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From Our Archives: Shavuot and BeHa’alotcha

June 6, 2011 by  
Filed under From Our Archives, New Posts

Particularly appropriate for this week is a close reading of the Humash by Rabbi Zvi Grumet.  Rabbi Grumet’s article, “WITHIN AND WITHOUT OUR ENCAMPMENT IN THE DESERT: The Ambivalent Acceptance of a Biblical Convert” (Spring 1994 28:3), examines the account of Moshe’s conversations with his father-in-law, in which they discuss the latter’s conversion to a fledgling “Judaism.”  The selection is naturally appropriate for Shavuot, when we read the conversion story of Ruth.  Of course, it is also worth noting that, according to some authorities, the Sinaitic Revelation forms a chronological and thematic backdrop for this exchange between Moshe and his father-in-law.  Finally, very appropriately, the passage in question is from this week’s sidrah

In his study, Rabbi Grumet explores the wider overtones of Moshe’s discussions with his father-in-law.  What is the subtext of Moshe’s appeal, particularly his second appeal, to Hovav to remain with the people?  Does Hovav accept, and on what basis?  Why is Hovav resisting the invitation at all?   For Rabbi Grumet, the pivotal issue centers around a painful limit to the acceptance of the proselyte into the society; he joins the covenantal community, but he is not given a portion of land among the tribes in the Promised Land.

Told in this way, the story of Hovav and Moshe explores a critical aspect of conversion that is not reflected in the Rut story.  An automatic portion of land is not a given for most women, and they will normally presume that they will find sustenance and security in a husband’s inherited land.  This is no different for the converted woman than it is for the Jewish-born woman.  But in a man’s conversion, he would seem fundamentally limited by this weighty exclusion, effectively leaving him no recourse to livelihood but through mandated welfare.  Rabbi Grumet records the Rabbinic tradition that the people voluntarily dedicated the city of Yerikho to Hovav’s family.  But we are left to wonder, what could be done for the average convert, who was not as prominent and influential as Yitro?  And what, if any, are the lasting implications for a non-agrarian economy?

- Yonatan Kohn

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