Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Halachic Discussion: Converts Can't Be Prophets?

This Shabbos, I sat down with the Kuzari, a classic text by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (1080-1145). The story is a recreation of a dialog of a great rabbi speaking to the king of the Khazars, who supposedly then converts to Judaism along with most of his kingdom. As the Khazars were eventually conquered and faded into history, there is little to verify the story.

The backstory is that the King of the Khazars decided to inquire of the three great faiths in his area: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The story as Rabbi HaLevi writes is it a back-and-forth, question and answer approach. It's actually great Shabbat reading because it's only 100 pages.

I'm only halfway through at this point (started reading it late in the day), but I came across a paragraph that is very interesting for a convert. Here is the text as the translation I'm reading says (complete with the poor punctuation):
"If a convert agrees to these rules, he and his children will delight in closeness to G-d. Nevertheless, a convert is not on par with a Jew from birth, because only Jews from birth can attain prophecy. Converts can become sages and saintly men [like Shemayah and Avtalyon, heads of the Sanhedrin and teachers of Hillel,] who were descendants of converts but they cannot become prophets."
Aside from the terrible unclear translation/punctuation at the end, have you heard this idea before? What would justify that distinction? And is it related to female converts being ineligible to marry kohanim?

A notable exception to this "rule" (as far as I know!) is Obadiah (also known as Ovadiah), a convert from Edom, a kingdom in modern-day Jordan.


  1. A brief comment on a complex subject: The Kuzari takes an approach of believe that Jews are intrinsically holy by virtue of their birth. In contrast, Rambam believes that Jews are holy because of their attachment to the Torah. Accordingly, Rambam believes converts can be prophets because their is no intrinsic spiritual distinction between them and a born Jew. Of course, there are halachic distinctions betweeen them. See Letter to Ovadiah the Ger.

  2. I read the Kuzari, as well as criticism of his approach by Liebowitz. He adopts a strict Maimonidean view as stated briefly by Larry.

    I don't see how it relates to the marital restrictions faced by kohanim, but that is not as much a discussion for the laws of gerim as it is for the special sanctity of the kohanim, of which I know little more than the basics.

  3. I thought Ovadiah was a ger... e.g. the prophet who we have a sefer named after? Isn't that pretty clear evidence that a ger can become a navi?

  4. Michael

    You would think so, but then Devorah was a judge, Miriam was a prophetess, and Shlomzion was a reigning queen and yet the Rambam and the Rema forbid women from assuming positions of communal authority. So things aren't as simple as they might seem.

  5. Perhaps, but forbidding someone from doing something because it's inappropriate unless you're on the level of Devorah or Miriam, is quite a different thing then saying something can't happen. For example, a kohein can't kill someone, but Pinchas did and became a kohein because of it! It doesn't mean that a kohein is physically incapable of killing someone, so I don't think the comparison is valid. (Plus, in the example of Yael, a tent peg was used, not a sword and she specifically said she wasn't going to use a regular weapon which is reserved for a man.... she did what she did out of necessity.)

    As for prophecy, now I'm even more confused... I remember hearing, I think from Ken Spiro, an Aish haTorah history lecturer, that there was 1.2 million prophets... half were men, half were women.

  6. following intently.... nothing much to add.

  7. Hello Skylar. I find it amusing that you asked a ‘peshat’ question and in response got people made up theories on the matter rather than a solid answer. You seem to have head firmly on your shoulders, so I am surprised that you don’t ask the questions that you raise in your blog to a LOR.

    The answer to your question can be found in Rashi on Gemora Sanhedrin 39b. The Gemora asks, “Why did Ovadiah merit prophecy?” and answers, “Because he hid a hundred prophets in caves,” (in the days of Achav & Izevel, at great risk to his own life).

    Rashi explains that the Gemora’s question is based on the fact that Ovadiah was a Ger and the Shechina only rests on “meyuchosin shebeyisroel” - Jews from birth. This is based on the posuk in Bereishis 17, 7. The Gemora explains that Ovadiah had an exceptional merit of saving a hundred prophets at a time when they were being exterminated. (He received prophecy, midda kenged midda - measure for measure as a reward).

    So actually one could claim that the Kuzari has a solid source for what he is saying in the Talmud itself.

    Regarding the quote “Converts can become sages and saintly men,” I should point out that Geirim are also invalid to be judges unless one of their parents is Jewish. For full details see Gemora Yevomos 101b-102a, Shulchan Oruch, Choshen Mishpot 7, 1.

    The Derech Chayim on Avos 1, 10 says that Shemayah and Avtalyon were descendants of Geirim but their mother was Jewish. (Seder Hadoros on Shemayah argues.)

    Regarding what Larry wrote:

    The fact that Shlomzion was a ‘queen’ is irrelevant as it was not according to the Halacha. Sadly, the Rabbis had no power at the time. Let’s not forget that her second husband ‘King’ Yannai murdered the Sanhedrin of their day (see Berochos 48a).

    As for Devorah, see Tosfos, Yevomos 45b “Mi lo..” (and Baba Kama, 15a “Asher tosim”) who give two explanations only one of which takes her being a judge literally, and that exception was by divine command. Shulchan Oruch, Ch”M, 7, 4, notes that women are not valid judges.

    Being a prophetess does not necessarily equate assuming a position of communal authority. Ironically, Miriam herself would be a perfect example as she was a prophetess but had no position of authority.

    1. Originally posted: September 11, 2011 at 9:59 PM

      Thank you for the answer! At the time this was written, I didn't have a LOR to ask!

  8. I know this wasn't really the topic, but I thought that I should add the following. According Rabbeinu Yosef Chayim (aka the Ben Ish Chai) the reason that women are excluded from public positions is to enable them to maintain their modesty. This is even the reason behind women being considered invalid as witnesses in court. Unfortunately, for most of us today, this is a difficult concept to appreciate.

  9. I also thought that section in the Kuzari was rather disturbing...because I also thought that Amos and Obadiah were gerim? I fine it equally disturbing because their is no source sited for such a claim?