Q. How should we treat a convert – to Judaism, and away from Judaism?
A. The convert to Judaism must be treated with respect and love. This rule is supported by the verse, “You shall love the stranger (ger), for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut.10:19). The word ger in this verse was originally meant to refer to an outsider, an alien, who lives in our midst, but by a logical extension it has come to mean a convert too.
Whatever their original background, they have come – sometimes by means of a long and lonely path – to be one of us and have left behind much that they were accustomed to. They must be treated properly and, as the Mishnah Bava Metzi’a reminds us, must not be reminded of where they came from. Maimonides records that a certain convert called Ovadiah was insulted by his Jewish teacher; Maimonides indignantly asks, “Was the teacher drunk?”
A procession of authorities state that a convert can refer to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as “our fathers” (Mishnah Bikk. 1:4), since Abraham was the “father of converts” and brought them “under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Ruth 2:12). The Shulchan Aruch says that some people were reluctant to let a convert conduct a service, but this opinion is rejected (Orach Chayyim 51:19).
The great Talmudic sage Resh Lakish tells us that the convert “is even more precious than Israel when they stood at Mount Sinai. Had they not seen the thunder and lightning, the mountain quaking and the shofar being sounded, they might not have accepted the Torah, but a convert, who has seen none of these things willingly comes forward to God and accepts upon himself the Kingdom of Heaven” (Tanchuma, Lech L’cha 6d).
There is a theory that the souls of all later converts were potentially there at Mount Sinai and when they subsequently find their way to Judaism they are renewing an ancient spark of identity that was awaiting its moment. The rabbis say, “The Holy One waits for the nations to come under His wings” (Num.R. 10:1); the prophets say that in time to come the whole world will come streaming to the Mountain of the Lord (Isa. 2:3).
I know that there are cynical views (Yev. 47b etc.) that converts are as troublesome to Israel as boils, but this may reflect a difficult time in ancient Jewish history – or perhaps it can be taken as a compliment to converts, in that their enthusiasm for Judaism often puts born Jews to shame.
How about converts from Judaism? Colloquially they are called m’shummadim, from a root that means to destroy, because they have a negative attitude to Judaism, deleteriously affect the Jewish people, and can end up being more mixed up than ever before. In Jewish history some of our worst opponents were former Jews, and their wiles and ways often brought great suffering to our people. Yet Heine made the cynical remark that sometimes an apostate only needs to smell a cholent to feel a Jewish spark.
There are some people who, aghast at a child abandoning Judaism, have sat shivah for them, though it is possible that the origin of this idea is the halachic question of whether, when an apostate dies, the family is obliged to carry out the rituals of mourning including sitting shivah.
However difficult it is, one should probably not sever all ties with the renegade Jew but hope that they will one day find their way back. In my own rabbinic experience I have met a number of people whose ancestors left Judaism and they now wish to reclaim it.