What the Convert Can Expect / Parashat Vayetzeh

Through an allegorical reading of the verse, Rabbi Joshua offers Achilles the explanation that God promises converts not just the basic commodities necessary for survival, but rather full membership in the Jewish people.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

After God reveals himself to Jacob in a dream, the patriarch − on his first night alone and outside his family’s home − takes a vow. In it he presents a certain condition and promises what he will do if and when it is met: “And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee’” ‏(Genesis 28:20-22‏). Jacob makes continued dialogue with the Almighty conditional upon God giving him “bread to eat, and raiment to put on.”

According to the midrash, “Achilles the convert [nephew of the emperor Hadrian, who cruelly suppressed the Bar-Kochba revolt and decreed that it was unlawful to practice Judaism] went to Rabbi Eliezer and asked him: Do converts receive no more than what is promised in the verse, ‘and [God] loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment’ ‏(Deuteronomy 10:18‏)? Rabbi Eliezer replied: Are you not making light of what was so important to Jacob, as seen in his request: ‘and [God] will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on’? In your case, God has already placed bread in your mouth.

“Achilles went to see Rabbi Joshua, who comforted him, saying: Bread is the Torah, as it is written, ‘Come, eat of my bread’ ‏(Proverbs 9:5‏). Raiment is the tallit [prayer shawl]. In other words, those privileged to receive the Torah [that is, converts] also receive the privilege of performing commandments. Moreover, their daughters will marry priests and their grandsons will offer sacrifices on the altar. The bread in question is lehem hapanim [special breads baked for the priests], and the clothing is the priestly clothes. This is what happens in the Temple, but what happens in the gevulin [in areas distant from the Temple]? There the bread is challah, the portion of dough set aside for and offered to the priest. And the clothing is the first fleece of one’s sheep’” ‏(Bereisheet Rabbah 80:5‏).

After reading the verses in the Book of Deuteronomy praising God, among whose sublime qualities is the fact that he loves “the stranger ... giving him food and raiment,” Achilles is disconcerted by the last phrase, which is incongruent with his expectations of the god whom he has now chosen. “Is this all that a convert can expect?” Achilles asks Rabbi Eliezer, who grasps the problem troubling his interlocutor: The rabbi realizes Achilles has needs, ambitions and desires related to the social structure of the Jewish world, to its spiritual centers and to his own place as someone who has decided to join the Jewish people. Moreover, Rabbi Eliezer recognizes Achilles’ disappointment that all he can expect to receive as a convert, according to the above verse, is bread and clothing.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Eliezer rebukes Achilles by saying, “Are you not making light of what was so important to Jacob, as in his request from the Almighty: ‘and [God] will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on’?” The rabbi points out that Jacob was by no means certain he would have enough bread to eat or a garment to wear, and thus makes provision of these two basic items the condition for his commitment to trust in and serve God. That is why, Rabbi Eliezer adds, the verse in question should not be underestimated by Achilles, who, unlike the patriarch, is already being fed by God.

Apparently, Achilles is not satisfied with what Rabbi Eliezer says and, the midrash continues, he immediately consults another rabbinical authority, Rabbi Joshua. Like Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua tries to get Achilles to accept the text. However, unlike Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua also seeks to console Achilles via an allegorical reading of the verse in Deuteronomy. He explains that God promises converts not bread and clothing, but rather the Torah and commandments, and the possibilities of their daughters marrying priests and of grandsons partaking of lechem hapanim in the Temple, and of wearing priestly clothes − or, alternatively, receiving the challah and the first fleece of sheep as do those living a distance from the Temple.

Specifically, it was the prerogative of the priests residing in places far away from the Temple to receive the challah and the fleece. Through an allegorical reading of the verse, Rabbi Joshua offers Achilles the explanation that God promises converts not just the basic commodities necessary for survival, but rather full membership in the Jewish people.

Achilles’ problem is the classic problem of anyone who wants to transform a text created in a different context and culture into something that has meaning for him or her. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua represent two different ways of literary explication. As can be seen in this midrash, a wide gap exists between the text and the world of Achilles the reader; for that reason, he seeks the counsel of a rabbinical authority.

For his part, Rabbi Eliezer rebukes Achilles for the gap, the dissonance he has brought into his home, and instructs Achilles in how to reconcile the situation thus: If Achilles will adopt traditional Jewish standards for judging the text from within the text itself − that is, if he approaches the text as a complete entity − he will find that there really is no gap because his ego as a reader will be nullified in the text’s presence.

According to Rabbi Eliezer, therefore, converts must judge God’s promise of bread and clothing not in terms of their own lives, but in relation to Jacob’s vow. Only then will they understand that such a promise situates them in a loftier place than that in which Jacob found himself on his first night away from home; only then can the text in question be seen to satisfy their desires. Since he stands outside the text, Achilles measures it according to criteria ‏(economic and cultural‏) external to it. Rabbi Eliezer suggests that he move to a different place, within the text, so as to judge it accurately and be one with it.

Rabbi Joshua offers a solution that is the precise opposite of Rabbi Eliezer’s: Achilles should not approach the text and judge it from his own particular point of departure, he explains, but should rather embrace the text and, by way of allegory, translate and reconcile it vis-a-vis his own values. An allegorical textual reading is a powerful tool that can close the gap between readers and the substance of what the text offers them.

Achilles is troubled not by the question of the bread and the clothing, but rather by the question of whether he is truly a member of the Jewish people. By means of his allegorical reading, Rabbi Joshua offers him everything he is seeking: God will promise Achilles that he will partake of the Torah and the commandments, as well as of the priesthood and the gifts presented to the priests.

The drawback in Rabbi Joshua’s reading is built-in: This is not the text’s meaning. The advantage of Rabbi Eliezer’s reading is also built-in: He offers Achilles an admission ticket to the text that will generate a Copernican revolution as far as Achilles’ concepts are concerned, and he also suggests that Achilles should enter the text, should experience it from within and should judge it in accordance with the text’s own concepts. Thus, it would appear that Rabbi Eliezer’s approach is preferable to Rabbi Joshua’s.

However, the midrash is not interested in merely providing an interpretation that will be faithful to the text’s spirit. It also takes into account both the text’s emotional impact on the reader and the subtle strand that ties text and reader. If the text does not respond to the needs of its readers, it will cease being relevant; however, if it is only relevant, it will cease being a text. Rabbi Eliezer’s reading creates a rebuke: “Are you not making light of what was so important to Jacob?”

In contrast, Rabbi Joshua proposes consolation: “Rabbi Joshua, who began to comfort him ... ” The midrash does not specifically indicate which reading in preferable nor which is more correct; however, from the midrash’s language, one can understand to some extent the influence exerted by the emotional impact of the tactic of reading into the text’s meaning and thus one can understand the text’s changing role in the reader’s world.

"Jacob's Dream" by Jusepe de Ribera (c.1639).