Are Gerim Treated Differently in Prayer?
Parashat Ki Teitzei
Jewish identity is irreducibly made up of both religious and ethnic components. One of the situations where this complexity comes to the fore is for converts (or in Hebrew: gerim), people who become Jewish but do not necessarily have ethnic Jewish ancestors. And yet, our liturgy is full of references to the “God of our ancestors” and similar formulations assuming an ethnically Jewish background. How should Jews by choice interact with a liturgy that assumes, at least sometimes, that those who recite it are Jews by birth?
One way of integrating gerim into the liturgy would be to single them out for special treatment—after all, it is no small thing to choose Judaism as one’s way of life. In our current version of the Amidah, the ger is only mentioned in passing, in blessing 13, in a larger list of people to whom we hope God will extend mercy:
וְעַל זִקְנֵי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל
וְעַל פְּלֵיטַת סופְרֵיהֶם
וְעַל גֵּרֵי הַצֶּדֶק
יֶהֱמוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ ה' אֱלקֵינוּ...
and on the pious
And on the elders of Your nation, the House of Israel
And on the remnant of their scribes
And on the righteous converts
And on us
May Your mercy extend, YHVH our God…
But actually the earliest versions of this blessing make clear that the ger was the central figure in this berakhah:1
ותן שכר טוב
עם עושי רצונך
ברוך אתה ה'
may Your mercy extend.
And give a good reward
With those who do Your will
Blessed are You, YHVH
Trust of the righteous.2
This version of the blessing makes clear that the ger tzedek (the full rabbinic term for a convert3) is the main character. They are compared to “those who do Your will,” another phrase that perhaps means, in this context: “convert.”4 Even the tzadikim (righteous ones) in the end of the blessing was probably a shorthand for gerei ha-tzedek (righteous converts).5 This version singles out gerim as worthy of praise and a specific blessing.
This model of special treatment is also resonant with an unusual phrase in Parashat Ki Teitzei. While the ger in the Torah generally means a stranger or resident alien, the word was often understood in Rabbinic tradition to refer to gerei ha-tzedek, Jews by choice. This is certainly the case here:
לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפַּט גֵּר יָתוֹם
Do not pervert justice concerning a ger orphan…
There are two surprising elements in this verse. First, what is meant by a “ger orphan”? There are basically two possibilities. Perhaps there is an implied conjunction (the prefix vav in Hebrew), meaning that ger and orphan are two separate people in the verse. This is the understanding of Targum Pseudo-Yonatan.6 But perhaps this actually refers to one person: the ger alone. After all, there is a principle that, once someone converts, it is as if they are born anew and therefore they are, by legal definition, “orphans.”7
A second surprising aspect of this verse: why are we told not to pervert justice specifically with a ger? We were already given the general instruction, “Do not pervert justice” (Deuteronomy 16:19) which applies to everyone. Why the special mention of the ger in this restatement of that law? A midrash answers that this law is repeated to teach that one is doubly liable if one perverts justice with a ger.8 The ger, as a potentially disadvantaged class, is singled out for special protection.
The point of this verse as an expansion of the general rule is related to the version of blessing 13 of the Amidah: both highlight the ger as a status that requires extra protection or extra praise.9In this framework of highlighting the unique place of the ger in the Jewish people, one might expect a similar response to liturgical phrases like “God of our ancestors.” After all, the ger’s ancestors did not accept the God of the Jews. So how could a ger say this line without lying? Indeed, this was a position already found in the Mishnah, offering an alternative text for the opening of the Amidah specifically for gerim:
וכשהוא מתפלל בינו לבין עצמו אומר אלקי אבות ישראל
וכשהוא בבית הכנסת אומר אלקי אבותיכם
…And when [a ger] prays (the Amidah) alone, they say: “The God of the ancestors of Israel.”
But when they are in the synagogue, they say: “The God of your ancestors.”
This Mishnah makes clear that gerim are in a different liturgical universe from the rest of the praying community. They have to call God “the God of the ancestors of Israel,” or, when in the company of born Jews, directly address them by saying “your ancestors,” instead of “our ancestors.” The impact of this liturgical distinction is to forever keep the ger as “other.”
But this Mishnah was not the final word on the subject: R. Yehudah already ruled against this approach in the context of the first fruits declaration.10 Maimonides clarified that R. Yehudah’s rejection of the Mishnah applies to what a ger says in the Amidah as well: there is no difference between the liturgy of a ger and that of a born Jew. Maimonides was asked by a ger named Ovadiah whether he should say an alternative form of the opening blessing of the Amidah (“God of your ancestors” instead of “our ancestors”); Maimonides is vehement in his response:
כמו שיתפלל ויברך כל אזרח מישראל כך ראוי לך לברך ולהתפלל בין שהתפללת יחידי בין שהיית שליח צבור....
לפיכך כל מי שיתגייר עד סוף כל הדורות וכל המיחד שמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא כמו שהוא כתוב בתורה תלמידו של אברהם אבינו ע"ה ובני ביתו הם כולם והוא החזיר אותם למוטב
כשם שהחזיר את אנשי דורו בפיו ובלמודו כך החזיר כל העתידים להתגייר בצואתו שצוה את בניו ואת בני ביתו אחריו.
נמצא אברהם אבינו ע"ה הוא אב לזרעו הכשרים ההולכים בדרכיו ואב לתלמידיו וכל גר שיתגייר.
לפיכך יש לך לאמר אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו שאברהם ע"ה הוא אביך
ושאברהם אב לך ולנו ולכל הצדיקים ללכת בדרכיו והוא הדין לשאר הברכות והתפלות שלא תשנה כלום.
In the same way as every Jewish citizen says their blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation. …
Therefore, whoever converts to Judaism for all generations and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Avraham our Father, peace be with him. These people are the children of Abraham’s household, and it is he who converted them to righteousness.
In the same way as [Avraham] converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him.
Thus Avraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who walk in his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all gerim who convert.
Therefore you shall pray, “Our God and God of our ancestors,” because Avraham, peace be with him, is your father…
For Avraham is father to you and to us, and to all the righteous people who walk in his path. And this is the case with all the blessings and prayers, that one should not change them at all.
Maimonides makes clear that Avraham is indeed the ancestor to all Jews, whether born Jewish or converted to Judaism.11 The ger has the right to say “our ancestors” in the Amidah like any other Jew. There is no need for a separate liturgy for those who came to Judaism later in life.12
In Parashat Ki Teitzei, the ger receives a special protection from potential abuse in the courts. This special treatment is echoed in blessing 13 of the Amidah, which singles out the ger for praise. But in our prayers, the ger is invited to recite the same words as anyone else. Liturgy unifies the community—the entire congregation says the same words, no matter their status. Although it was once suggested that gerim should recite different words, Maimonides and others made sure we do not follow that path. All Jews, no matter their background, have equal access to the same words in the liturgy, and are thus equal in the eyes of God.
1 See Louis Ginzburg, Perushim ve-Hiddushim bi-Yerushalmi (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1941), vol. 1, p. 335; Yehezkel Luger, Tefilat Ha-Amidah Le-Hol (Jerusalem: Orhot, 2001), p. 146. Also Uri Ehrlich, Tefillat ha-Amidah Shel Yemot ha-Hol (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 2013), p. 182.
2 Ehrlich, Tefillat ha-Amidah, p. 180. See also my essay on Parashat Devarim, “Praying for Our Religious Leaders,” which discusses this blessing’s use of “elders.”
4 This phrase is used, without obvious reference to a convert, in the prayer of the school of R. Yannai upon waking: “ותן חלקינו בתורתך עם עושי רצונך - grant our portion in Your Torah with those who do your will” (Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:4;7b).
5 But see Luger, p. 148. For another Rabbinic tradition eliding the term גר and צדיק, see Vayikra Rabbah 13:5, ed. Margolioth, pp. 293-4. The gerim here stand in direct contrast to the groups mentioned in the previous blessing, who should have no hope because they have left the Jewish people. See R”I bar Yakar, p. 56, who draws out this contrast between the two blessings.
6 See also some versions of this verse quoted in Sifre Devarim #281, ed. Finkelstein, p. 298, notes to line 16, and also the Septuagint, which also include the widow in this list. For the latter, see Midrash Tannaim, ed. Hoffmann, p. 160.
8 Sifre Devarim #281, ed. Finkelstein, pp. 297-298; Rambam Mishneh Torah Sanhedrin 20:12. These sources read orphan as distinct, and note that one is liable three times if the victim is also an orphan.
10 Yerushalmi Bikkurim 1:4; 64a. There, both R. Yehoshua ben Levi and R. Abbahu ruled like R. Yehudah. The first fruits declaration (Deuteronomy 26:5-10) is the passage we know as Arami Oved Avi in the Haggadah; the declaration is full of first person plural language referring to “our ancestors” (e.g. 26:7).
11 Of course Avraham himself was a convert, and accorded special praise for his religious journey. See Bavli Sukkah 49b. Michael Wyschogrod takes Maimonides one step further. While Maimonides claims that gerim are spiritual descendents of Avraham, Wyschogrod suggests that they are also physical descendents. “A gentile who converts to Judaism miraculously becomes part of the body of Israel. This is far more than merely sharing Jewish beliefs and practices. To become a Jew, a gentile must become seed of the patriarchs and matriarchs and that is what she becomes, quasi-physically, miraculously.” See The Body of Faith (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996), p. xviii. My thanks to Vincent Calabrese for discussing this with me and guiding me to this source.
12 Equating gerim and tzaddikim echoes the rules for combining various blessings of the Amidah in order to get to 18 total blessings. In that calculus, gerim are easily folded into the blessing for tzaddikim: “Include the [blessing] of converts in the blessing of the elders” (Tosefta Berakhot 3:25, ed. Lieberman, p. 18). These two groups are also linked in the explanation of the order of the Amidah in Bavli Megillah 17b, noticing the consecutive appearance of tzaddikim and gerim in Leviticus 19:32-33.