WHY THE JEWISH PEOPLE SHOULD WELCOME CONVERTS
The subject of conversion to Judaism has recently become prominent primarily because conversion has been offered as a perceived antidote to intermarriage. Whatever efficacy conversion may or may not have in reducing the number of intermarriages, the linking of the two subjects distorts conversion's crucial role in Jewish theology, its centrality at important eras in Jewish history, and its promise as a component of Jewish renewal.
Conversion's importance to Judaism will come as a surprise to many Jews; their reluctance to welcome others to their faith is so embedded in their conception of Judaism that it has become part of the faith itself.
Part of the problem is definitional. "Welcoming" is used here to mean openly proclaiming the willingness of the Jewish people to accept sincere converts, accepting them as genuine and authentic Jews when they do convert, and integrating them fully into the community after the conversion. "Welcoming" excludes using any physical or emotional pressure, deceit, bribery, or intrusive behavior to gain converts. It excludes belittling the faith of others or promising eternal reward for converting or eternal damnation for not converting. "Welcoming," that is, specifically excludes the tactics used by some non-Jewish missionaries. It also excludes an understanding of Judaism which refuses to offer Judaism to interested gentiles, which creates so many obstacles to conversion that the obstacles become tantamount to a refusal to accept converts, or which does not accept converts as fully Jewish.
The question of why so central a Jewish enterprise as welcoming converts became peripheral and then antithetical to what was defined as mainstream Judaism requires a recapitulation of conversion's fate within Jewish thought and history. Such a recapitulation provides the background for an explanation of the Jewish reluctance to welcome converts, a reluctance which has had and continues to have a profoundly negative effect on the fate of Judaism and the Jewish people.
It is notoriously awkward to talk of Judaism as a specific religious world view. Especially before Rabbinic Judaism and after the Enlightenment, Judaism contained multiple, sometimes contradictory, intellectual strands which, even when intertwined, retained some of their distinctiveness. Additionally, ideas in Judaism proceed text by text, whereas in reconstructing those ideas to make a unified thesis the ideas are ripped from different texts at different times. Such a process can easily result in doing violence to the idea and the texts.
Despite these and other difficulties in interpreting Jewish thought, it is still possible to discern, broadly, Judaism's central views about conversion to Judaism.
It is first important to chart the location of conversionary activity in the logical geography of Jewish thought.
The foundational ideas of Judaism are a belief in one God, the idea that God made an incursion into human history to make a revelation, the Torah, and that the ethical and ritual instructions in that revelation, the mitzvot, are the divine commandments which define a good life. The theological structure built on such a foundation rests on these beliefs. The revolutionary notion of monotheism, for example, led to the view that God was not just a God of the Israelites, but of all the cosmos, and therefore of all people. After all, the Torah begins with creation, not revelation. The first human created was not Jewish. Such a God was concerned with the morality of all people. Any Godly plans for humanity rested on the notion that humans were part of a unified family, and the spiritual message that God wanted to give was not to be limited to just some people but was available and meant for all.
The Jews were elected by God, who revealed to the Jewish people a universal moral instruction that was meant for all humanity, not just the Jews. Jews were to be the messengers, bringing such instructions to all. At first, it seems strange that a universal revelation should be given to a small, powerless people in the middle of a desert after an escape from slavery. Of course, it is this very strangeness that helps identify the reasons for such a Godly choice. Human freedom requires the ability to choose disbelief. Had God chosen to give a revelation obvious and available to all people, the human choice would have been restricted; humans would have had to accept God's moral precepts. Had the message been given to a powerful people, the freedom to accept or reject such a message would also have been restricted because it would have been difficult to separate the message from the power of the messengers. However, when the message was given to a landless group of ex-slaves to transmit, the message would have to be considered entirely on its own, and humans would be free to accept or reject it only on its merits. A desert is the perfect spot for a universal divine revelation because the desert belongs to no nation (as the Mekhilta on Exodus 19:2 makes clear), and so none can claim exclusivity over the revelation. The notion of giving the message to the newly-liberated constructed a powerful psychological and social tie between attachment to God's message and the significance of freedom--both in the notions of free choice and political and economic freedom.
It was at Mount Sinai that God made a covenant with the Jewish people. The Jews accepted the revelation from God, with its divine commission to present that revelation to the world. God, in turn, would make the Jews "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." The idea of a "kingdom of priests" has been interpreted in many ways. Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno argued that the passage meant the Jews had a religious vocation to bring the revelation to all humanity. This interpretation was adopted by 19th and 20th century Reform thinkers, from Abraham Geiger onward. Geiger, for example in his book Judische Zeitschrift fur Wissenshaft und Leben 2, read the passage to see the Jews as universal priests. Most Talmudic Rabbis, however, did not see the phrase as having universal implications.
The phrase, then, resonates with particularlistic and universalistic strains, as does Judaism as a whole. The covenant given by God was a mixture of the two. The universalistic elements provided the core religious content of the message the Jewish people was to convey to humanity. The danger of focusing solely on the universalistic strains lay in ignoring the specific contributions the particularistic played in performing the universal mission, such as by separating Jewish beliefs, morality, and way of life from a more generalized universal set of such beliefs, morality, and way of life.
The particularistic elements also played a vital role. They existed to prevent Jews from sacrificing their religion in the name of any other religion or some supra-religion and as a fence around the sacred teachings which were to be transmitted; the particularities were to force Jews to be a separate people so as not to let their Godly message be overwhelmed by the stronger cultures which surrounded them. The danger of focusing solely on the particularistic strains lay in interpreting Jewish chosenness to imply some sense of superiority rather than what it did imply: chosenness to perform a mission to all. Additionally, the particularities were healthy in preventing the Jewish people from developing a sense of religious superiority because they had been the people to receive the divine message. Such a separation also limits the nature of delivering the message. A people apart could not force their religion upon others. A people apart cannot be religious imperialists. The ethical implication here is clear: while the Jewish mission was to bring God's universal message to all humanity, Jews could only offer the message; they could not mandate its acceptance. The Jews were to be a "light unto the nations." They could offer Judaism and welcome those who accepted the message, people who chose to become chosen, people who became Jewish. Such people, coming to Judaism freely, without fear for their salvation, were to be embraced. The separation has another important implication, one explicitly noted in Jewish literature: salvation is universal; it is dependent on moral behavior not on accepting Judaism. The righteous of all faiths have an equal chance to be saved. Judaism was not triumphalist; it called for worship of God, not for the disappearance of gentiles or non-Jewish religions. Judaism's vision is not that of every person becoming Jewish. Conversion is to be available but not mandated. It is to be offered but not forced. Of course, such a view, while undermining the potential for conversionary activism, was valuable in defining the boundaries of the Jewish mission.
Such a mission involved both the Jewish people obeying the covenant themselves scrupulously so as to be a moral model, again emphasizing the particular, and conveying the revelation to all humanity, emphasizing the universal.
Jews were to be active witnesses on behalf of their faith. The basis for such activity was derived from a variety of sources. God's divine revelation itself, of course, was an active act of offering Judaism, of God sharing a faith.
Jews also saw missionary impulses in the actions of their founders. Abraham's journey from Haran to Canaan with "souls" whom he had gotten was understood by the Rabbis to mean Abraham had made converts. In Sifre Deuteronomy, 313, on Deuteronomy 32:10), Abraham is described as so successful a missionary that God became known as King of the earth as well as King of heaven. In Genesis Rabbah 39:21 Abraham is considered a missionary. In Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, 23a, Jews are urged to bring people "beneath the wings of the Divine Presence" exactly as Abraham had done. The word "convert" is used loosely when referring to Abraham's efforts. Abraham invited non-Israelites to join the Israelites; the formal notion of religious conversion did not emerge for some time. Many other examples of missionary efforts by the founders of Judaism can be found in aggadic literature, such as in Midrash Hagadol, 397. For example, Rabbi Hoshaya believed that Isaac sought converts. Jacob is considered to have done the same (see Genesis Rabbah 84:4). Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman believed that Joseph would not distribute food to the Egyptians unless they became circumcised (see Genesis Rabbah 90:6 and 91:5). Moses expounded the Torah in seventy languages, according to one midrash, because the Torah was meant to be heard and embraced by all humans. Several sources, such as Exodus Rabbah 1:29, note that prior to slaying the Egyptian taskmaster, Moses foresaw that there would not be a single convert from the among the taskmaster's posterity; it was this perception that justified the death.
The positive attitude toward seeking converts by the Rabbinical sources provided another justification for offering Judaism. The favorable Rabbinic attitude toward welcoming converts was based on attitudes developed in the Torah and by the prophets. The Torah includes numerous injunctions to the Jewish people to welcome strangers. The prophetic vision of the universal rule of God and of instruction coming from Zion was stated most eloquently in Second Isaiah (e.g. 42:6-7).
The most famous Talmudic passage (Pesahim 87b) specifically praising conversionary work is by the prominent Rabbi Johanan, and agreed with by Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat, in which it is asserted that God exiled Jews from their homeland for only one reason, to increase the number of converts. It is a particularly striking notion that so traumatic event as national exile should be seen as having a divine use. The use had to have been considered so valuable that it justified such an exile from the promised land.
The imperative for mission was also seen in the actual historical efforts to welcome converts. Such efforts included: (1) creating literature such as the Sibylline Oracles, Josephus' Contra Apionem, Philo's Apologia hyper Ioudaion, the Letter of Aristeas, Joseph and Aseneth, and much else that was sometimes used for missionary purposes; (2) opening synagogues for interested invited guests and visitors. There is a reference in Philo (De Septinario, 6) to "thousands of houses of instruction in all the towns," a reference probably to the many synagogues which served as learning centers for gentiles; (3) personally approaching potential converts, such as the traveler Eleazar, mentioned in Josephus, Antiquities 20. 43, who was active in Adiabene, a small kingdom on the Tigris River in which the Crown Prince, Izates, and the Queen Mother, and perhaps many others, were converted; (4) assimilating gentiles who lived among the Jewish people, including, according to Philo, many children abandoned by their gentile families; and (5) through marriage of a Jew to a gentile. Such efforts were deliberately not intrusive. They did not characteristically include belittling the beliefs of others, or the creation of a widespread exclusively missionary occupation.
The Jewish mission was also seen as justified by Jewish law. The very existence of laws concerning conversion was seen as a form of offering. Why codify laws at all if Judaism did not want converts? The existence of such Jewish law indicates that converts are allowed, that converts are welcomed, and that there are specific rites to undergo in order to convert. It is not clear when precisely these legal rules developed. They may have developed in the Second Temple period or after the destruction of the Temple. Certainly after the destruction of the Second Temple, there was an increasing need for clear religious rules to maintain a Jewish identity bereft of the unifying effects of common nationality so that they were in place no later than 400- 500 C.E.
Finally, Jews saw their mission as the dynamic for history's redemptive culmination, as part of the divine logic and love that would result in history reaching its aim. The logic of the Jewish world view required the mission. God is universal, humanity is meant to be united, the Torah revealed by God is meant for all humanity, the Jewish people were chosen to receive the revelation and charged in their covenant with following its teachings, among which was to make God's universal message available to all, so that, with its acceptance, humanity might be redeemed.
The universalist mission was challenged by particularists who saw a more distinctive role for Jews and a separate covenant for the rest of humanity. According to this view, gentiles are obliged to follow the moral code given to Noah and the Jewish mission is understood as teaching the Noahide laws to gentiles. The Noahide laws mandated that all people refrain from idolatry, incest, adultery, bloodshed, profaning God's name, injustice (by the positive act of establishing law courts), robbery, and such cruel acts as removing a limb from a living animal.
However, such a view does not fulfill the covenantal obligations made by the Jewish people. The fact that, in principle, any gentile could become Jewish means that simply obeying the Noahide laws is not the highest spiritual goal available for gentiles. At any rate, even if Jews did believe that their mission was limited to teaching the Noahide laws, such a mission was rarely undertaken.
For all these reasons, the Jewish mission of seeking converts was translated into concrete action during important periods of Jewish history.
As Salo Baron has noted (see "Population," Encyclopaedia Judaica 13, 1971, col. 869), the Jews grew from 150,000 in 586 B.C.E. to more than eight million by the first century of the common era. Such an increase can be explained by the supposition that Jews actively welcomed large numbers of converts, mostly by the activities described above, but also by force in two unusual cases, the conversion of the Idumaeans (see Josephus, Antiquities 13. 257-258) and the Ituraeans (see Josephus, Antiquities 13.319).
The idea that Jews actively sought converts is buttressed not just by demography but by the hostile comments by Greek, Roman, and Christian authors about Jewish attempts to win converts. In Rome, for example, Tacitus, a rhetorical historian, Cicero, a lawyer, and Juvenal, a satirist, are bitter and serious about denouncing Jewish proselytizing activities. Horace (in Satires 1.4 142-143) makes fun of Jewish proselytizing efforts. Of course, the most famous Christian comment is Matthew 23:15 in which the seriousness of Jewish competition for converts can be seen: "Alas for you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over sea and land to make a single proselyte and anyone who becomes one you make twice as fit for hell as you are."
They had every reason, from their point of view, to be concerned. By the onset of the Christian era, ten per cent of the Roman Empire was Jewish according to Salo Baron (in his Social and Religious History of the Jews, volume 1, pp. 370-372). Indeed, it is intriguing to consider how differently history could have turned out. Had the Romans and Jews not fought, had the Romans not destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E., crushed the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 C.E., and ultimately expelled the Jews from Jerusalem, the efforts to win converts would have increased. It is not ridiculous to ponder the thought that, had Rome and Jerusalem not engaged in a bitter struggle to the end, the Romans would have chosen Judaism, not Christianity, and forever changed the course of history. As it was, however, Judaism was associated with the rebellious, hated, and ultimately defeated Judea, and Constantine converted to Christianity giving shape to a Christian not a Jewish west.
The exilic history of the Jews following the loss of the Second Temple illustrated the dangers of lost power. One part of that paradigmatically tragic history was the fate of the Jewish efforts to win converts. While Jewish efforts to win converts continued, the stateless and powerless Jews were restricted by Roman, and later Christian and Muslim laws regarding proselytism. For example, Domitian ordered that converts be sent into exile and put to death. In 131 C.E. Hadrian prohibited circumcision and public instruction in the Jewish religion. In 198/199 the Emperor Severus promulgated laws that forbade gentiles from embracing Judaism. In 335 Constantine re-enacted Hadrian's law, forbidding Jews to circumcise non-Jewish slaves. There were many other examples of such restrictions, indicating both the existence of active conversionary efforts and the concern those efforts engendered.
Over time, however, the Jewish attitude toward welcoming converts changed. (This is not to suggest that the attitude had ever been uniformly positive. There are many references, such as Rabbi Helbo's well-known comment (Yevamot 47b and elsewhere) that "proselytes are injurious to Israel as a scab." There were, throughout Jewish history particularists who opposed welcoming converts). Cumulatively, the changes reversed the general Jewish attitude toward welcoming converts so that what was once considered a covenantal obligation became a neglected activity, ironically considered un-Jewish. Jews became reluctant to seek converts. There were many reasons for this radical transformation.
The first reason for the change in attitude toward welcoming converts is, of course, the persecutions by non-Jewish authorities. Both converts and the Jewish community were punished for such activity. The powerless Jewish community made the prudential decision to curtail such activities. Of course, the very powerlessness and characteristic minority status of the Jews added more subtle reasons for change than the rational elements inherent in making a prudential communal decision. Minority status produced profound psychological changes, resulting in, among other negative effects, a loss of self-worth that undermined the impulse to offer Judaism to the world.
Eventually, the Jewish community sought a justification to explain away their failure to meet their covenantal obligation, to explain their dismal existence, and to offer hope of escape from that existence. Such a justification was found in the particularist interpretation of Jewish theology, with the Jewish mission limited to one of simply following religious laws and waiting for the messiah. The usefulness of such a view was obvious not only in simply surviving and justifying the change in mission, but in providing a hope for a better Jewish future in messianic times.
Christians took the Jewish mission to welcome converts and transformed its meaning. Seeking converts became a required activity because salvation was unavailable outside the Church. Intrusive activities, bribery, threats, and ultimately violence and murder were tolerated by an expanding Christianity. Additionally, Christians had relaxed the Jewish rules of conversion, such as the need for male circumcision, and the obligation to obey Jewish law, making it much easier for a pagan to convert to Christianity than to Judaism. Finally, an enmity developed between the triumphant Christians and the downtrodden Jews. For all these reasons, Jews came to distrust conversion activity. Its original meaning had been subverted, potential converts might defect seeing Christianity as an easier route, and Jews, with increasing justification, came to see gentiles as the enemy, not a group whose members would want to convert or who would be welcome even if they chose to do so. It became more unpalatable to offer Judaism to the very people who mocked and persecuted, forcibly converted, and killed Jews. The idea of welcoming converts under such circumstances became repugnant. Of course, from the gentile side, Jews were seen as guilty of Deicide, and a dispersed, weak people, available for pity, mockery, or persecution, not for joining.
Conversion's fate within Jewish law also reflected a significant shift in Jewish views. Commentators on Jewish law, who were centered in France and Germany, included such thinkers as Rashi and the Tosafists. The Tosafists argued that Jewish law requires the acceptance of converts. They saw seeking converts as a commandment for Jews. Besides commentators, the other group of Jewish teachers were the decision makers who focused on codifying the law. Maimonides was the most famous of the decision makers. In general, these decision makers were more restrictive in their attitude toward an active welcoming of converts. To end confusion on the alternate rulings of these two groups of teachers on a variety of subjects, there were efforts to produce a code of Jewish law that could reflect both legal systems. The code that ultimately prevailed, of course, was Joseph Caro's Shulhan Aruch, supplemented by notes from Moses Isserles. In part the Shulhan Aruch became authoritative because it was the first code produced after the printing press had been invented, and so it was rapidly and widely distributed throughout the Jewish world. At any rate, the Code took the more restrictive view in its very brief description of conversion in Yoreh De'ah, chapters 268-269. Although Caro seems opposed to proselytizing actively, he does present the laws more favorably than the Spanish school and included some Tosafist opinions. He does not quote Rabbi Helbo. At one point, Caro even notes that prospective converts should be informed that all the idolatrous nations will perish, but that Israel will survive and that Judaism will become the sole religion. (Caro cites Yevamot 47a). Although Caro is more solicitous than some of the decision makers, his seeming opposition to active welcoming contributed to the Jewish change in attitude toward such welcoming, which had begun long before, and to the demise of the Tosafist interpretation of such welcoming as a divine mandate. This change was more than cosmetic. A divine obligation had to be done independent of the consequences. Without such a commandment, Jews were free to ignore welcoming converts.
This development in Jewish law cemented the opposition to conversion that had been building because of the other aforementioned reasons. Persecution and fear had led, over time, to the transformation of the Jewish understanding of its mission as spreading God's word to a denunciation of such a mission as not conforming to Jewish law. Missionary quiescence became the norm as Jews suffered in the exile from their homeland and waited for the messiah. The Jewish people refused to deliver their message to houses other than their own.
Contemporary Jewry has inherited this transformed understanding of the Jewish mission. There are, however, a variety of historical reasons why the original idea of seeking converts can and should be accepted again.
The loss of national sovereignty, with its concomitant weakness, loss of self-assurance, and perception by others that the Jews had been passed by history, was a major reason for the transformation of the Jewish understanding of their covenantal obligation. Now, however, Israel has returned to history. National sovereignty is restored.
For many centuries, a Jewish mission could be legitimately considered as endangering Jewish lives; that is no longer the case.
Once, Jewish religious competitors clearly seemed invincible; today, the competition for the human soul is open, with non- religious views actively participating. Simultaneously, rarely has there been a moment when the Jewish world view was so widely needed. There is a genuine desire to learn about Judaism. There are currently about 200,000 converts to Judaism in the United States. Thousands of people become Jewish every year, mostly because their interest was piqued by a romantic relationship with a Jewish partner. Many more people, no doubt, would be attracted to Judaism if they knew of its beliefs and its availability. Whereas once many interpreters of Jewish law saw the law as only restricting mission, today there can be discussion about whether the law allows Jews to go back and re-introduce the original covenantal obligation.
Despite the fact that conditions favor the revival of the Jewish mission to offer Judaism, American Jews seem to be unlikely candidates to lead that revival. This is so for various reasons such as their differing notions of what Judaism is or a perception that offering Judaism is an invasion of others' privacy.
It is surely true that Judaism is, to put it mildly, subject to various interpretations. Yet, there are central and unique beliefs that most Jews can accept. These include: (1) stressing deeds rather than the acceptance of a particular ideology; (2) the view that sin is not inherent, but that humans have moral freedom to choose between right and wrong; (3) core values, such as the centrality of the family, the view that learning is a form of worship, and that the center of worship is performing good deeds; (4) identification with Jewish history and with the Jewish people historically; and, of course, (5) the unity of God as opposed, for example, to trinitarianism or other interpretations of monotheism.
The justifiable concern over not intruding on others will help mandate acceptable activities (such as offering classes, books and other materials, media presentations, the use of advertisements, reading rooms, and so on) and arguable or unacceptable activities (such as going door-to-door soliciting converts, stopping people at airports, on the street, and in other public places, and so on).
The choice of re-introducing pro-conversionary activities needs to be placed alongside all the choices American Jews have. American Jews can continue as they have been doing and transform the definition of being Jewish from a spiritual definition to one that focuses on communal participation, or emotional attachments to Jewish humor, food, successful Jews, or a more generalized feeling of simply being Jewish, but it is just such a transformation that has led to widespread assimilation. American Jews can passively or actively assimilate, as many are doing, but there remains a large residue determined to maintain their distinctive Jewish identity. They can move to Israel, but most do not wish to. They can self-segregate, but most American Jews enjoy and wish to continue participating in American life. They can attempt to practice traditional Judaism and write-off those Jews who do assimilate, but such efforts will inevitably shrink American Jewry until Jews become the Amish of the 21st century.
Another choice remains. American Jewry can maintain an attachment to traditions and simultaneously reach out to offer Judaism, both to marginal Jews and to gentiles. Such efforts to teach others, coherent with Jewish obligations made at Sinai, evident in Jewish history, poised for return and increasingly needed in our own age, can revitalize American Jewry.
American Jews are ambivalent about their spiritual selves. A practical group, sired by ancestors brimming with a socialist faith and a desire to relieve themselves of their inherited religion, American Jews are often uncomfortable with spiritual talk. However, the act of offering even ambivalently-held Judaism will force American Jews to the intellectually valuable acts of confronting and defining their religious identities. The teachers will learn as much as the students.
This is not to say there are no dangers in such a welcoming effort. There is the possibility, which must be faced, that welcoming converts could exacerbate divisions within Judaism between those who live by Halakhah and those who do not. The reality is that most converts are not converted according to the Halakhic standards necessary to be regarded as Jews by many within the Halakhic community. However, because all Jews recognize the possibility of legitimate conversion to Judaism, the issues involve who is doing the converting and the requirements for conversion rather than the existential act of converting itself. As such, and because the arguments are internal to the community and not dependent on the views of any external force, there remains hope that, on legitimate Halakhic grounds, some means can be found to overcome such divisions. Seeing welcoming as coherent with Jewish tradition is a useful start to an honest search for a solution to this problem. It is important to note, however, that if welcoming converts is seen as a Jewish obligation, the fact that it leads to difficulties is not a sufficient reason to cease welcoming efforts. Those obligatory efforts, embedded in Jewish thought and practiced in Jewish history, need to be revived not just because they are obligatory but also because they are practical. Instead of the embers of American Judaism dying out, it is possible to re-kindle them, to make them shine, so that the Jewish people can resume their rightful historic role as a light unto the nations.
Reprinted with permission from Judaism, vol. 43, no. 3 (Summer, 1994). Copyright 1994, American Jewish Congress.