Treating Converts Well and Carefully

Twenty Nisan

The Torah reminds us repeatedly to handle the stranger/convert with extra care. Shmot 22;20 and Vayikra 19;33, for two central texts, warn us not להונות the stranger and also not ללחוץ him or her. The Talmudic assumption is that the words indicate verbal and monetary abuse respectively.

There are many good reasons to treat a convert well, but the Torah connects it to the fact that we were strangers in Egypt. That might seem obvious-- having been in a similar situation, we should know how it feels and do better—but commentators differ on what it is about Egypt that should shape our reaction to converts. That in turn affects our understanding of how our time in Egypt is supposed to resonate for us today.

The Pot Calling the Kettle

Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael Mishpatim (Masechta De-Nezikin 18) quotes R. Natan as focusing on the tone-deafness of mocking a stranger, since we bear whatever flaw we might think to mock, having been strangers in Egypt. Rashi records that in Shemot 22;20 (noting there that ger does not mean only a convert, but anyone strange or new to that land).

Neither R. Natan nor Rashi explain why Egypt counts as a blemish. It seems to me that what we tend to mock in strangers is that they stand out, still unfamiliar with the modes of behavior customary in their new place. Jews who do that show their understanding of how to behave in this culture has made them overconfident. Since we were strangers in our first moments as a people, struggling to keep up with a culture we didn’t know (and never got in full step with, refusing to adopt their names, language, or clothes), we should know better than to see that as a flaw in others.

Hashem brought us to Egypt deliberately, making it likely that it was intentional, a way to sensitize us as a people to how it feels to be out of step, and to have compassion for those who are currently struggling with the understandable uncertainty of inhabiting a new culture.

Part of the memory of Egypt, in this version, is to remember a time when we were uncertain of ourselves, and have that ensure we never become too certain of ourselves. And that can be true even when there is no stranger or convert around.

It Hits Them Differently, and They Might Chuck It

That same Mechilta mentions the view of R. Eliezer, that the Torah is reminding us that our comments to a stranger/convert impact him or her differently than other Jews. His phrase is שסורו רע; one way to read that is as Rashi does to Horayot 13a, that converts are more prone to sin. Perhaps by virtue of their newness to the religion, society, and culture, they have a looser hold on values that seem second nature to us. If they become frustrated by how they’re being treated, one reaction might be for them to rebel and violate the Torah; we are obligated to avoid contributing to that.

Sefer haChinuch, Mitzvah 63, offers what I see as the simpler reading, that they might decide to abandon Judaism entirely. Either way, we are being told to remember when we had a tenuous connection to a way of life, how easily we could shuck it off. Realizing that stranger/converts are at that delicate stage should impel us to avoid doing anything to jeopardize that.

It Hurts Them More

Shmot 23;9 reminds us that we know the soul of the stranger, which Rashi understands as a reference to the stranger’s feeling slights more intensely than others treated the same way. (TosafotKiddushin70b thinks such people are so sensitive, it’s almost impossible to never hurt them). What fuels that feeling?

SeferhaChinuch, Mitzvah 63, ascribes it to their relative defenselessness, their lack of protectors, a set of friends and relatives who see it as their privilege and responsibility to stand up for them when attacked. Even if they develop some of that, they feel like they have less of it than ordinary Jews.

Entrenched Insecurity, According to R. Yitzchak Arama

Akedat Yitzchak, the philosophical/homiletical Torah commentary of R. Yitzchak Arama (15th century Spain), suggests that strangers feel insecure even if they do have or come with a support system. After all, we went down to Egypt with seventy family members and much wealth and still, over time, the Egyptians enslaved us. Because we were not natives.

He also reminds us that the stranger/convert interprets any verbal and financial attacks as a function of that convert or stranger status. Should a Jew bring an ordinary lawsuit, the convert/stranger will assume (wrongly) that it’s only being done because s/he is a convert/stranger.

And we should know to be sensitive to that, because we felt that way in Egypt. It is our job not to trigger their hair-sensitive alertness to being treated badly because they’re still somewhat outsiders.

Ramban and R. Bechaye: Egypt as a Window on Hashem

Ramban focuses on the defenselessness of the stranger, taking it in a more Hashem-centered direction. We are only tempted to take advantage of the stranger since he or she has no protectors, but our experience in Egypt should remind us that Hashem is their protector, as Hashem was ours. Egypt, for Ramban, might also have taught us sensitivity and humility, but it was primarily about the picture of a Universe whose Master has a particular interest in, and concern for, the helpless and the weak.

Bechaye says Egypt should show us that treating the stranger/convert with care is an instance of emulating Hashem, shaping our characters to be more like Hashem, as it were.

Minchat Chinuch: How Far Does It Go?

Minchat Chinuch wonders whether these laws apply only to an observant convert. The ordinary prohibition against verbally abusing a Jew explicitly refers to the Jew as עמיתו, his fellow, which teaches the Gemara that this is limited to Jews who strive to fulfill the Torah. The Torah places no such parameter on the obligation to avoid mistreating a stranger or convert; it seems logical to extend it, but the Torah does not, and it might be different.

He also wonders whether a descendant of converts, all of whose ancestors were converts would still qualify for these rules (such as, perhaps, a member of a community that converted and married only within the subcommunity, generation after generation). This person is not defenseless, has a well-established communal base, friends, and family. In that sense, s/he isn’t a stranger.On the other hand, we do consider him/her a convert for other purposes (such a person could not be appointed king, for example, because a king has to have some natural Jewish lineage).

I would add that for all that they have some family structure and support, their keeping so strictly to themselves indicates that they still feel like outsiders. Besides, the Torah treats all of our time in Egypt as if we were strangers, not just the first generation. So too with converts, it seems to me; as long as they haven’t intermarried with ordinary Jews, whatever the reason, they are separate, and we have to worry that they feel that separateness, and therefore would be obligated to treat them with the Torah-mandated care for their feelings and sensitivities.

Loving the Convert

The Torah also obligates us to love the convert, as in Vayikra 19;34 and Devarim 10;19, again explicitly connecting it to our having been strangers in Egypt. Rashi repeats his comment about not pointing out in others flaws we ourselves bear, seeing this as the flip side of the prohibition against mistreating them. In Mitzvah 431, Sefer HaChinuch, too, defines the obligation as avoiding causing them any distress, and his examples are the obverse of the prohibition against mistreating them. Sometimes love is the other side of mistreatment, with no middle ground.

Rambam, Obligation 207 of the Sefer haMitzvot, says Hashem added a commandment to love the convert because the convert came to join our Torah; he points to Midrashim that compare this love to the love we are supposed to express for Hashem. For Rambam, we cannot mistreat the convert because we remember Egypt; we have to love the convert because s/he has chosen to join those who worship the one true God.

Bechaye to Devarim notes that the Torah precedes the command for us to love the convert with a verse that speaks of Hashem’s loving him or her. If so, we emulate Hashem by acting this way (similar to what he said about why we have to avoid oppressing the convert).

Neither Rambam nor R. Bechaye explains how this is connected to our having been strangers in Egypt. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch offers an option that might transfer back to these two. He says that Egypt should have taught us that the failure to welcome the stranger, to treat that stranger with basic rights, mutates into the hatred and mistreatment we eventually experienced at Egyptian hands. They are connected—welcoming with love is the only antidote to sliding into hatred and abuse.

It seems to me also plausible that, for Rambam, memories of Egypt would include how hard we found it to accept Hashem—our doubts about Moshe, the distressingly large numbers of Jews who didn’t make it out, our difficulties accepting Hashem’s new discipline. Remembering those struggles, we would look at those who voluntarily undertook them with admiring, even loving, eyes.

Important as these mitzvot are on their own, they are here another example of how what we went through in Egypt stays alive for us throughout our lives, in this instance showing up every time we encounter someone new to Judaism or to our land, a convert or a stranger. It’s right to treat them well; for us, it’s supposed to be even more so because we remember Egypt.