Another explanation of These are the rules [that you shall set before them] (Exod. 21:1): It is written, [God] issued His commands to Jacob, [His statutes and rules to Israel.] (Ps. 147:19) Once upon a time, Aquila said to the Emperor Hadrian, "I wish to convert and to become an Israelite." He replied: "You seek [to join] that people? See how I have debased them, and how many of them I have killed. You wish to ally yourself with the lowliest of peoples—what do you see in them that you wish to convert?" [Aquila] told him: "The least among them knows how the Blessed Holy One created the world: what was created on the first day and what on the second day, how long it has been since the world was created, and on what the world stands. Their Torah is true." [Hadrian] said to him, "Go study their law, but do not get circumcised." Aquila told him, "Not even the wisest in your kingdom nor an elder one hundred years old could study their Torah unless he is circumcised!" Thus it is written, [God] issued His commands to Jacob, His statutes and rules to Israel. He did not do so with any other nation . . . (Ps. 147:19–20)—except with the children of Israel.
This midrash about an actual convert expands the scope of this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, which contemporary scholars call the "Covenant Collection" because of its numerous laws that follow and complement the Ten Commandments. This narrative about an ancient seeker of truth who wished to study our Torah and to enter physically and spiritually into our people's covenant raises fundamental questions about the role and status of converts to Judaism today.
Whether or not the conversation above really occurred, we do know that Aquila made a monumental contribution to his chosen people: one of the first translations of the Hebrew Bible into another language. In a time when one can find countless Bible translations on the Internet alone, one could easily overlook how Aquila and others like him transformed Jewish history. Not only did Aquila produce a tremendous work of scholarship that immediately benefitted Jews in the Greek-speaking Diaspora, our Sages from his time and for generations thereafter lauded him as a hero.
I am proud to count dozens of converts among my friends, family, and rabbinic colleagues. Indeed, I consider their paths to Judaism and their journeys within our community as Jews-by-choice to be among the most important lessons I have learned in becoming a rabbi. It pains me, therefore, to know how the ultra-Orthodox establishment in Israel continues to undermine the legitimacy of official and likely converts there and abroad through their recent political maneuvering. When will we honor the example of Aquila and others like him living today by refusing to accept this truly demeaning situation that dishonors the Torah and Judaism?