Our God, the God of Our Ancestors …

א’להינו ואלהי אבותינו /Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu.

Praying Jews seek God both as individual souls and as children bearing זכות אבות/zekhut avot, the “merit of the ancestors.” We are not alone. When we daven, Abraham & Sarah are shuckeling right beside us, their virtues and good deeds supporting us.

I groove when davening as I imagine my 50x-great-grandparents as themselves davening Jews. I try to picture all the places and ways they prayed – their synagogues, their tunes, their poetry and prayer books, their minyan mates, the blessings they recited at meals, lighting candles and doing mitzvot. As far as I know, the overwhelming majority were Ashkenazi Jews, although I hope at least a few were from Spain, Syria and wherever else Am Israel wandered since Biblical times. (Since I am a lineal Kohen, odds are good that my personal line reaches back to Bible times; self-described male Kohanim across the Jewish world typically possess genetic markers indicating common ancestry – maybe even a single individual progenitor –more than 3,000 years ago.)

But what about the many American Jews who don’t have thoroughly Jewish lineage? Our community grows more multi-ethnic every day, with more people converting from more varied backgrounds, and intermarriage blending our family gene pool. (According to the 2013 Pew study, some 2 percent of American Jews converted, and another 1 percent consider themselves Jews despite being born outside the tribe but never converting. Together those numbers project to roughly 120,000 people.) What is the prayer experience like for those Jews not personally descended from avoteinu, “our ancestors?” How does it feel when they daven these words?

As it happens, this conversation has continued since at least the 2nd century CE. One of the only liturgies in the Torah – familiar to us since it was included in the Passover Haggadah – is the Mikra Bikkurim¸” the declaration of first fruits,” [Deuteronomy 26]: “I have arrived in this land which the Lord your God promised to give our ancestors … My ancestor was a wandering Aramean who descended to dwell in Egypt …” The Mishnaic Sages debated whether converted Jews should say this phrase when offering their crops.

We are accustomed to considering converts as 100% Jews, members as fully as anyone else. That is how we should practice, ignoring lineage and heredity. It is fair to say, however, no human society has ever valued lineage and caste less than modern America. (Compare to India, with Brahmins and Dalits, and Westeros, with its lords, ladies, knights and bastards, high-born and low-born.) It’s no surprise that Ancient Israel maintained privileges for elites and disabilities for the low-born, like those descended from converts, freed slaves and those born of adultery. So this ritual declaration puzzled them: Could “Jews by choice,” in our modern phrase, speak of “our ancestors?”

The Mishnah [Bikkurim 1.4] rules negatively: “Converts should bring their crops but not recite, for they cannot say ‘which the Lord promised to give to our ancestors.’ If one’s mother is a legitimate Jew [maternal lineage apparently being ‘good enough’], one can say ‘our ancestors.’”

The Mishnah applies the same rule to the Amidah: “When praying alone, converts should say ‘the God of Israelite ancestors/הי אבות ישראלל’א.’ In synagogue, they should say: ‘the God of your ancestors/להי אבותיכם’א. If one’s mother is a legitimate Jew, one can say ‘our ancestors.’” The Jerusalem Talmud dissents, recording that R. Judah, R. Joshua b. Levi and R. Abbahu taught 2nd and 3rd century Palestinian converts to say the same liturgy as everyone else. The debate went on for another 1,000 years, with one major 12th century figure, R. Tam, Rashi’s grandson, barring converts from the standard liturgy [see e.g. Tosafot BB 81a s.v. la’mautei]. But that view lost out, with Maimonides, Nachmanides and R. Isaac of Dampierre (R. Tam’s nephew), equalizing everyone’s prayers.

Why does the Talmud overrule on the Mishnah on this? Because God calls Abraham “ancestor to many nations [Genesis 17.5].” Wait, what? The Talmud’s reasoning sounds disappointing. It seems to mean that if you go back far enough, through Abraham’s other children with Hagar and Keturah [Genesis 25:1], these converts, too, probably descended from Abraham. That doesn’t get the job done for me.

Instead, I admire Maimonides’ response to “Ovadya the Convert,” who asked about this very Mishnah. [Ovadya means “servant of God”=the Arabic Abdullah, and was the typical name converts adopted in the Islamic world.) To ease Ovadya’s anxiety about whether he was really “one of us,” Maimonides gives ancestry and descent a metaphoric meaning. Yes, for most Jews, “parents and children” indicates physical progeny. But in the deepest sense, being Abraham and Sarah’s child means to follow their paths as much as bearing their genes.

Rambam: “Say all this in the prescribed order and do not change it in the least. You should bless and pray just as every born-Jew blesses and prays … This is because Abraham our Ancestor taught people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God; he rejected idols and abolished their worship; he brought many people under the Shekhina’s wings; he gave them counsel and taught his children and the members of this household to follow God’s ways. … Ever since then all who adopt Judaism and affirm God’s unity are among Abraham’s disciples. … Abraham is the ancestor of all his faithful descendants who keep his ways, and the ancestor of all his disciples who adopt his path.”

Wherever you come from, davening Jews, your ancestors Abraham and Sarah sing along with you. I hope you can feel yourself part of an unending chain of Jews, dating from the distant past and stretching forward toward the distant future, who build communities of worship. If you walk their paths, they are your ancestors and you are their children.