The Torah's Secret History of Conversion (Parashat Miketz)

The Torah's Secret History of Conversion (Parashat Miketz)

Throughout Jewish history, many people born to other faiths, have sought a place within our tradition. Many of their names are familiar: they are Zipporah and Rahab, Ruth and Yael. While some of have been met with open arms, others have faced challenges and have been turned away. In essence, when times were good for the Jewish people, conversion was embraced. But when persecutions made conversion dangerous, Jews eschewed the practice.

Yet, despite the baggage left from inquisitions and crusades of old, our tradition acknowledges the beauty and opportunity of wholeheartedly embracing someone who seeks entry into the Jewish people. For, if a convert is the emblematic stranger seeking acceptance, then they serve as a platform on which all of us can examine how we might be more open to anyone who is searching for an avenue to community and a loving reception.

Sadly, in the imagination of our ancient rabbis, it took two false starts before the first successful example of a conversion would occur. In their mind, Hagar was the first “convert” but her story did not end with success. According to a Midrash, Hagar was born as a princess in Egypt. However, when her father, Pharoah, met Abraham and Sarah in their travels, he was so impressed with their faith and connection to God that he decided to give the couple Hagar as a handmaiden saying ““It is better that my daughter be a handmaid in this household, than a mistress in another household” (Gen. Rabbah 45:1). From that day on, Hagar lived as a Jew in Abraham’s tent. Though Abraham would bring countless souls “under the wings” of God (see Gen. Rabbah 39:14), Hagar was only one of these converts we know by name and thus the only one who gets credit for her faithfulness.

Yet, those who know her story also know how it ends. Abraham is unable to have a child with his wife Sarah. At her suggestion Abraham sires a child with Hagar. Sarah soon becomes jealous and Hagar is made to run away. Eventually she meets an angel who implores her to return to Abraham. She does and bares a son named Ishmael. However, in time, after Sarah finally bears her own child, she once again implores Abraham to cast Hagar out for good. This time, her plot works and Hagar leaves Abraham’s tent, along with her one permanent tie to the Jewish faith. The tradition and the family that she had embraced had not embraced her back. Because of the distance created by casting Hagar out, the Jewish people and the Ishmaelites would forever be in conflict. Sometimes overt, at other times, tacit, their tension would reverberate throughout the generations and symbolize the pain of Hagar’s non-acceptance.

A few generations later we meet Timna, the briefly mentioned concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son. Like Hagar, her story too is heartbreaking. After seeing the wonders performed by the patriarchs and the power of the Jewish community, Timna, who was a royal princess, sought out Abraham, wishing to convert. When he rebuffed her she found Isaac but he too denied her request. Moving on, she found Jacob but her pleas fell on deaf ears. None would not accept her into their people (Talmud Sanhedrin 99b). Despite the fact that she was wholehearted and passionate, they ignored her desire to enter into their camp. Hoping that if she was around them for long enough, they would accept her, she decided to become the concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son. In her mind, proximity to Jacob’s tribe might create inroads to their religion and opportunities for connection.

However, her effort proved fruitless. Our patriarchs never accepted her. She was left without the attachment she so sought. Eventually, Timna gave birth to a child named Amalek, who was to grow up to be the mortal enemy of the Jewish people and would one day attack them while wandering in the desert. Asking many generations later why Amalek was permitted to cause Israel so much pain and anguish, the Rabbis respond that his existence was punishment for our ancestor’s scorning of Timna.

Both Hagar and Timna were looking for community and connection. They were hoping to find meaning and faith. But instead of accepting them with open arms and full hearts, our ancestors turned them aside. They failed to see the fundamental beauty that was at the heart of their requests.

Luckily, only a generation later, a new model of conversion would soon arise. In this week’s Torah portion, we meet Asenth, the wife of Joseph, who was the daughter of Poti-phera, the priest of On. As they did with Hagar and Timna, our Rabbis imagined that Joseph’s marriage to Asenth also contained an interesting backstory. According to a Midrash, Asenth knew that the only way she could ever marry Joseph would be to fully embrace Judaism. Soon she did, learning to love the tradition and to fully trust in God.

In one account of her conversion contained in a two-thousand year old novella entitled Joseph and Asneth we find the following plea during Asenth's moment of religious revelation:

Save me, O God, deserted as I am,
For my father and mother denied me,
Because I destroyed and shattered their gods;
And I have no other hope save in thee, O God;
For thou art the father of the orphans, and the champion of the persecuted,
And the help of them that are oppressed.
(Joseph and Asneth 12:11)

Whereas the Jewish people were punished for the way Hagar and Timna were treated, here they would be rewarded for their embrace of Asneth. It was because of Joseph’s acceptance of Asneth that God would choose Joshua, a member of the tribe of Ephraim (the son of Joseph and Asneth) to lead the people into the promised land after their forty years of wandering. Years later, Joshua would remember his foremother’s acceptance into Judaism and would use that as inspiration to accept the Gibeonites into the Jewish-fold (Midrash Samuel 28:5).

The stories of Hagar, Timna, and Asneth teach us an important lesson: When someone comes knocking on your door, your first instinct may be to turn them away. But people need you. The stakes are too high. The world is too lonely and cold to miss an opportunity for connection. Trouble follows when we turn a blind eye to others. Greatness comes when we open our arms and let others in. How many Asneths stand before us looking for love, waiting nervously for our accent?