Things Not to Say to Converts [Talmud Tuesday]
An interesting article that seems to have made its way around the Internet this summer is David Benkof’s “Stop Saying Ivanka Trump Converted To Judaism“, in which the author says “Unnecessarily highlighting someone’s status as a Jew-by-choice implies she is somehow less than fully Jewish, and, in fact, it’s directly prohibited by Jewish law (Bava Metzia 58b).”
While his argument is interesting, what is baffling to me is his textual basis for making his claim. When we look at this passage, we find that the text is not saying what he is saying it is saying. While I have written before about the text in which this passage is found, I want to look a little more deeply at this text, which I am reproducing here (bBava Mezi’ah 58b):
?תנו רבנן “לא תונו איש את עמיתו” – באונאת דברים הכתוב מדבר. אתה אומר באונאת דברים או אינו אלא באונאת ממון? כשהוא אומר “וכי תמכרו ממכר לעמיתך או קנה מיד עמיתך” – הרי אונאת ממון אמור. הא מה אני מקיים “לא תונו איש את עמיתו”? באונאת דברים.
אם היה בעל תשובה, אל יאמר לו זכור מעשיך הראשונים
אם היה בן גרים, אל יאמר לו זכור מעשה אבותיך
אם היה גר ובא ללמוד תורה, אל יאמר לו פה שאכל נבילות וטריפות שקצים ורמשים בא ללמוד תורה שנאמרה מפי הגבורה
אם היו יסורין באין עליו אם היו חלאים באין עליו או שהיה מקבר את בניו, אל יאמר לו כדרך שאמרו לו חביריו לאיוב הֲלֹא יִרְאָתְךָ, כִּסְלָתֶךָ; תִּקְוָתְךָ, וְתֹם דְּרָכֶיךָ. זְכָר-נָא–מִי הוּא נָקִי אָבָד
אם היו חמרים מבקשין תבואה ממנו, לא יאמר להם “לכו אצל פלוני שהוא מוכר תבואה” ויודע בו שלא מכר מעולם
רבי יהודה אומר אף לא יתלה עיניו על המקח בשעה שאין לו דמים, שהרי הדבר מסור ללב וכל דבר המסור ללב נאמר בו וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹקיךָ
Our Rabbis taught: “You shall not wrong another” – Scripture refers to verbal wrongs. You say verbal wrongs; but perhaps that is not so, monetary wrongs being meant? When it is said, “And if you sell anything unto your neighbor, or acquire anything of your neighbor’s [you shall not wrong one another]”, monetary wrongs are already dealt with. Then to what can I refer, “you shall not wrong another”? To verbal wrongs.
If one had repented, do not say to that person, “Remember your earlier actions.”
If one was a child of converts, do not say to that person, “Remember the actions of your forefathers.”
If one was a convert and came to learn Torah, do not say to that person, “The mouth that ate improperly killed animals, diseased/wounded animals, unclean animals, and creeping animals is now coming to learn the Torah that was spoken from the mouth of the Powerful?”
If one had pains coming upon them, becoming sick, or if they had to bury their children, do not speak to that person the way that the friends of Iyov/Job spoke to him, “Is not your fear your confidence; your hope the integrity of your ways? Please remember: was there anybody who was innocent that perished?” (Job 4.6-7).
If there were donkey-drivers requesting straw from one, do not say to them, “Go to so-and-so who sells straw” and knows that they have never sold straw.
Rabbi Yehudah says, “One shouldn’t even place their eyes on an item for sale at the time that they have no money, for the matter is given over to the mind; and everything that is given over to the mind is said of it, ‘And you shall be in awe from your God’ (Lev. 25.17).”
In this text, we could say it is made up of several different thematic statements, the first of which is the broad categorization, whether simply financial oppression or also including verbal oppression. The second of which includes three subthematic statements about previous actions. The third of the thematic statements is about one experiencing pains, such as with Job; the fourth concerns the donkeydrivers; and the fifth is Rabbi Yehudah’s suggestion to also include looking at items for purchase without possessing any money. For our purposes, however, we are only concerned with the second thematic statement in the above text.
The first thing to notice with this section is the movement in identity: the text starts with someone who is a Jew and whose parents are Jews, then moves on to someone who is a Jew but whose parents had not been born Jews, and, finally, to someone who is a Jew, but had not been born that way [and whose parents are not Jews]. Another point is what is being said to the person (and significant to see how the third differs from the first two) in that the first two are being pointed out that actions that had been done before should be remembered: “Remember your earlier actions” to the person who, themselves, had sinned but had now repented, and “Remember your forefathers’ actions” to the person whose parents had converted. In the first case, it is simply not fair to the repentant, since they know what they had done, which is why they repented, and are now in a better place personally, spiritually, etc. In the second case, it is really unfair to the child of converts, since they, themselves, may never have done such actions – let this person be who they are.
In the third case, however, we would expect a similar language, such as what was said to the repentant, “Remember your earlier actions.” However, that is not said, breaking with the trend of the two previous statements. Moreover, it is not simply being said to a convert, but, rather, specifically, a convert who desires to learn Torah. (Does this circumstance come to exclude a convert who is not coming to learn Torah? In other words: is this text saying that saying to a convert “Remember your earlier actions” is not under the umbrella of forbidden actions here, or is it saying that it is utterly obvious that such a statement to a convert would be forbidden – just look at the context of the previous two statements – such that it need not be said?)
Rather, it moves to a visual poetic, focussing on the mouth. Of course, this is duly nasty – mentioning these forbidden nasty items coming into the convert’s mouth, but also interpersonally nasty, since this person has converted and seeks to engage in such a highly-valued endeavor. It would seem that this is a particularly odious statement to someone, perhaps even turning this convert off from studying Torah, altogether, which would be a tragedy.
One thing to note is that reminding a convert of what they had done before converting (or a child of convert’s parents or a repentant) – and especially saying it in a nasty tone of “Remember your earlier actions” in a blunt, peremptory fashion – is quite different than simply asking about one’s life prior to conversion. Reminding in a brusque fashion of one’s earlier life and querying in a curious fashion are two starkly different discursive actions with regard to a convert. (Of course, if the convert, themselves, does not wish to discuss their earlier life, that is their autobiographical prerogative.)
It would seem that Benkof’s claim that inquiring about a convert’s life is not what is going on in the text that they are claiming it is…..