By Rabbi Fred V. Davidow
Parshat Lech Lecha
In this parshah, Avram hears a call from God to leave his native land and go to a land to which God will guide him. Avram went, taking “Sarai his wife and his brother’s son Lot, all the wealth they had amassed and the souls they had made in Haran.”
Who were these souls whom Avram and Sarai made and how did they make them?
Rabbinical interpretation retroactively considered the making of these souls an act of conversion. The souls were the servants in Avram’s household whom he and Sarai taught to accept and worship YHWH as their God (Genesis Rabbah 34:14). Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said that “when a man teaches Torah to his neighbor’s son, Scripture speaks of him as if he had given birth to him” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 19a). When Avram and Sarai brought these outsiders (gerim) to the belief in YHWH, it was as though they had given birth to them.
Furthermore, it is stated that converts are like newborn infants (Talmud, Yevamot 62a) and that “they now belong to the family of the Jewish people and their previous [gentile] lineage is disregarded” (Sefaria, Yevamot 62a gloss). One’s Hebrew name has three elements: the given name; ben (son of) or bat (daughter of); and the names of the parents.
Who are the parents of a convert when his/her gentile lineage is disregarded? Long-established custom holds that the convert is the child of Abraham and Sarah. Thus, the third element in the Hebrew name is ben/bat Avraham avinu v’Sarah imeinu.
Now we come to an enlightening chapter in the use of this patronymic by a convert.
Johannes, son of Dreux, a Norman aristocrat living in southern Italy, was born about 1070. Johannes, who became a Catholic priest, was influenced by three factors to adopt Judaism. As a youth, Johannes was inspired by the story of Andreas, the archbishop of Bari (died 1078), who converted to Judaism. His study of the Bible also informed his positive view toward Jews and Judaism.
Lastly, the marker event that likely led him to convert was the horror he felt about the Rhineland massacres of Jews during the First Crusade (1095-1099). Johannes left Italy and went to Constantinople, where Andreas had adopted Judaism. Around 1102, Johannes completed his conversion and took the name Obadiah, commonly chosen by converts because Obadiah, the Biblical prophet, was considered to have been a convert himself (Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a).
When Obadiah the Proselyte was living in Jerusalem in the 1120s, some born-Jews told him that he could not say “our God and God of our fathers” in his prayers because his biological father was not a Jew. Obadiah sent a sheilah (question) to Maimonides: “Since I am a convert to Judaism, can I say in the prayers ‘Our God and God of our fathers’? All my fathers were gentiles.”
Maimonides, the preeminent rabbinical authority of his time, gave Obadiah this teshuvah (answer): “Pronounce all prayers as they are written and do not change anything. Your prayer … should be the same as that of any other Israelite. … The explanation is as follows: Abraham, our father, taught mankind the true belief and the unity of God, repudiating idolatry; through him many of his own household and also others were guided ‘to keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice.’ Thus, he who becomes a proselyte and confesses the unity of God, as taught in the Torah, is a disciple of Abraham, our father. Such persons are of [Abraham’s] household.
“You should therefore pray ‘Our God and God of our fathers,’ for Abraham is also your father. In no respect is there a difference between us and you.” The answer Maimonides sent to Obadiah has remained the authoritative rabbinical position from then until now.
I once told the story about Obadiah the Proselyte to my congregation in Atlanta. One man of gentile origin with a Jewish wife was in the audience that night. Having taken my introduction to Judaism, he was thinking about conversion, but the decision to do so and the timing were completely his. Several months before I was to leave Atlanta, this man, Randy by name, made an appointment to see me. He told me was ready to convert.
One of the matters to discuss was the Hebrew name Randy wanted. I went through my explanation of how to choose a name. Then I asked Randy, “Have you thought about any Hebrew name you would like?” Instantly Randy said, “Obadiah.” I supervised Randy’s conversion and learned subsequently that Randy underwent a second conversion with a Chasidic rabbi in Atlanta.
Rabbi Raphael of Bershad (early 19th century) said: “Despair not if you preach and behold no result. Be assured that the seed you have planted will blossom in some listener’s heart.” Randy was listening when I told the story of Obadiah the Proselyte and the seed of that teaching bloomed in his heart. He still bears the Hebrew name Obadiah.
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow, who teaches in a number of venues, is awaiting the publication of his book Guardians of the City: Stories for Shaping Moral Character. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.