On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Jews and Others, Continued” From Eric Woodward

In Mishnah Sotah 7:8, we read that a king may sit while he reads the Torah, as a privilege of his majesty. King Agrippas, the Mishnah tells, would stand to read from the Torah, a sign that he considered its honor higher even than his own. And the sages praised him for this. Once, he read from this week’s parashah, Shofetim. When he arrived at the verse, “You must not set a foreigner over you [as king]” (Dev. 17:20), tears poured from his eyes. King Agrippas, who honored the Torah more than his own royal majesty, was a child of converts, who were often understood as foreign. When the sages saw this, they said to him: “Don’t worry, Agrippas: you are our brother! You are our brother!”

This is a moving story that affirms the deep morality of the sages and their eagerness to place themselves as Jewish equals with the convert. “You are our brother!” Not “You are our friend.” Not, “You are in our community.” But rather, “You are our brother! We are the same flesh!”

As a child of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, I grew up with a certain amount of insecurity about whether I was “really” Jewish. Even as a rabbinical student, I am often asked what my last name was changed from (it’s Woodward all the way back). No matter how “in” I might be, there are times that I can feel really “out.” Perhaps as a counterweight to this, I tend to be really excited by Jewish particularism – especially exemplified in our study of Torah.

The feeling of being constantly reminded of your otherness – which King Agrippas expresses in the Mishnah – is a feeling that many Jews-by-choice experience sometimes, too. Converts are often among the most active and passionate Jews, but they sometimes feel like, no matter how much they give to the community, no matter how much Torah they learn, they will simply never “pass” as Jews. Sociologically, I understand this phenomenon: groups are hard to enter. But as a Jew who takes Torah seriously, and as a rabbi who wants Torah to continue in the Jewish people, it is my responsibility to affirm: You are our brother! You are our brother!