The dire consequences of turning away potential converts – a Talmudic Midrash

In a piece of Midrash I was studying last week from Sifre D’varim, I came across a fascinating midrash in Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 99b.  Here’s the original, followed by an translation/explanation.

מיהת אחות לוטן תמנע מאי היא? תמנע בת מלכים הואי, דכתיב (בראשית ל”ו) אלוף לוטן אלוף תמנע. וכל אלוף מלכותא בלא תאגא היא. בעיא לאיגיורי, באתה אצל אברהם יצחק ויעקב ולא קבלוה, הלכה והיתה פילגש לאליפז בן עשו. אמרה: מוטב תהא שפחה לאומה זו, ולא תהא גבירה לאומה אחרת. נפק מינה עמלק, דצערינהו לישראל. מאי טעמא דלא איבעי להו לרחקה.  סנהדרין דף צט ע”ב

The issue behind the Midrash is prompted by a verse in Genesis “The sons of Lotan were Hori and Hemam; and Lotan’s sister was Timna.”  (Genesis 36.22 JPS)

It is very unusual for women to be mentioned in a genealogy.  In this case, Timna is mentioned because of something we learned 10 verses earlier:  “Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz”  (Genesis 36.12 JPS)

The impetus for the Midrash, however, is an inference we can draw from the fact that Timna and Lotan were siblings.  We know a little about Lotan from verse 20, “These were the sons of Seir the Horite, who were settled in the land: Lotan” (Genesis 36.20 JPS).  Lotan would have been the prince of a tribe of Seir, and therefore Timna would have been a princess.

Here’s where the imagination of the Midrashist takes over — Why would Princess Timna become a concubine to Esau’s son Eliphaz, rather than marry a tribal chieftain?   Perhaps she went to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and told them that she wanted to become part of their family, to convert.  For some reason, they did not accept her as a candidate for conversion.  Her response?  “I would be better off as a concubine to this people than the wife and queen of another nation.”  She wants to be a part of the family so badly that she refuses to marry outside of the family of Abraham and Isaac, even if it means becoming a kind of servant.

Every midrash has a purpose and a message — Here’s the punch line of this one:  She married Esau’s son and gave birth to Amalek, the arch-enemy who afflicted Israel. Why? — Because they should not have turned her away.

Amalek is the Biblical ancestor of Hamen, the spiritual ancestor of every Hitler-like evil man or woman who attempted to eradicate Jews or Judaism.  This Talmudic midrash is suggesting that there are dire consequences for turning away prospective converts.

This piece of Talmud suggests that the actions of the modern day Israeli rabbinic establishment, including retroactively invalidating conversions, refusing burial in a Jewish cemetery to individuals whose conversion they question, and throwing up tremendous barriers to immigrants to Israel who want to become Jewish, are endangering the physical safety of the state, which depends of a strong and loyal Jewish population for growth and protection.

Isn’t this something to think about?  1700 years ago, at the point of Jewish history when the early Christian church was beginning to pressure Jews into giving up their historic openness to accepting converts, an anonymous rabbi preached a sermon or taught a lesson reminding his fellow Jews not to turn away those who want to convert to Judaism.

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