Torah and Teshuva:
The Great Equalizers
The famous converts Shmaya and Avtalyon, who lived around the middle of the first century BCE, were converts to Judaism and descended from Sancheriv, the Assyrian Emperor who is credited with conquering the Northern Kingdom of Israel and exiling 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel in 556 BCE. Shmaya became the Nasi or President of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, and Avtalyon became the Av Beis Din, or presiding Head Judge. Together, they were the most prominent spiritual leaders of Israel at that time.
Here are two men of royal lineage who not only leave the comforts of their upbringing to embrace Judaism at a tumultuous time, but reach the greatest heights of the scholars of the generation. Shmaya and Avtalyon were the teachers of the great Hillel the Elder, one of the most famous rabbis of the Mishna.
Nero the Roman Emperor
At the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War in 66 CE, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known simply as Nero, was the Emperor of Rome. It was he who sent Vespasian to put down the Jewish Revolt who, together with his son Titus, eventually conquered the country and destroyed the Second Temple.
The Talmud teaches that Nero came to Jerusalem during the war. In an attempt to see if fate would be on his side, he shot arrows in all four directions. All landed facing Jerusalem. In an attempt to explore further, he asked a Jewish child what verse in the Jewish Bible he was learning. The child responded by quoting the book of Ezekiel “And I will lay My vengeance upon Edom (Rome) by the hand of My people Israel.”
Nero concluded: “The Holy One, Blessed is He, wishes to destroy His Temple, and to wipe His hands with that man.” (referring to himself). Nero was so inspired by this pseudo-prophecy that he ultimately converted to Judaism. The great Rebbe Meir, whom much of the Mishnah is based on, is his descendent.
The great Rabbi Akiva, one of the most famous Rabbis of Mishnaic times, was born around 50 years before the destruction of the Second Temple (cir. 20 CE). Rabbi Akiva’s father, Yosef, was a convert to Judaism. He was descended from Sisera, the great Canaanite General who tormented the Jewish people at the end of the second Millennium BCE and was finally subdued by Devora and Barak in 1087 BCE.
What is most remarkable about Rabbi Akiva, is that he was an ignoramus until the age of 40, when he started studying and through hard work and dedication, he became one of the greatest Torah scholars and teachers of the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiva subsequently lost his entire academy of 24,000 students, yet did not give up. At the end of his life, he rebuilt everything with five students before being brutally assassinated by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the aftermath of the failed Bar Kochba Revolt.
The Midrash Tanchuma tells the incredible and compelling story of Onkelos, a convert who was the nephew of Hadrian, the Roman Emperor (referred to above who is infamous in Jewish history for the Bar Kochba War and subsequent anti-Torah decrees and bloodshed). When Onkelos decided to convert to Judaism, he feared his uncle’s wrath. As a pretext, he told his uncle that he wanted to travel to foreign lands to engage in business. Hadrian gave his nephew the age-old advice to “buy low and sell high.”
Onkelos then traveled to Israel to study Torah. After his conversion, he was asked by his uncle on whose advice he had done such a foolish thing. Onkelos responded that it was indeed the advice of his great uncle that motivated his conversion. For there was no nation at that point as lowly as Israel. Surely their stock was destined to rise!
Hadrian sent a number of troops after Onkelos, but the newly minted scholar successfully convinced them all to convert to Judaism and the emperor stopped trying to bring his wayward nephew back.
Onkelos went on to reestablish the ancient Aramaic interpretative translation of the Torah that now appears on the side of almost every Bible and is known as Targum Onkelos, Onkelos’ translation.
Torah Scholars Who Proved Judaism Is A Meritocracy
In the first century of the Common Era, upwards of 10% of the Roman empire was Jewish with anywhere from 2 to 7 million Jews. This is quite remarkable. This is quite remarkable. In comparison, consider the United States today where the Jewish community yields tremendous influence, yet only 2.4% of the country’s adults are Jews. The percentages of the Roman Empire were significantly greater.
If we look at the number of Jews in the world at the onset of the Babylonian Exile in 423 BCE. we uncover something startling. Best estimates put the world Jewish population at that time at well under a quarter of a million. In a span of half a millennium, the Jewish people went from being close to extinction to being a force to reckon with in the Roman Empire.
What could account for such a population explosion?
These were tumultuous times for the Jews. After the success of the Maccabees in the Chanukah battles, the war with the Greeks went on for 25 more years. This was followed by several civil wars among the Jews, culminating in three major wars with the Romans. It was a time of a lot of Jewish bloodshed. Yet the numbers rose astronomically. Why?
Through mostly circumstantial evidence, scholars concluded that there was mass conversion to Judaism in the Roman empire at this time. According to some accounts, there were large numbers of converts reaching the millions, thus accounting for a sizable portion of the population of the Early Roman Empire.
There is no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, that points to the Jewish community at this time proselytizing. How, then are we to understand such a rapid rise in the Jewish population through conversion, without an active recruitment effort on the part of the Jewish community?
At the beginning of the Second Commonwealth, the Anshei Knesses HaGedola, the supreme religious body of the newly reconstituted nation, convened to discuss solutions to the problems that had plagued the First Commonwealth. One of those problems was Avoda Zara, or polytheism and idol worship. The members of the Anshei Kenesses HaGedola fasted and prayed for three days that the inclination towards such activities should be eradicated, and their prayers were answered.
From this point forward in history, the world made a slow movement away from polytheism, which prior to this time had dominated virtually everywhere in the world. Thus, the populace in Rome soon became keenly aware that idols of wood and stone held no sway over the world. The innate drive of the individual to find an authentic spiritual connection left many throughout the empire with a gaping void. They began to search, and many who found the satiating waters of Judaism ultimately converted.
Before this point, there were very few mentions of converts to Judaism. From this point until the end of the Roman Empire, there are a plethora of examples, often from the aristocracy. The following is a short list of some of the most famous amongst them.