Can a convert to Judaism be appointed king? Nowadays, can converts serve in positions of authority – legislators, members of city hall, or government? Are descendants of a convert also included in any prohibitions? Does the same prohibition pertain to women – can a queen be appointed instead of a king, or a woman be chosen to serve in an authoritative position? Rechavam, the third king in the Davidic dynasty was the son of Na’ama, an Amonite convert. How was his appointment possible? How did Shama’ya and Avtalyon, the great first-generation Tana’im, serve as heads of the Sanhedrin if they were converts? Judaism’s general approach to western values such as equality and discrimination are also the topics of this article.
In this week’s parasha we read the Torah’s description of the Jewish monarch: “You shall set a king over you, one whom the Lord, your G-d, chooses; from among your brothers, you shall set a king over yourself; you shall not appoint a non-Jew over yourself, one who is not your brother” (Devarim 17:15). This pasuk teaches us that a Jewish king must have been born Jewish, disqualifying converts and their descendants from serving in the position.
The Gemara (Bave Kama 99a) teaches that a Canaanite slave, despite being obligated to keep mitzvos, is disqualified for the throne. This includes one who was born into this form of mitzva-observant slavery. The Gemara deduces this halacha from the words, “from among your brothers” — only the choicest of your brothers can serve as king.
The Gemara also learns (Yevamos 45b; Kiddushin 76b) from the apparent redundancy, “You shall put (som tasim)” that appointments for public positions should only come “from among your brothers”. Any public position of authority must be filled by a person of Jewish lineage. In the coming article we will delineate the halachos outlining who can and cannot fill leadership positions, and the difference between a king and other positions.
The Legitimate King
Who is eligible to serve as a Jewish king? The Rishonim present different opinions on the matter:
1) The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim chapter 1:4) writes that the king must be able to trace his paternal lineage until Yaakov Avinu. Therefore, a convert or his descendants cannot be anointed. However, maternal lineage does not disqualify a Jewish king.
2) According to the Tosefos (Yevamos 120b), Ramban (Yevamos 45b), and Ritva (Kiddushin 14a) as long as the candidate has one parent with full Jewish lineage, he is qualified to serve as king. According to this opinion, both parent can qualify, and the prohibition is only to appoint the convert himself or a child of two converted parents.
3) Many Rishonim are of the opinion (Tosefos, Sota 41b; Smag, lavin 221; Ran, Sanhedrin 36b; Nimukei Yosef, Yevamos 15a; and others) that only the son of two Jewish-born parents can ascend the throne. If either of his parents is a convert the child is disqualified. The descendant of a convert, though, does not disqualify the candidate. This explains why King David was anointed despite descending from Ruth the Moabite convert.
4) The Chidushei Haran (Sanhedrin 36b) quotes an opinion that also appears in Minchas Chinuch (Mitzva 498) permitting the child of one converted parent, either mother or the father, to ascend the throne. According to this opinion, the prohibition here refers to a person with pagum (blemished) ancestry. Historically, the only Jewish king to fit this category was King Agrippa. Although Agrippa’s mother was Jewish, his father was a slave who’d never been freed. Therefore, their child, although fully Jewish, had ‘blemished’ ancestry (and if he’d been a girl, could not marry a kohen).
The Ramban (Yevamos 45b), Ritva (Kiddushin 14a), Ran (Sanhedrin 36b), and Kesef Mishne (Melachim 1:4) prove from the case of Rechavam, son of King Shlomo and Na’ama the Ammonite convert, that a son of a convert can be appointed king.
The Ramban and Ran add that Avshalom, son of King David, was also born to a converted mother (Ma’acha, a beautiful woman taken at the battlefield), and was nonetheless seen by most of the nation — including members of the Sanhedrin — as an appropriate heir to the crown. The only reason he was not coronated was because his father, King David, and Natan the Prophet were opposed to it, not because he had disqualifying ancestry.
Additional proof of this opinion is Moshe Rabbenu who asked Hashem that his sons serve as leaders of the nation after his death, despite having been born to Tzippora, a Midianite convert (Keser Hamelech, Melachim 1:4).
The Noda B’Yehuda (Choshen Mishpat 1) and Chasam Sofer (Orech Chaim 12) deflect the proof from Avshalom and Rechavam with the argument that the prohibition to anoint a convert only refers to selecting a convert for the position. When the people search for a king, the Torah demands that the position be filled by “the choicest of your brothers”. However, the crown of the Davidic dynasty passes from father to son, and although a candidate’s personality requires the Sanhedrin’s approval, his heirs have a claim to the crown. That is why Avshalom and Rechavam could bear King David’s crown despite their having being born to mothers who had converted to Judaism.
The Gemara (Sota 41a) states:
When King Agrippa [publicly] read [the verse]: “You shall not appoint a foreigner over you” tears flowed from his eyes [because he was not of Jewish origin]. The people said to him: “Do not fear Agrippa, you are our brother, you are our brother…” At that moment the Jews incurred extreme culpability for flattering Agrippa.
This incident is mentioned as a cause for the Second Temple’s destruction.
Why was Agrippa disqualified to serve as king? The Rishonim present different opinions on the matter.
Rashi (Sota 41b) writes that although his mother was Jewish, since his father was a slave, appointing him as king was disgraceful. The Tosefos (Sota 41b) understand that it was merely a disgrace, not a Torah prohibition. The question therefore remains why the punishment for flattery regarding something that is not a Torah prohibition was so severe.
The Ran (Sanhedrin 36b) explains that since Agrippa was not “from the choicest of your brothers”, appointing him transgressed a full Torah prohibition and the people’s flattery here resulted in severe punishment.
According to the Rishonim who see a prohibition in appointing a king who lacks two Jewish born parents, since Agrippa’s father was not Jewish, appointing him transgressed a Torah prohibition.
The Tosefos (Yevamos 54b) and Rambam (commentary on the Mishnayos, Sota 7:8) opine that Agrippa’s mother was not born Jewish and he was therefore disqualified. (According to the Tosefos Agrippa’s had the halachic status of a slave, while the Ramban opines he had the halachic status of a convert.)
Another opinion sees Agrippa’s illegitimacy as a result of Herod’s illegitimacy (Bave Basre 4a) who was a slave whose rule was established through violent conquest and Roman approval. Therefore, despite having inherited the crown from his father, Agrippa’s rule remained illegitimate because his father had no right to bequeath his throne to his future descendants. Therefore, the prohibition to coronate him, or agree to his reign, remined in place.
The SIfri (Devarim 157) derives from the psukim in this week’s parasha that the crown in Judaism is reserved only to males. It gives this as a blanket rule, writing: “Here we learn that only a man may be appointed to lead the public and a woman is not.” Not only are women barred from the throne, but they are also barred from any position of power.
The Gemara (Yevamos 45b) learns from the Torah’s double expression “som tasim” [“You shall put”] that a convert may not be appointed for any position of authority, small as it may be such assigning the local rotation for drawing water from a jointly owned water source.
All Rishonim though, agree that for this kind of position, unlike the position of a king, the son of a convert and a Jewish mother is eligible. The Ritva explains the difference (Kiddushin 14a): of a king the Torah writes “from the choicest of your brothers” to teach us that a king must sport honorable lineage, while the seemingly redundant repetition of the prohibition “you shall not appoint a foreigner over yourself, one who is not your brother” bans a convert from other positions of authority while at the same time relinquishing the requirement of “from the choicest of your bothers” for this kind of position.
Can a convert serve as a Jewish judge (Dayan)?
The answer depends on the kind of court he intends to serve on.
A convert cannot serve in a court that qualifies as a Sanhedrin – either the Grand Sanhedrin of 71 judges on the Temple Mount or the lower Sanhedrin of 23, since both have the power to pass the death verdict. This halacha is deduced from the pasuk “Then they will bear the burden of the people with you” (Bamidbar 11:17). The Gemara understands from this pasuk that dayanim must be similar to Moshe Rabbenu.
Rashi (Yevamos 102a) is of the opinion that the son of a convert and Jewish-born mother can serve in this composition of a court, disqualifying only the son of a non-Jewish father and Jewish mother. However, most Rishonim (Rif, Sanhedrin 13b; Rambam Sanhedrin chapter 11:11; Rosh Yevamos chapter 12:2) disagree, maintaining that only one who can trace his paternal lineage to one of the Twelve Tribes is permitted to sit in a Sanhedrin.
Dayanim presiding over a chalitza ceremony must be born to two Jewish-born parents. This halacha is only for chalitza. The Shulchan Aruch rules (Even Haezer 169:2) that if one of the Dayanim presiding over a chalitza ceremony was a convert or the son of a convert, the chalitza is invalid. The Rama, however, disagrees (ibid) opining that only the father of a dayan at a chalitza ceremony must have been born Jewish — if his mother was a convert the chalitza is valid, after-the-fact.
Converts are permitted to preside over a Jewish court of monetary law (Yevamos 102a). However, most Rishonim (Rif, Sanhedrin 13b; Rambam, Sanhedrin 11:11; Rosh, Yevamos 12:2) disagree, requiring a dayan to have at least one Jewish-born parent. In their opinion a convert or child of two converts is disqualified from serving on a Beis Din judging Jews. Halacha follows this opinion (Choshen Mishpat chapter 7:1; Yore Deah 269:11).
A Convert Serving as Judge
Several specific cases allow for a convert to serve as judge:
- When both litigants are converts, the Beis Din can also be comprised of dayanim who are converts (Choshen Mishpat 7:1; Yore Deah 269:11).
- When the Beis Din does not enforce its opinion because litigants only came to learn of the Torah’s opinion on the matter at hand, the dayanim may be converts (Rosh, Yevamos 12:2; Shach, Choshen Mishpat 7:1; Yore Deah 269:15, Sma, Choshen Mishpat 17:4).
- If both litigants agreed to be judged before a Beis Din that includes converts, the judges may even enforce their rulings (Rosh, Yevamos 12:2; Urim, Choshen Mishpat 7:1).
- According to the Knesses Hagedola (Choshen Mishpat 7, Hagahos Beis Yosef, footnote 1) in specific situations where the most qualified individual is a convert and the leaders of the generation accepted him as their judge, his appointment is valid. This is the reason that Shma’aya and Avtalyon were appointed Nasi and Av Beis Din despite the Rambam’s opinion (Introduction, Mada) that they themselves were converts. The Tumim (7:1), though, is uncertain if they had the capacity to pass the death penalty.
Given their limited judicial capacity, some might claim Judaism discriminates against converts, seeing their status as lower than born Jews. How could such discrimination exist in light of the Torah’s clear prohibition to love the convert (Devarim 10:19) which appears in the Torah 36 (and some say 48) times? Rabbi Perla (Ase 42) points out that discriminating against a convert actively transgresses a positive commandment. How can halacha endorse inequitable behavior?
The exclusion of women from any position of authority makes this question even more pronounced. Although modern day women’s-rights movement tend to see Judaism as a chauvinistic religion, historically Jewish law has always been at the forefront of the groundbreaking social system that protects women’s rights. A short glance through Maseches Ksubos, for example, clearly demonstrates the great length halacha goes to ensure these rights are upheld — rights which were clearly revolutionary in the ancient times and societies when they were first introduced.
How could the Torah prohibit discrimination against the convert and ensure women’s rights, while barring them from serving in public positions?
Equality is an important value, especially in modern day society. However, equality, like any other moral value, is not unlimited. Taking a look at how far certain segments in society have taken this principle is enough to demonstrate the dangers of unlimited equality. Just as we wouldn’t demand of a concert pianist to serve in a combat unit or football team in the name of equality, so too, the Torah, as an extension of the All-Knowing G-d, delineates which positions are appropriate for different segments of society. Just as different people have different capabilities and talents, and doing something that doesn’t match is inappropriate, so too here – the Torah outlines which roles are befitting for different people. A king may not serve as the High priest, and a Levi who exchanged his role with another Levi is punishable by death (“a Mikdash gate-guard who decided to sing, or a singer who decided to stand sentry at the gates”). The Torah’s halachos are designed to safeguard every person’s unique calling and ensure they are fully expressed.
Ovadya was an Idumean convert who became a prophet whose prophecies are included in the Tanach; Shma’aya and Avtalyon were descendants of Sancheriv the Neo-Assyrian emperor; both Rabbi Akiva’s parents were converts, yet the entire Oral Torah exists only thanks to his teachings and students. Rabbi Meir descended from Nero, the roman emperor, and every anonymous Mishna is his. Despite their greatness, Hashem deemed certain positions inappropriate for converts, even if their Torah greatness and knowledge is unsurpassable.
While historically the only king whose position was challenged on these grounds was Herod and his descendants, he possessed superior leadership and diplomatic talents, as well as outstanding building acumen. At the same time, he put himself down in Jewish history as one of the cruelest and most murderous kings.
This also explains why women are not appointed for leadership positions. While there may be women who possess leadership qualities, Hashem, who knows every soul and its destiny, can determine what positions are appropriate for every gender. We are told by Chazal that when the Egyptians attempted to break the Jewish spirit, they demanded that women perform heavy labor and men to do ladies’ work. Only one who is unblinded by the mad race towards boundaryless liberty and equality can appreciate his own unique traits, qualities and abilities and make the most of them.