It is almost unbelievable that at a time when Jews suffered some of their worst persecutions in Christian lands, there were Christians of noble rank who gave up a life of luxury and ease to embrace the Jewish faith, even risking their lives in doing this.
This is all the more remarkable since Jews do not engage in missionary work among gentiles, and do not seek converts. On the contrary, Jewish Law requires that a would-be proselyte (Ger) should be dissuaded from making the change. He is told that he can fulfill his purpose in life by observing the Seven Laws which G‑d gave to all humanity since the time of Noach. These laws include the basic precepts of morality and good conduct, and gentiles are not required to observe all the 613 commandments which G‑d gave to the Jewish people. Moreover, the righteous among the gentiles have also been promised a place in the world to come. However, if a would-be proselyte is so sincere and determined in his convictions that he will not be dissuaded from his resolve, and if it is quite clear that he has no other motive (such as wishing to marry a Jewess), an exception may be made, and after due preparation he may be accepted as a Ger-Tzedek.
Such a Ger was Ovadiah, a Norman nobleman, who became a Jew in the early part of the 12th century.
Johannes-this was his name before he adopted the name Ovadiah upon becoming a Jew-was the son of a Norman knight who took part in the First Crusade, under the command of Godfrey, Duke of Lorraine.
The Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Moslem "infidels" (unbelievers) was called by Pope Urban II at a Church Council in Clermont, France, in 1095. The Pope promised those who would join in this "holy war" that all their sins and crimes would be forgiven. Thus, not a few adventurers and rogues joined the Crusade, which started out from France in the spring of 1096, for it provided an opportunity to kill and pillage. The idea quickly spread among the Crusaders that before going to fight unbelievers in a distant land, they might first turn against the "unbelievers" in their own lands. The latter could be more easily crushed, for they were unarmed and defenseless.
The first "heroic" deeds of the Crusaders were, therefore, their bloody attacks against the Jews. Community after community in France, the Rhineland, Bohemia, and England was sacked and pillaged by the savage hordes of the Crusaders, and many thousands of Jews, men, women, and children, were butchered without mercy.
Johannes' brother Roger was a typical warrior, who fought by the side of his father in Godfrey's army. Johannes, however, was made of different stuff. He was interested in learning rather than in warfare, and he was studying to become a priest. It is not clear whether he accompanied his father, but several years after the First Crusade ended with the conquest of Jerusalem by Godfrey in 1099, and the massacre of all the Jews in the Holy City, Johannes was in Southern Italy. In the course of his studies of the Bible, the idea ripened in his mind that the Jewish faith was the true faith, and he resolved to become a Jew. He may have been moved by the heroic adherence of Jews to their faith, for he must surely have known, if not actually seen, how Jews readily chose to die rather than accept Christianity. He also knew how easy it was for Jews to save themselves by declaring with their lips only that they accepted Christianity. Instead, they chose to die for the Sanctification of G‑d's Name (Al Kiddush Hashem).
It is also possible that Johannes was encouraged to make the final step by the conversion of another prominent Ger a few years earlier. This was no ordinary person, but the Archbishop Andreas of Bari (Italy), who became a Ger about the year 1094. This naturally created a great sensation and brought consternation in the highest circles of the church. Ovadiah writes admiringly of him in his autobiography:
G‑d put the love of the Law of Moses into his (Andreas'] heart. He left his country, his priesthood and glory, and went to the land of Constantinople, where he underwent circumcision. There he suffered great persecution and be had to run away before the uncircumcised, who had tried to kill him. . . . But others imitated him and entered the Covenant of the Living G‑d. And the man went to Egypt, and lived there until his death, while the leading churchmen were downcast and bowed their heads in shame. . . .
When the young Norman nobleman, Johannes, made up his mind to become a Jew, be went to Aleppo, where be confided to Rabbi Baruch ben Yitzchak that he wished to become a Jew.
Johannes told the Rabbi about his descent from a noble and rich family in Normandy, but that he had decided to leave his family and give up the great career that awaited him in order to become a Jew.
Astonished, and not a little frightened of what might be the consequences, the Rabbi tried to talk him out of his idea. As usual in such a case, he reminded the would-be Ger about the persecution which Jews suffered in exile. But this, Johannes knew of course full well. He declared that he had reached his decision after years of soul-searching; he was prepared to give up all his material comforts in order to join the Holy Nation and become a Jew, with all that this meant.
Convinced of Johannes' sincere and unalterable decision, the Rabbi duly accepted him into the Jewish fold. In the month of Elul, 4862 (1102), the young Norman nobleman became a Ger-Tzedek and adopted the name Ovadiah ("Servant of G‑d"), after the Prophet Ovadiah, whose prophecies about Edom (Rome) may also have greatly impressed him.
Knowing how dangerous it was for a Ger to live in a Christian land, Ovadiah "Normandus" (of Normandy) went to Baghdad. In his autobiography, Ovadiah describes Jewish life in that city, which was by no means easy. There, too, Jews were despised by the Moslems and suffered hardships, but they had more religious freedom than their brethren in Christian lands.
Ovadiah devoted a great deal of time to helping the needy Jews in Baghdad. Apparently he had salvaged a considerable part of his wealth, and he shared it with his new brethren in a generous measure. In addition, he was appointed as a Gabbai Tzedaka (treasurer of the community chest) and raised funds for the local Torah and charitable institutions.
About the year 1121, Ovadiah decided to go to Egypt, where there was a flourishing Jewish community in Fostat (old Cairo).
While in Palestine, on the way to Egypt, Ovadiah met in Dan (Banivyas) a Karaite named Shlomo Hakohen, who had been traveling up and down the Holy Land proclaiming the imminent arrival of Moshiach. Moreover, this man claimed that the Messiah would be none other than himself. He tried to persuade Ovadiah to become his follower and give up the idea of going to Egypt. Ovadiah laughed at him, saying that Moshiach could not be a Kohen (from the Tribe of Levi), for, as it is clearly prophesied in the Torah, he would be a descendant of the House of David (from the Tribe of Judah).
Ovadiah came to Egypt and settled in Cairo. Here he wrote his autobiographical memoir in 1241. Only fragments of this autobiography were preserved in the famous Cairo "Genizah" (the treasurestore of old manuscripts kept in the ancient Ezra Synagogue which was built in the 7th century). Among the old remains of manuscripts, which had accumulated over a thousand years, Ovadiah's fragments were discovered, as well as an inscription on a Siddur, and a letter of recommendation by Rabbi Baruch ben Yitzchak. From these documents a sketchy biography of the writer was pieced together. Unfortunately, the fragments do not give the full history of this man, but they have brought to light the astonishing story of this great Ger-Tzedek, Ovadiah Normandus.
On Shavuot, when the Torah was given at Sinai, all Jews became Gerei-Tzedek by accepting the Torah and all its Mitzvot. On this occasion the Book of Ruth is read (in many congregations), which tells the story of Ruth, the Moabite princess who became a true convert to Judaism. Not only was a whole book of T'NaCh named after her, but she merited to become the ancestress of King David. Throughout the ages, and in periods of great Jewish suffering and oppression, there were saintly Gerei-Tzedek, some of whom became outstanding Torah scholars, or the forebears of great Sages of Israel.
In this connection we brought you also the wonderful story of Ovadiah Normandus, of blessed memory.