Rav Herzl Hefter
Former Rosh Kollel in Cleveland (1995-1997)
Who’s ‘In’ and Who’s ‘Out’
This week’s parsha tells of the unique status of four nations; Ammon, Moab, Egypt and Edom. Because of historical acts of cruelty and insensitivity these nations are barred from marrying into the Jewish People. According to our sages this is true even though the individual has undergone the conversion rituals.
This seemingly irrelevant halacha (since these groups did not survive as distinct ethnic groups) goes to the core of defining Jewish Identity.
But first let us engage in a bit of Talmudic (“Brisker”) analysis; there one two different ways of understanding the status of converts from these four nations.
1. They are completely Jewish yet they are prohibited from marrying in because they come from one of these four nations. Their status is analogous to that of a mamzer who is completely Jewish of course, yet suffers marital restrictions.
2. Their conversion is incomplete. They are only partially Jewish and this flawed status is reflected in the marital prohibition. In this understanding they may not marry into the Jewish people because in this particular halachic area of belonging to the Jewish people, they are not considered Jewish. This is the position of Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Intercourse 12:17.
The approach of the Rambam indicates that performing rituals of becoming Jewish does not guarantee acquiring Jewish Identity. Who we are and where we come from may (at least partially) contravene rituals we perform.
This is not only true of potential proselytes but of those born Jewish as well. The sages of the Talmud Yevamot 17a determined that at some point the ten “lost” tribes were no longer considered to be Jewish.
Rav Soloveitchik quoted this Talmudic passage to prove that a Jew, through disloyal behavior, may actually forfeit his/her Jewish Identity.
This stands in stark opposition to the oft quoted Talmudic passage from Tractate Sanhedrin 44a; “Israel has sinned… despite his sin he remains Israel”
It is not my purpose here to offer a solution to this problem. Rather, I wish to focus upon the religious significance the possibility of losing or not attaining, Jewish identity, despite objective circumstances which should guarantee it.
We have here, I believe, a humbling halachic phenomenon. Our identities are not constructed (exclusively) by ritual and birth.
This idea is very important as we approach the Yamim Noraim. There is no greater enemy to spiritual development than smugness born of a sense of inborn privilege or right performance of ritual. On Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur we must be prepared to stand before God with our own virtues and vices with the consciousness that who we are is determined by our behavior and the choices we make. Privilege must give way to merit.