. These men are Abraham’s household, and he it is who converted them to righteousness.

In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him. Thus Abraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism.

Therefore you shall pray, “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” because Abraham, peace be with him, is your father. And you shall pray, “You who have taken for his own our fathers,” for the land has been given to Abraham, as it is said, “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give to you” (Gen. 13:17). As to the words, “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt” or “You who have done miracles to our fathers” – these you may change, if you will, and say, “You who have brought Israel out of the land of Egypt ” and “You who have done miracles to Israel.” If, however, you do not change them, it is no transgression, because since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. Thus is it said in the Book of Isaiah, “Neither let the son of the stranger, that has joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, ‘The Lord has utterly separated me from His people’” (Is. 56:3). There is no difference whatever between you and us. You shall certainly say the blessing, “Who has chosen us,” “Who has given us,” “Who have taken us for Your own” and “Who has separated us”: for the Creator, may He be extolled, has indeed chosen you and separated you from the nations and given you the Torah. For the Torah has been given to us and to the proselytes, as it is said, “One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourns with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord” (Num. 15:15). Know that our fathers, when they came out of Egypt, were mostly idolaters; they had mingled with the pagans in Egypt and imitated their way of life, until the Holy One, may He be blessed, sent Moses our Teacher, the master of all prophets, who separated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence, us and all proselytes, and gave to all of us one Law.

Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah: “One shall say, I am the Lord’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob” (Is. 44:5).  – from A Maimonides Reader, ed. Isadore Twersky.  Behrman House, 1972

Obadiah takes words seriously. He worries that it is presumptuous for him to to include himself in the pronouns “us” and “we” in Jewish prayer, since his biological ancestors were not Jews.  It is a good question.

Maimonides answers him gently but clearly: parenthood is not limited to biology:

In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him. Thus Abraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism.

Abraham was not born a Jew, nor was Sarah. Genesis 12 tells us that Abraham chose to say, “Hineni” [Here I am] to God, and to follow God westward.  The story continues:

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had made in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. – Genesis 12:5

What does this mean, “making” souls? [וְאֶת-הַנֶּפֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן]  Rashi explains to us:

אשר עשו בחרן [THE SOULS] THAT THEY HAD GOTTEN (literally, made) IN HARAN — The souls which he had brought beneath the sheltering wings of the Shechinah. Abraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women and Scripture accounts it unto them as if they had made them – Rashi on Genesis 12:5

It is from this verb, “asu” or “they made” that we get the teaching that all converts to Judaism are the adopted children of Abraham and Sarah.

In his letter to Obadiah, Maimonides is clear: Obadiah is as truly a son of Abraham as Ishmael or Isaac. He hammers it home, repeating:

There is no difference whatever between you and us.

Whatever tensions there may be among the children of Abraham and Sarah, Maimonides’ words are unequivocal.  No Jew is “more Jewish” than any other.

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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.

“The Highest Form of Jewish Giving” might be a surprise.

If you bring up the subject of tzedakah, money given for charity, many Jews will tell you two things:

1. Tzedakah is from the same Hebrew root as “justice.”  and

2. Maimonides taught a ladder of tzedakah, with making a loan as the highest form of tzedakah.

The first is true, the second is missing some bits.

1. Tzedakah is indeed from the Hebrew root associated with justice: tzadee, dalet, kuf.   The Hebrew for justice is tzedek.

2. Maimonides teaches us a hierarchy of virtue in giving tzedakah, from least to greatest:

  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

Adapted from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14

“Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant” is a far cry from “the highest form of charity is a loan.” Maimonides specifies, first of all, that he refers to an interest-free loan or a money gift to enable a person to start a business. Providing an interest-free loan or a gift for education or training might also qualify. The Talmud (Shabbat 63) suggests that an interest-free loan is preferable because it is more sensitive to the dignity of the recipient. However, the highest form of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is to form a business partnership with the intended recipient, which means taking on risks and serving as an ongoing partner in the venture. It isn’t for the faint of heart, and should not be undertaken lightly. We are forbidden to give tzedakah beyond our means.

There’s a third point about tzedakah that gets less press. Maimonides teaches that when we select a recipient for a share from our limited resources, we should look first nearby and for the most in distress. “Nearness” might mean physical nearness (give to the food bank in your own county before you give to the one far away) or it might mean familial nearness, so help for the cousin who can’t make rent takes precedence over a non-relative, or an organization that will survive without our gift. (I can imagine development directors groaning at this one, but that’s what the Rambam says, folks.)

Maimonides warns, like a good investment advisor, against putting all of one’s tzedakah funds in one place: figure out how much is possible, then divide the funds between two or more recipients. So even if hapless Cousin Susie could absorb all one’s tzedakah, at least a bit should go elsewhere. Also (returning to that principle of helping people be self-sufficient) it may be best to help Cousin Susie get out of her current situation by assisting her in making terms with creditors, or moving into more affordable housing, or whatever will contribute to a long term fix.

For a more complete explanation of Maimonides on giving, I recommend this article online or the book from which it is excerpted, The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money, by Dr. Meir Tamari. Dr. Tamari is both a rabbi and an economist, serving for many years as the Chief Economist of the Bank of Israel.

In an era of growing income inequality it can be overwhelming to make decisions about tzedakah. I appreciate that our forebears thought a lot about this question and left us a framework for decision making.

Moderation and Mitzvah

A reader asked:

Rabbi, do you think that it’s acceptable to use repurposed items for home ritual such as Shabbat? Right now, living on a shoestring budget, I don’t really have the money for $200 candlesticks or a Kiddush set for Shabbat, so I’m using items I already had in the house (for now, at least). Sometimes I worry that this isn’t really as acceptable as I want it to be. Any thoughts?

It’s fine to use ordinary candlesticks for Shabbat candlesticks, or to use a plain wine glass for kiddush. I often use tea lights for Shabbat “candlesticks” when I travel, because they are light, hard to break and easy to pack. In a hospital setting, where fire is out of the question, we might use electric lights that are shaped like candles. The mitzvah is lighting lights, not buying fancy candlesticks.

It sounds like you are dealing with two competing Jewish values. One is hiddur mitzvah, the beautifying of a mitzvah, which is a praiseworthy thing to do. Beautifying the mitzvah broadens its appeal to our five senses and the pleasure we take in the mitzvah.

The other Jewish value here is m’tinut [moderation.] The great 12th century scholar Maimonides argued that moderation in all things was one of the marks of a chacham [Torah scholar.] It is not good to be a miser nor it is good to be a big spender. Rather, we should seek the level he called the Sh’vil HaZahav, the Golden Mean. This is true for every aspect of life: what we eat, what we wear, our use of time and money, even our choices for study. The exact standards will vary depending on our means and situation.

If the only candlesticks you own have other religious symbols on them, then it might be better to get some from the hardware store, or use tea lights. But there is no requirement that you spend large sums of money to perform this mitzvah.

My first havdalah “set” consisted of some foil to hold the candle, a sprig from a rosemary bush for spices, and a shotglass for the wine. The only purchased item was the candle, which had to have multiple wicks. Even for that, there are inexpensive options.

There are some mitzvot that are very expensive: Torah education, keeping a kosher home, making aliyah (moving to Israel), having children, to name just a few. But that’s because of the intrinsic cost, not the extras. Hiddur mitzvah by its nature is an extra, something done to make things a bit nicer. It’s a good thing – in moderation!

Nine Facts about Tzedakah

If you Googled “tzedakah” today you got about 598,000 results, topped by a l-o-n-g Wikipedia entry. Here are nine basic facts about tzedakah:

  1. Tzedakah (tzeh-dah-KAH or tzeh-DAH-kah) is the Jewish word closest to “charity.”
  2. The word tzedakah is one of a group of Hebrew words related to the idea of “justice.”
  3. Strictly speaking, tzedakah is money given for the relief of suffering or injustice.
  4. Tzedakah usually refers to monetary gifts, but can also refer to other kinds of contributions.
  5. Jews are commanded to give tzedakah for the benefit of the poor, the sick, and those who have suffered an injustice.
  6. More broadly, people use the word tzedakah to refer to money given for charitable causes.
  7. Every Jew is commanded to give tzedakah, even those who are recipients of tzedakah.
  8. It is customary to give tzedakah in memory of the dead, in honor of others, and before Shabbat and holidays.
  9. The proper amount of tzedakah depends on the means of the giver. Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah that the ideal is 10% of income, and that more than 20% is foolhardy unless given in time of famine or to aid a captive. One should never give so much tzedakah that he puts himself at risk of needing to receive tzedakah from others.

For more about tzedakah, MyJewishLearning.com has a great article.