The tension in the Beit Medrash was intense, as two titans of Torah went head to head. In addition to battling over strongly held opinions, there must have been some degree of bitterness as well, as Rabban Gamliel, who was arguing against the validity of the conversion of Yehuda, had been deposed from his position of Nasi only recently. His ouster had been a result of a revolt of the most prominent Tannaim of the generation, who were fed-up with Rabban Gamliel’s treatment of their friend and colleague, Rabbi Yehoshua, who just happened to be arguing that Yehuda’s conversion was valid and that he should be accepted unreservedly as a member of the Jewish People.
And what was the argument? That Yehuda was from the land of Amon was undisputed. That males from the nations of Amon and Moav are ineligible to convert, and if they do that they can not marry Jewish women, while the conversions of females from these nations are fully acceptable was also uncontested. Nonetheless, Rabbi Yehoshua contended that as a result of the population transfers (later outlawed by the Geneva Conventions) executed by Sanherev centuries earlier, those people inhabiting the lands of Amon and Moav could no longer be assumed to be actual descendents of those two nations. Therefore, barring a definitive identification of Yehuda as an Amonite, his conversion would be valid regardless of his address. The Gemara (Brachot 28 A) goes on to relate that Rabbi Yehoshua’s argument carried the day and its adoption by those assembled in the Bet Medrash paved the way to Rabban Gamliel’s recognition of his culpability. Rabban Gamliel expressed remorse, apologized to Rabbi Yehoshua, and was ultimately reinstated to his previous position.
While the entire episode described in the Gemara is difficult to understand, I would like to take the opportunity to focus on the two points that were in fact agreed upon, namely that members of Amon and Moav are ineligible to join the Jewish People and that this restriction is limited to men and not women.
The Torah tells us (23:4) that individuals from Amon and Moav (Amoni u’Moavi) are ineligible to join the Jewish People. In the next few passukim (5-7) the Torah tells us why. “On account of the fact that they did not offer you bread and water when you left Egypt and he contracted with Bilaam to curse you. But Hashem did not listen to Bilaam and instead in His love for you (Hashem) turned Bilaam’s curse into a blessing. Do not inquire as to their wellbeing or their good in all your days, forever.”
In these passukim the Torah tells us why it is unacceptable to allow an Amoni or Moavi to join Am Yisrael. But even a brief examination of the reasoning leaves us confused. The two reasons that the passuk gives (Rashi will add a third) are that they failed to provide Bnei Yisrael with food and drink when they left Egypt, that Moav (not Amon!) contracted with Bilaam to curse Am Yisrael. To these reasons Rashi adds a third, that they (again, Moav and not Amon) sent their daughters to seduce the men of Bnei Yisrael.
If we examine each of these reasons the source of our confusion becomes clear. Is the fact that Amon and Moav did provide refreshments to Am Yisrael sufficient cause to bar them from ever joining with Am Yisrael? This question is further strengthened by the fact that on the face of it the accusation is untrue. As Ramban (23:5) amongst others points out at least Moav did supply them with food (see Devarim 2:28-29). To dismiss this as being insufficient, as Chizkuni (23:5) suggests and Ibn Ezra (2:29) quotes from unnamed sources, simply begs belief. Did all the other nations provide that type of service to an invading horde making its way across their lands? For the “sin” of making a profit on the travelers making their way across the wilderness Amon and Moav are to remain forever outside the Jewish people?
The second reason seems equally flimsy. True, Moav hired Bilaam. But what about Amon? They were in no way involved in that episode. And even if we accept that a punishment is deserved, where is the proportionality? After all, Balak was clearly acting in self defense, ultimately, thanks to Hashem’s intervention, no harm was done and anyway what is the connection between Bilaam’s action and the decree to prevent conversion to Am Yisrael? As Malbim writes in his commentary HaTorah v’HaMitzvah, the passuk insisting that Am Yisrael not inquire to the health and wellbeing of Amon and Moav seems to be far more relevant. They took advantage of your plight? Don’t have anything to do with them! They hired someone to curse you? Ignore them! But what is the connection between these behaviors and slamming the door on any would-be convert?
The third reason, though only alluded to in the passuk by the seemingly superfluous words “al d’var”, which we translated above as “on account of the fact”, seems to be the most pertinent explanation for why Amon and Moav would be denied entry to the Jewish People. An argument can certainly be made that any nation which cynically used its females to entice Bnei Yisrael to idol worship while at the same time corrupting the moral values which define the Jewish People has forfeited the opportunity to join that people. Yet this explanation is also not without its weaknesses. As we have already noted, the complaint is only valid against Moav, so why should Amon also be penalized? Moreover, according to this line of reasoning why should females from Moav be allowed to convert to Judaism? Surely one can argue that they in fact played an outsized role in the behavior which is being penalized. Why should they be allowed to join the Jewish People while the males are barred from conversion?
Meshech Chochma (1) addresses the second issue and points out while the women were the weapon that was wielded against Am Yisrael, they were actually just tools in the hands of the men of Moav. The strategy employed at Baal Peor was conceived of and implemented by the males and the women were forced to participate against their will. Since they were unwilling participants in the corruption of Am Yisrael, they were not penalized in the future. (While the Meshech Chochma does not point this out, it is obvious from the fact that the women of Moav were put to death in the war that followed the plague which struck Am Yisrael and Pinchas’s killing of Zimri and Kosbi that the Moavi women were punished for their behavior. Our question is whether that behavior is grounds for national sanction in the future.)
This idea that the women were not fully responsible for their actions or for their passivity is also what lies behind the crucial distinction which allowed Chazal (Yevamot 71B) to proclaim “Amoni v’loh Amonit, Moavi v’loh Moavit”, that only males are excluded from converting and not females. In explaining the distinction the Gemara notes that the reason given by the Torah for excluding Amon and Moav from converting was because they failed to greet Am Yisrael as they left Egypt and provide them with water and food. Since women do not generally take the initiative and greet others outside of their homes, they could not be faulted for not providing the expected hospitality to Am Yisrael. The Torah therefore does not prevent them from converting.
Having completed our analysis we are still left a bit perplexed as to why Amon and Moav have been barred from converting to Judaism. I would like to suggest that our question is a result of working off of a flawed premise. The underlying assumption that we have been working with is that conversion is a right, and that by barring a nation from converting we are somehow penalizing them. However, it would be more accurate to define conversion as a privilege, and therefore withholding the possibility of conversion is not necessarily a punishment but rather a decision made to protect the sanctity and middot of Am Yisrael.
When seen from this perspective, we no longer need to explain why the actions of Amon and Moav deserve to be punished, but rather why those actions demonstrate that co-opting these nations might be hazardous to the spiritual health of Am Yisrael. In order to do so, we will make one major assumption, namely that at the time of Yitziat Mitzrayim Amon and Moav were essentially confederated, and therefore Amon was partner to any action attributed to Moav. This idea, first suggested by Malbim in his commentary “Torah Ohr”, immediately removes any problems that we raised when asking why Amon would be liable for action taken by Moav. If the two nations are confederated, then we treat their actions as the actions of a single national entity.
Amon and Moav are of course the descendents of Avraham’s nephew, Lot. While this is not the place to discuss whether or not Lot remained righteous after distancing himself from Avraham Avinu, from the story of the destruction of S’dom it is clear that at the very least, Lot remained committed to the characteristic of Hachnasat Orchim. Therefore, the fact that Amon and Moav fail to greet Am Yisrael and provide them with free provisions takes on new significance. Amon and Moav have inherited a highly developed sense of Chesed, of Hachnasat Orchim, tracing all the way back to Avraham Avinu. This midda was second nature to Amon and Moav. The decision not to greet Am Yisrael then is not a passive one as might be the case with other nations. Rather it reflects a conscious desire to uproot the singular midda which characterized their nation and replace it with Bilaam’s attempt at cursing the nation (2). A nation whose fear and loathing of Am Yisrael and what it stands for is so powerful as to trigger a national reordering of priorities has no place within the Jewish People. They have shown themselves to be a force of corruption not one of righteousness or purity.
The distinction between the men and women can also now be portrayed more sharply. The passivity we noted above can now be seen as an active choice. Far from participating in the corruption of national values, the women strive to keep them. While they are not in a position to greet Am Yisrael and offer provisions, they refuse to become part of the active decision to withhold food and drink. Naturally modest (3), they must be forced from their tents in order to seduce Bnei Yisrael at Baal Peor. From such women, figures like Rut HaMoaviah may certainly emerge. These are people who not only have much to gain from immersion in Am Yisrael, they also have much to offer.
Today, we too are witness to ongoing controversy over who is “worthy” of converting and joining the Jewish People. Katonti, truly I would be out of my depth, to offer practical comments regarding this issue. Yet my heart tells me that we must find a way to co-opt so, so many fine individuals who have chosen to tie their fate to the fate of the Jewish nation. These are people who have risked their lives for our country and have contributed so much in so many different fields of endeavor. They are people who through their actions have made it crystal clear, as in the words of Rut HaMoaviah, “Ameich- Ami”, your nation is my nation. What a terrible loss, what a tragic waste it would be to leave them outside our gates.
1) This idea, which is also echoed by Malbim (see note 3), can be found in the Rav Cooperman edition of Meshech Chochma. It does not appear in the standard editions.
2) This idea also appears in Torah Ohr, but since Malbim takes the argument in a radically different direction I did not attribute the idea to him in the text above.
3) Malbim makes this point as well. He traces this modesty all the way back to Lot’s daughters who, despite the promiscuous society around them, maintained their purity. Malbim goes so far to suggest that the seducing women at Baal Peor were actually from Midian.