As we approach Shavuot, perhaps we might gain a unique perspective by reflecting on the stories of the Patriarchs in B’raysheet. As we consider celebrating Matan Torah on Shavuot, read Megillat Ruth and fete the phenomenon we call conversion, what do we do with Genesis, and with those Mamas and Papas, the Avot and Imahot, our Patriarch and Matriarchs? Are we celebrating the first Jews? Were the Patriarchs, and by association their wives, Jews?
Like many of you, I was taught, and I have taught for decades that Abraham was the first Jew, right? But we could also ask, when did real and authentic Judaism begin? We really cannot begin with the Tanach for that Bible begins with Adam, and Eve in the Torah, but we would all surely agree that the Torah does not apply to Adam. He ostensibly receives only one Mitzvah, p’ru u’rvu, propagate! And one could argue, perhaps he also received one negative mitzvah, the first no-no, namely to NOT eat from a specific tree.
Noah receives one Mitzvah before the Flood, but God’s command to Noah to build the Ark is but Hora’at Shaah, an emergency edict applying only this one time and situation. After the Flood he receives seven commandments, the Noahide Laws, and they become Mitzvot for his descendants, B’nai Noach. Now, we have a religion for humanity. But stay with me.
Abraham receives the Mitzvah of Brit Milah, and is Promised the Land, and several references are clearly made regarding righteousness and justice and the transmission of those values to our children, but let’s face it, Avraham is father to many children and to many nations, and many of them could not even marginally be considered to be Jews.
Ishmael and Esau yield to Isaac and Jacob to inherit the blessing of Abraham.
Jacob has only Jewish children and very few mitzvot to give them: Milah, Gid Hanasheh, plus perhaps those same seven Noahide Mitzvot, and they as Jacob become Israel, they gradually also become B’nai Yisrael – but not Jewish in the way we understand the term today. So are they actually B’nai Noach at this point in time? Perhaps we could state that they are Jews, but without Torah, without the full range of Mitzvot.
Yet these are our roots – and this is also our ancestry.
And we know that in a true sense, Judaism begins with Moshe and with Mount Sinai. And it is at that place, at Horev, that all physical and ethnic Jews are converted to Judaism, through Milah (ritual circumcision), through Tevilah (immersion), through Korban (offerings & sacrifice), and through Kabalat Ol Ha-Mitzvot, the acceptance of the yoke, the burden of those Taryag, those 613 Mitzvot.
Consider these texts from Maimonides in Mishnah Torah, Isurei Biyah (Forbidden Intercourse):
רמב"ם הלכות איסורי ביאה פרק יג הלכה א
בשלשה דברים נכנסו ישראל לברית במילה וטבילה וקרבן.
With three things did Israel enter the Brit, enter the Covenant; with Milah, Tevila and Korban
רמב"ם הלכות איסורי ביאה פרק יג הלכה ד
וכן לדורות כשירצה העכו"ם להכנס לברית ולהסתופף תחת כנפי השכינה ויקבל עליו עול תורה צריך מילה וטבילה והרצאת קרבן, ואם נקבה היא טבילה וקרבן שנאמר ככם כגר, מה אתם במילה וטבילה והרצאת קרבן אף הגר לדורות במילה וטבילה והרצאת קרבן.
And so for the generation, when a gentile wishes to enter the covenant, and to be added under the wings of the Shechinah and accept the burden of Torah, he needs Milah and Immersion and Korban. If it is a female she needs Tevila and Korban. As it said: As with you, so too with the Ger, (just) as you are with Milah and Tevilah and Korban, so too for the Ger for the generations with Milah, Tevilah, Korban.
So along these lines, one could posit that Judaism authentically began at Sinai with the conversion of all the Jews who had departed from Egypt. And you might therefore ask, what were Avraham and Yitzhak and Yaakov? Well, they were essentially B’nai Noach, ‘sons of Noah,’ with those seven mitzvot of the B’nai Noach, plus circumcision, and Gid Hanashe (no hind quarter, no filet mignon) – and P’ru U’vu (be fruitful) which was given to Adam.
So, it seems to follow that If all Jews are ultimately descendants of converts, then current converts are as good, as authentic, and as real as we are. This could be an interesting shiur for our people to consider, and for others who incorrectly and inappropriately feel that even a committed conversionary process does not make a person a true and authentic Jew.
This concept might also serve as a humbling reminder to we rabbis, who serve as teachers and sit on Batei Din to truly evaluate and judge the acceptability, the readiness, the honesty and sincerity of the candidates who come before us, of our sacred charge to open our arms as lovingly and broadly as we possibly can. It is our unique responsibility to see the splendid beauty of their desire to join the Jewish People, just as we each did so many generations ago.
Rabbi Mark Hyman delivered this D'var Torah at the Board of Governors meeting, May 1, 2018; 16 Iyar 5778