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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Behaalotecha: On Religion and Roots

At the end of the book of Exodus, the Jews had left Egypt and had stood at Mount Sinai. There they heard God speak. There they fell into the sin of the Golden Calf. There Moses brought reconciliation between God and the people. And there they built the Tabernacle.

The book of Leviticus sets out the laws most pertinent to the running of the Tabernacle and to its function of creating a holy people.

Only in the book of Numbers do the Jewish people finally leave Sinai and continue on their journey towards the promised land.

In the opening readings of the book of Numbers, the leadership take stock. There is a census. We are told how the camp is to be organised. Each tribe is given a flag and a position in the camp. The Priests are told who will be responsible for carrying which parts of the Tabernacle when the camp is summoned to move. Then, in last week's reading, we hear about the inauguration of the Tabernacle, which sits at the heart of the camp. The inauguration is retold in a very different way to how it was described in the book of Leviticus. There the focus was on the Priests. Here the focus is on the the other tribes. Each tribe has a prince that brings his own gift; one gift per day, in a twelve day ceremony.

The only tribe that doesn't get to honour the Tabernacle in this way is the Priestly tribe; the tribe of Levi. Perhaps that's why this week's reading starts with a special honour given (in compensation) to Aaron the priest; the honour of lighting the candelabra in the Tabernacle. And then the tribe of Levi, beyond the Priestly elite, are given their special roles and go through an initiation.

Almost as if to mark how long the Jews have been stationed at Sinai, we're told that they celebrated Passover there; a whole year has passed since the Exodus. Those who weren't able to take part in the Passover, because they had been impure, pleaded to be given another opportunity, which gives us the Biblical source for "Pesach Sheni", a sort of late-comer's Passover.

And then, with all of these preliminaries out of the way, midway through this week's reading, the camp is finally ready to move on from Sinai. Special trumpets are made to signal whenever a journey is to begin. They never know exactly where they're going to go. They simply have to follow the heavenly cloud by day and the fire by night. Where it comes to rest is where the camp has to be set up. For how long? It could be days. It could be years. They're not allowed to move until the cloud or the fire does, and until the trumpets are sounded.

Our reading contains a good deal of drama. As soon as they get moving, the Israelites take (again) to complaining. The journey is arduous. They complain about the food. The miraculous manna is no substitute for meat. In the face of these complaints, Moses comes as close as he ever does to a breakdown and a crisis of confidence. In order to make his role easier, a council of seventy sages is established to share the burden of leadership.

Aaron and Miriam then have a conversation that's critical of Moses, behind his back - and so God intercedes to let them know the degree to which Moses differs from other prophets, and to punish the sin of lashon harah (wicked speech). Despite all of this drama, I want to focus on one incident that happens just as the Jewish people are setting off on their first journey post-Sinai.

Jethro (in the Prince of Egypt)

As they get moving, Moses has a conversation with his father-in-law. We only know of Moses having one wife. Presumably, therefore, he only had one father-in-law. In the book of Exodus, he is called Yitro (in English: Jethro). Here in the book of Numbers, he is called Hovav (in English: Hobab). Let's assume (in line with Jewish tradition) that they're the same person. With that assumption in place, the chronology of the story is actually quite difficult to put together.

In the book of Exodus, he visits the Jewish people before the revelation at Mount Sinai. At that time, he advised Moses to delegate some of his leadership functions (advice which eventually materializes, this week, in the council of sages). At the end of that chapter, in Exodus, Moses sends his father-in-law home (Exodus 18:27). And now, in this week's reading, set a year after the revelation at Sinai, Moses is pleading with his father-in-law not to leave. But when did he come back? Why is Moses no longer willing to let him go? What's going on?

Rashi argues that the Torah's presentation of this story doesn't follow the actual chronology. Yitro didn't really arrive before the giving of the Torah, but much later. In other words, we should trust the chronology of the book of Numbers, and we should (to some extent) disregard the apparent chronology of the book of Exodus. But Nachmanides, on the other hand, is always keen to read the order of the Biblical verses as true to the chronology. On his reading then, Yitro simply came to visit the Israelites twice. He visited briefly before the revelation at Sinai, at which point Moses was happy to let him leave (in the knowledge that he'd return). Some point later, and true to his word, Yitro returned, and now, in this week's reading, Moses is distressed at the thought that Yitro will now part from the Israelites for good.

This debate between Rashi and Nachmanides is an echo of an earlier Talmudic debate. But whatever the exact chronology, in this week's reading Moses urges his father-in-law to stay. This is what he says (Numbers 10:29-32):

“We are setting out for the place of which the LORD has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the LORD has promised to be generous to Israel.” “I will not go,” [Hovav] replied to him, “but will return to my native land.” [Moses] said, “Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the LORD grants us.”

Judaism has not generally sought to convert gentiles. But in this text, the greatest prophet of all time tries to convince somebody to join the tribe. And what rhetorical strategy does he adopt? He could have said, “God freed us from bondage with unparalleled signs and wonders, he split the sea so that we could cross it on dry land, and then he revealed his law to us at Mount Sinai in a dramatic revelation in which the entire assembled masses of the Jewish people heard God speak. Every day we're eating manna from heaven. Our religion is true. Join us. Don’t be in the dark any longer.” Surely that would have been a more compelling argument than the one Moses invokes.

To be fair, God does appear in Moses’ speech, but only as something like a guarantee. The main line of argument is that, if Hovav comes with the Children of Israel, there will be material bounty to enjoy in the land. The Jews will share their milk and honey with Hovav, and Hovav will share his knowledge with them. Any talk of God, and his promises, only seems to be there to assure Hovav that the Jews will, indeed, have some bounty to share.

The tradition, like the Biblical text, is unclear as to whether Moses' argument worked. Some say, with Nachmanides, that Moses mangaged to convince him to stay. Some say that he went home but only to convert his own community before returning with them to Israel. Some say (or heavily imply) that he went home and never converted, even if his children all did. What interests me, however, is the Rabbinic response to Moses' argument. Was it a good argument? Was it the right way to convince a person to convert, or was it, as I have already intimated, somehow wrongheaded?

How could Moses make a pitch for conversion without talking about all of the miracles of their recent history; all of that evidence that Judaism was true? This question motivates one Midrash to reconstruct entirely the speech of Moses. Seizing upon the phrase that Moses uses "in as much as you have known our camping in the desert", the Midrash imagines that:

Moses said to him: If another, who had not seen the miracles and wonders wrought for us in the desert, up and left, it might befit him, but you, who have seen them, can you do so?

That is to say, you've seen all the miracles and wonders that occur in our encampment. How could you possible leave that behind? Adding to this argument, Rabbi Yehuda plays on the Hebrew word for "our encampment", which is "chanotenu":

Rabbi Yehudah says you who [didn't merely see our encampment, our chanotenu, but who even] saw the "chein" [Hebrew for "grace"] bestowed upon our fathers in Egypt... would you pick up and leave?

In other words, this Midrash is unimpressed with the plain reading of Moses' speech. So much so that it seeks to read into his words a better argument; an argument that appeals to the miracles as evidence for the truth of Judaism.

But I want to argue, along with another family of Midrashim, that the speech of Moses, unadorned with fanciful reinterpretation, is actually making a profound point about the nature of conversion.

I tend to think that there are two models for conversion in western religion: one model emerges from the book of Ruth, the other emerges from the book of Acts, in the Christian New Testament.

Let’s begin with the central verses from the book of Ruth (1:16-18):

But Ruth replied, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” When [Naomi] saw how determined she was to go with her, she ceased to argue with her.

This is the sole unambiguous case of conversion in the Jewish Bible, constituting an archetype for all future cases. And yet it hardly looks like any sort of religious revelation took place at all. Compare this text with the conversion of Paul to Christianity in the New Testament. The book of Acts (9:3-9) describes Paul’s conversion as follows:

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Paul, Paul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Paul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Paul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Paul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

After Paul made it to Damascus, a disciple of Jesus had a vision instructing him to heal Paul. The verses continue (Acts 9:17-18):

Placing his hands on Paul, he said, “Brother Paul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Immediately, something like scales fell from Paul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Scales don’t fall from Ruth’s eyes. Her speech to Naomi does talk about God, but almost as an afterthought. "Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God." Her primary interest is to stay with Naomi, to be loyal to her, and if this means adopting a new God, then so be it. She goes so far as to say that she doesn’t care what God does to her, so long as she’s allowed to stay with Naomi. It seems that the Jewish Bible has a very different understanding of conversion than does the Christian Bible - the Ruth model is very different to the Paul model.

Our Midrash, which seeks to re-write the speech of Moses, and beef up his argument, seems to be working with a Pauline model of conversion. The scales must fall from Yitro's eyes. Moses must convince him of the truth of his religion. But perhaps there's another way to understand the speech of Moses. Perhaps Moses was operating with a Ruthean model of conversion.

In fact, Ruth begins her speech to Naomi with these words: ‘Do not urge me to leave you…’. Using the very same verb, Moses beseeches Hovav, saying ‘Please do not leave us.’ In a sense, these texts are in mirror-image. In one, the prospective convert (Ruth) tells the Jew (Naomi) that she doesn’t want to leave; she doesn’t want to be allowed to leave. In the other text, the Jew (Moses) pleads with the prospective convert (Hovav/Yitro) not to leave. Both narratives turn around the word ‘to leave’ (in Hebrew, La’azov). In the Jewish Bible, conversion has less to do with revelation, and scales falling from the eyes – conversion has to do with the decision not to leave the Jewish people.

Isaiah foresaw a day in which many Gentiles would choose to convert. He said (Isaiah 14:1):

“The LORD will pardon Jacob, and will again choose Israel, and will settle them on their own soil. And strangers shall join them and shall cleave to the House of Jacob.”

Admittedly, not every Rabbinic reading of that verse is 100% positive. One famous (but I would argue, widely misunderstood) Talmudic discussion claims that these converts will cling to the nation in a negative way. Nevertheless, it doesn't seem a stretch to say the following: the central question for Jewish conversion – as the Bible presents it – isn’t, primarily, to believe or not to believe; the question is whether to leave or to cleave to the House of Jacob.

To unpack this theme further, and before we return to Moses and Hovav, it will pay to examine a Midrashic treatment of Ruth's famous conversion speech. The Talmud contains a reconstruction of Ruth’s monologue – transforming it into a dialogue, with less and less connection to religious conviction (a very similar reconstruction appears in Midrash Rabba). I quote:

[Naomi] said to her: [“On Shabbat,] it is prohibited for us [to go beyond] the Shabbat limit.” [Ruth responded:] “Where you go, I shall go.” [Naomi said to her:] “It is forbidden for us to be secluded together with a man [other than our husband, or close family]. [Ruth responded:] “Where you lodge, I shall lodge.” [Naomi said to her:] “We are commanded [to observe] six hundred and thirteen commandments.” [Ruth responded:] “Your people are my people.” [Naomi said to her:] “Idolatrous worship is forbidden to us.” [Ruth responded:] “Your God is my God”. [Naomi said to her:] “Four types of capital punishment were handed over to a court [with which to punish those who transgress Jewish law].” [Ruth responded:] “Where you die, I shall die.” [Naomi said to her:] “Two burial grounds were handed over to the court, [one for those executed by stoning or burning and another for those executed by beheading or strangulation.]” [Ruth responded:] “And there [if it comes to that] I shall be buried”. Immediately [following this dialogue, the verse states:] “And when [Naomi] saw that she was steadfastly minded [she left off speaking with her” (Ruth 1:18)].

Ruth accepts upon herself the regulations that restrict how far a person can walk on Shabbat. But why? Not because she has come to internalise the message of Shabbat and its requirements, but because she’ll walk no further than Naomi walks.

She accepts upon herself the regulations that restrict certain forms of male-female seclusion. But why? Because she has internalised Jewish modesty norms? No. She accepts them because she won’t be in a room without Naomi. And in fact, she spends a night in seclusion with Boaz, later on in the Biblical narrative, at Naomi’s behest. She’ll do whatever Naomi does, whether it conforms to Jewish law or not.

Ruth accepts upon herself the sovereignty of all 613 commandments. But why? Because she came to believe in the Sinai revelation, as the scales fell from her eyes? No. She does so because these are the norms of the people that she’s joining.

All that Ruth means, when she says that ‘your God shall be my God’, is that she’ll no longer worship idols. This is the most dismissive reconstruction of Ruth’s words that I’m aware of. Even her acceptance of God is reduced to the mere denial of other gods.

The Bible pioneers a conception of Jewish conversion according to which commitment to the Jewish people comes before commitment to the Jewish God. The Rabbis seize upon the Biblical verses and accentuate their most startling feature. To convert to Judaism is to refuse to leave the Jewish people; it is to cleave to them. It seems to have very little to do with God.

Perhaps this conception of conversion stems from an underlying conception that the Jewish identity is not a religious identity but a national one. I am certainly willing to admit that the Jewish national identity comes before the Jewish religious identity. As I’ve written elsewhere, Moses asked Pharaoh to ‘Let my people go’; he didn’t ask him to ‘Let my co-religionists go’! But I think that there’s greater wisdom in the Ruthean conception of conversion than that.

Perhaps this conception of conversion stems from the fact that Judaism places more weight upon action than it does upon belief; from the fact that Judaism is more interested in orthopraxy – the notion that all Jews should act alike – than it was ever interested in orthodoxy – the notion that all Jews should believe alike.

No. At the end of the day, if the commandments aren’t about serving God, and if there’s no confidence whatsoever in the reality of the cosmic drama that Judaism portends to be, then Jewish practice loses its heart and soul. I think there’s greater wisdom in the Rutehan conception of conversion than the so-called ‘wisdom’ of orthopraxy.

That wisdom, I think, in slogan form, is this: if you really want to have the right beliefs, first of all, attach yourself to the right community.

A person could have a tremendous religious experience leading them to Judaism - as Paul was led to Christianity. But what's to say that some time later they won't have an equally tremendous religious experience leading them to convert to Hindusim? Beliefs on the back of ecstatic experience aren't necessarily stable. But if you are rooted in a community, then your religious life, and your religious beliefs, are much more likely to survive and flourish. I think that that's why the laws of Jewish conversion, in classical texts, tend to be much more interested in a potential convert's commitment to the people than to a particular theology. Right belief can only flourish in the right setting. If you get the setting right, you're half way there.

Accordingly, we needn't be surprised by the argument that Moses puts to Hovav. Putting theology to one side, Moses thought that Hovav had already thrown his lot in with the Jewish people. And thus, he pleaded with him, not to "abandon us". Moreover, we can better understand Hovav's response. “I will not go,” he says, “but I will return to my native land.” At least one Midrash understands this response in terms of a Ruthean model of conversion:

He said to him:.. There are some who have a land, but no possessions; others who have possessions, but no family. But I have a land, possessions, and family, and I was a judge in my land. If I will not go (home) because of my land, I will go because of my possessions; and if I will not go because of my possessions, I will go because of my family.

In other words, Yitro says, I might believe in your theology, but my roots lie elsewhere, and a conversion makes no sense unless your are, in some sense rootless; unless you somehow have the freedom to uproot yourself and start again in new soil. Ruth's connection to Naomi eclipsed everything else in her life. Therefore, she was able to convert. Yitro, according to this Midrash, was too firmly rooted in foreign soil. He can be a monotheist, but not a Jew.

In actual fact, the Bible is tantalizingly ambiguous. We don't know for sure whether Moses managed to convince Yitro to stay. Much later, the Bible makes it clear that Yitro's descendants did end up in Israel (whether or not Yitro converted himself, his descendants seem to have done at some point or other).

But what sticks with me from this discussion between Moses and his father-in-law is the distinctively Ruthean tone it takes: a religious identity can only flourish if it has roots; if it is sustained by a deep connection to a community.

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