Torah | Are Jews today members of a tribe

Bamidbar

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Hosea 2:1 – 2:22

MOT (Member of the Tribe) is a common colloquial expression in American Jewish culture. Urbandictionary.com describes it as a “slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to Jews, usually by Jews.”

We may smile and chuckle at this, but we are not at all surprised at the recurrence of tribal motifs in the Book of Bamidbar. Within the first two verses of the book, we read, l’veit avotam (the house of their ancestors), and two verses later, the Hebrew word mateh, meaning tribe. These words repeat throughout the book.

In purely biblical terms, we might agree that Israelites were MOTs. But are we necessarily considered MOT in our own times? What does the acronym say about us? Are we a bloodline or a tribe? If we are counted l’veit avotam, according to ancestral houses, then how does Judaism reconcile this with the rabbinic concept of conversion or non-blood line affiliation?

In the midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 8:2), the rabbis reinterpret the meaning of the word ger, or stranger, to mean convert. Taking the rabbinic approach, consider the following Torah verses, re-interpreted:

You shall not oppress a stranger (convert). (Exodus 23:9).

If a stranger (convert) sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. (Leviticus 19:33)

Love the stranger (convert). (Deuteronomy 10:19)

How did the rabbis move us from a tribal religion, to what theologian Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, called a religious civilization? The welcome democratization of Judaism made it possible for the religion to develop, thrive and live on into the future. When the concentration of power and roles moved from the priests to the rabbis, the Jewish enterprise moved toward democracy. No longer dependent upon bloodline for defined roles of temple service, rabbinic Judaism claims that those who learn become the accepted leaders. And anyone can achieve that role through immersion in Torah study, and a life of observing mitzvot.

To many, it is self-evident that Judaism is not a bloodline and that that our tradition clearly accepts converts into our community. But there are Jewish communities that do not accept converts. For example, in the Syrian Jewish community, rabbis have repeatedly ruled that conversion is not acceptable. Perhaps this trend is influenced by the Syrian Jewish community’s development and struggle within a majority Muslim culture. But it is still surprising, given the weight that the rabbis in other geographic regions placed on accepting converts throughout the ages.

I have personally witnessed the pain of a couple standing under the chuppah on their wedding day, knowing that the groom’s family will not accept the conversion of the bride. On the day of this couple’s wedding, the bride and groom were still under the impression that his parents would not even attend. When they did, at the last minute, they would not even stand near the chuppah, nor stay after the ceremony for the se’udah mitzvah, the meal following the ceremony, that is required by Jewish law for a wedding. Even though the bride had undergone the three major components required for conversion under Jewish law — appearance before a bet din (rabbinic court of three rabbis), immersion in the mikvah and the acceptance of ol malkhut shamayim (the obligation of the commandments, accompanied by rigorous study) — the groom’s family would not accept her as a Jew. Her conversion was authentic under the domain of Jewish law, but they chose to view Judaism more like an ancient bloodline.

We are not a race, but a people with a history and a faith: a religious civilization. It is therefore possible to join the Jewish community by becoming a ben/bat brit (member of the covenant). That is a big commitment that should be appreciated. We should not turn a blind eye to the bigotry that is sometimes expressed with regard to converts. We should appreciate our tribal roots expressed in the Book of Bamidbar but remember that we are all members of a religious civilization. Granted, the less catchy acronym MORC (Member of Religious Civilization) is not likely to become a household expression, but if we use MOT, let’s do it with Rabbi Kaplan in mind.

 

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org.