Until recently, the repercussions of converting to Judaism meant more than just renouncing one’s previous religious beliefs. More often than not, a person who converted to Judaism also cut off ties with his/her family (and in many cases the family sought his/her arrest and punishment). Additionally, converts were often forced to forfeit any personal wealth that they might possess. This was a challenge for which the Torah was well prepared. Scripture, in Deuteronomy 10:18, states that God “loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” Throughout the Torah, the Jewish people are reminded of the importance of being kind to converts (and widows and orphans). Throughout history, communities often took it upon themselves to help converts support themselves.
In Genesis Rabbah (78:5), there is an interesting exchange about the broader meaning of the phrase “food and clothing.” The Midrash presents Akilas, a convert, who asks both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua about the meaning of the verse in Deuteronomy.
Rabbi Eliezer responded to Akilas by pointing to Genesis 28:20, where Jacob vows to dedicate Beth-El as a place of God “If God will be with me…and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear.” Jacob had to ask God for the basic necessities, however, for the convert, God promises in Deuteronomy to give them bread and clothing freely, without their asking.
Rabbi Joshua, on the other hand, taught that “bread” refers to the Torah (a common analogy), while “clothing” means a tallit (prayer shawl). Rabbi Joshua explained that the promise of “bread and clothing” means that even though converts are not raised with the Torah, they too will be able to attain a high level of Jewish spirituality.
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