On the Kollot Haftarah: Can a convert say ‘our ancestors’, and why it really matters
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 24 September 2016
Introduction to the Kollot Haftarah, 24 September 2016
For the last three years, those of us who come together to pray in our ‘kollot’ service have been living a little experiment. At this point in the service, in pretty much every community in the world, there is now an additional reading known as the haftarah, literally the ‘conclusion’ or ‘parting’/’taking leave’, normally taken from the books of the Prophets. It was, most likely, introduced to educate the people about the Bible beyond the Torah. For the last three years in Kollot we have extended this idea, taking our haftarah not from bible but from rabbinic literature, from texts selected from the vast literary inheritance bequeathed to us by the Sages who lived between 0-ish and 800/900ish CE.
These have been chosen on the basis of two criteria: that the text needs to reference our Torah portion, and that it needs to be interesting. The first criterion has sometimes been easier to meet than the second, but in most cases, we’ve just about managed both. We have seen how the rabbis used the Torah as a jumping off point for exploring theology, values, ethics; how they grappled with specific words and phrases, and struggled with the massive concepts of religious life.
In the main, to meet that second criterion, our haftarot have been taken from aggadah, from the teachings and stories of the rabbis. This has been at the expense of halachah, even though it was legal discussion that was the primary mode of the rabbinic exercise, and makes up the formative material of the Judaism that we live today. Rarely, though, does halachah make an easy haftarah, rarely does it present a discrete, small piece of text that really resonates. But, once in a while, it does, and this morning is just such a case. This morning, we will grapple with a halachic text, a legal question, which gives a glimpse into rabbinic self-understanding, which opens the door to a much larger question.
This morning’s haftarah, which we will read in a moment, is a piece of a halachic debate from the pages of the Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, compiled in the fifth century, probably not in Jerusalem but in Tiberias. It presents an argument between the Mishnah – the first authoritative code of rabbinic law, from about 200CE – and other Sages in the Land of Israel. The argument is about whether someone who has converted to Judaism can say the declaration on bringing first fruits which Lily Bea has just read for us in her portion.
The position of the Mishnah is that they bring their offering but don’t say the declaration because they can’t say the line: “the land that God swore to our ancestors to give to us”. And, while they’re at it, the Mishnah adds, they also therefore can’t say “Elohei Avoteinu” – God of our ancestors, in the first paragraph of the Amidah.
There is a caveat – one which will come as a surprise to anyone who hasn’t heard me bang on about the complex and relatively late origin of Jewish status law, and the matrilineal principle. The Mishnah tells us that someone who converted who has a Jewish mother – which should be a contradiction in terms – does need to say the declaration. You can ask me about that one at Kiddush!
The position of the Mishnah has massive practical implications. As well as saying that the legal relationship with the liturgy is different depending on your background (and this extends beyond this text to all other references to the formative story of the Jewish people, who rescued us from Egypt, for example), what this also means is, to the Mishnah, a convert would not be able to be shaliach tzibbur – to lead the community in prayer for the Amidah; or, for example, to lead Grace after Meals – which includes the line Nodeh l’cha Adonai Eloheinu al she-hinchalta la’avoteinu – thanking God for giving ‘avoteinu’ – our ancestors – the heritage of a good land.
The Yerushalmi takes a different position. It brings a tradition taught in the name of Rabbi Yehudah that a convert brings first-fruits and does recite the declaration, binging the convert into the Jewish people through the narrative promise to Abraham to be father to all the nations.
At issue is a liturgical question – what we mean when we say ‘avoteinu’ or ‘imoteinu’ – but also a question of self-understanding – what does being Jewish mean – and therefore how do we see those who join our communities?
The position of the Mishnah is that the ‘avoteinu’ of the declaration, of the Amidah, or of bensching is a statement of historical, genealogical connection. Jewish peoplehood is family, an ethnic self-definition.
The Yerushalmi is different. It says that ‘avoteinu’ should also be read metaphorically. So, one who joins the Jewish people ties themselves into the earliest layer of Jewish particularity. It is as if they, in fact, each of us, are a child of their own parents and of Abraham and Sarah themselves. The story, the history, the identity belong equally to all, including those who come to join. It is an attitude that does not focus on lineage, but asserts the ability of those who come to Judaism to come as complete members of the Jewish people.
It is with great relief that I can tell you that the position of the Yerushalmi becomes the normative practice of most of the Jewish world. This is itself pretty amazing. Firstly, that the halachah develops, that the Mishnah is overturned; secondly, and more amazing still, it is the Yerushalmi that does it. The Yerushalmi never gets to win! It is more often the Bavli, the Babylonian Talmud, that sets Jewish practice. And thank God the Yerushalmi does. In the area of conversion the Bavli continues, in the main, to express the ethnic focused position of the Mishnah. The Yerushalmi which is based in the culturally diverse land of Israel in the Roman Empire sees conversion as a blessing; for the Bavli, set in the Babylonian Sassanian Empire, with strict ethnic segregation, lineage trumps all.
That the Yerushalmi wins out is mainly the responsibility of Maimonides, who in his Iggeret l’Rav Ovadyah haGer – letter responding to an enquiry from a convert called Ovadyah, writes “In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessings and prayers; you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in congregation… you shall pray, “Our God and God of our ancestors,” because Abraham is your father.” Though there are other twelfth century authorities who disagree, the personal authority of Maimonides means that his position becomes authoritative, and is, for example, found in the Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch.
I like to think that we live in a Yerushalmi time – a time of cultural diversity and interaction. And we are a Yerushalmi community – diverse, open, welcoming of others and existing in the wider world.
We are blessed as a community to have many wonderful people who have converted, made their religious homes as part of this community and the Jewish world. And they come, as the Yerushalmi says, fully as family – Abraham is their father and Sarah their mother. There are few moments more powerful in rabbinic life than when those present in a Bet Din together welcome a convert with the words achoteinu at or acheinu atah – You are our sister; you are our brother. And we mean it.
In our haftarah we see the most important textual moment in establishing that reality for us as Jews today. Because of that voice in the Yerushalmi, we can say that together we are all the Children of Abraham. All of us can be grateful for our shared inheritance. All of us share fully in the stories of our ancestors.
Kollot Haftarah, Shabbat Ki Tavo 5776: Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Bikkurim 1:4 (Vilna 3a-b)
The following people bring (first fruits to the Temple) but do not recite (the declaration described in our portion):
The convert brings but does not recite, because he cannot say THE LAND THAT GOD SWORE TO OUR ANCESTORS TO GIVE TO US (Deuteronomy 26:3).
But if his mother was of Israel, he brings and recites.
And when he prays by himself, he says, “God of the fathers of Israel” and when he is in synagogue (with the community), he says “God of your fathers.”
But if his mother was of Israel, he says, “God of our fathers”…
It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehudah: A convert brings (first-fruits to the Temple) and does recite (the declaration in our portion).
What is the reason?
(Because God said to Abraham) I have made you the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:5). In the past you were a father to Aram, but now and hereafter you are a father to all the nations.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: The law follows Rabbi Yehudah.
A case came before Rabbi Abbahu and he also rendered a decision according to Rabbi Yehudah.