Author Archives: Lawrence J. Epstein

About Lawrence J. Epstein

Lawrence J. Epstein is the author of numerous books, including Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook and Readings on Conversion to Judaism.

Conversion History: Talmudic Period

Reprinted with permission from The Theory and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.).

One of the difficulties about considering conversion in the talmudic period was that the biblical terminology used to discuss the subject was redefined by the rabbis. For the rabbis, for instance, a ger [a “stranger” in the Bible] specifically meant a convert to Judaism. 

Categories of Gerim

The rabbis made a distinction between two types of gerim. A ger toshav, or settler convert, also called a ger ha-sha’ar (or proselyte of the gate, as in Exodus 20:10), was a resident alien given permission to live in land controlled by Jews if he or she did not worship other gods or engage in idolatry of any kind or blaspheme God. The ger toshav agreed in the presence of three scholars to follow these Jewish principles. In addition, a ger toshav had to observe the Noahide laws [seven laws considered binding on all humam beings, including prohibition of idolatry and murder]. The ger toshav did not have to perform work on the Sabbath, but was not required to join in worship or perform specifically Jewish religious commandments. Maimonides called them righteous gentiles. They were clearly not full converts to Judaism.

The second category of gerim was the ger tzedek, a righteous proselyte, one who converted for the sake of religious truth and not for any other motive. (Such a ger was also called a ger emet, a true proselyte, or a ger ben b’rit, a proselyte who is a child of the covenant.) These gerim didn’t just follow the principles of Judaism, but also its rituals and practices. They are mentioned in the 13th blessing of the Amidah [the major prayer in Jewish liturgy].

Some people, the gerurim, converted to Judaism for nonreligious reasons such as marriage or a perceived economic or other advantage. Such proselytes (including, for example, the Gibeonites, who became Jewish by a trick to avoid destruction, and those who had been forcibly converted) were considered to be fully Jewish.

Conversion History: Ancient Period

Reprinted with permission from The Theory and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.).

The Biblical Israelites had no concept of religious conversion because the notion of a religion as separate from a nationality was incoherent. The words “Jews” and “Judaism” did not exist. Abraham was called an ivri, a Hebrew, and his descendants were known either as Hebrews, Israelites (the children of Israel), or Judeans. These words are nationalistic terms that also imply the worship of the God of Abraham. 

Earliest Form of “Conversion” was Assimilation

While there were no “conversions,” many non-Israelites joined the Israelite community, often through marriage or acceptance of the beliefs and practices of the community. In this sense, assimilation is the earliest form of conversion. Abraham and his descendants absorbed many pagans and servants into their group, greatly increasing the size of the Israelite people.

After their journey into Egypt, their Exodus with the “mixed multitude” [non-Israelites who joined the nation as it left Egypt], and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Israelites returned to the land of Israel. Once again, they increased their numbers from among non-Israelite peoples, both those who lived in Canaan (such as the Hittites, Hivvites, Girgashites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and others) and those who entered the land.

Some of these foreigners, the nokhri, remained apart from Israelite society, apart from the ezrach, the native Israelite. Some nokhri, though, wished to join the Israelites. Such people were given a new status, as gerim (Hebrew for “strangers”). A ger would be taken to the holy mountain and there render the necessary sacrifices.

Gerim often assimilated into the Israelite people by intermarriage. For instance, pagan women who married Jewish men automatically adopted their clan, and thus their religious views. The marriages that resulted were seen as positive because pagans would turn from idolatry to God through such marriages.

Conversion History: Late 20th Century

Reprinted with permission from The Theory and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.).

Despite various pro-conversionary views, none of the three major religious groups in the United States had embarked on a conversionary program. There were relatively few conversions and only a few, small conversionary efforts. 

Such conversionary efforts were at first undertaken by small organizations favoring conversion, groups that began to arise after the Holocaust and the birth of Israel. (These groups included the United Israel World Union, the Jewish Information Society, and the National Jewish Information Service, among others). Individual rabbis and authors praised conversion, but conversion was not an idea that was very valued in the Jewish community or very acceptable to any of its leaders.

By the late 1970s, however, much had changed in American Jewish life. The overt anti-Semitism in America had radically declined. There was a widespread perception among gentiles that Judaism was a religion that emphasized family values, education, a tolerance toward those with differing religious views, personal morality, the social good, and a spiritual outlook on life. Jews were seen as model American citizens–and marriage partners.

Changing Attitudes Toward Conversion Among Jews

The changing attitude toward Jews by gentiles and the continuing cultural assimilation by Jews into gentile society led to a rapid increase in intermarriage. This increase caused alarm within the Jewish community but also resulted in an unexpected development. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, between 30 and 40 percent of those marriage partners not born Jewish were converting to Judaism. The fear of intermarriage and the unexpected rise in voluntary conversions began to change attitudes.

mikvehAt first, the rise in conversions that followed the rapid increase in intermarriages over the last 30 years was simply a surprise to many Jews. It had always been an unspoken assumption, both among Jewish leaders and in the general Jewish community, that intermarriage inevitably meant the loss of the Jewish partner to Jewish life. Jews had concluded that a principal reason for intermarriage was to escape the purported burdens of a Jewish identity. They were unsure about what to make of the many Jews who intermarried but wished to remain Jewish, not to mention those born Christian who chose to become Jews.

Conversion History: Middle Ages

Reprinted with permission from The Theory and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.).

The political status of Jews in the Middle Ages, essentially subordinate to the Christian and Muslim authorities under whom they lived, combined with the continuing illegality of conversion to Judaism to prevent many conversions. 

There were a wide variety of legal prohibitions that supplemented those imposed earlier. Between 395 and 408, the Byzantine Emperor Arcadius reenacted Constantius’ decrees prohibiting proselytizing by the Jews; in 538 and 548, the Third and Fourth Councils of Orleans forbade Jews to proselytize; between 717 and 720, Omar II forbade Jews to seek converts among Muslims; and in 740, Egbert, the Archbishop of York, in England, forbade Christians to attend Jewish festivals. Under such circumstances, conversions continued on an individual basis, with mass conversions occurring only during those rare moments when the political status of the Jews was improved.

Conversion of Khazars Encourages Sense of Jewish Mission

conversion poolConversions occurred more frequently in the areas that were contiguous to Christian or Muslim rule, suggesting that conversion was, in part at least, a political strategy to resist the religious intrusion of Christianity or Islam. The two most famous cases of this are the conversion of Yusuf Dhu Nuwas, the King of Himyar (in what is currently Yemen) in the early part of the sixth century and the conversion of the Khazar royal house in the 720s.

Dhu Nuwas, attempting to achieve freedom from Christian Abyssinian rule, could not get the assistance he sought from Persia, and his Jewish kingdom did not survive. The Khazars were a Turkic people who lived between the Black and Caspian Seas in Southern Russia. Legend has it that King Bulan held a debate among speakers for Judaism, Islam, and Christianity and chose on the basis of what he heard to accept Judaism. It is more probable, however, that Jewish traders, travelers, and refugees introduced Judaism to the kingdom. Khazaria eventually fell, and some of its Jews went to Eastern Europe.

Conversion History: Secularization of the Jewish Mission

Reprinted with permission from The Theory and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.).

As Judaism entered the modern world, its negative attitude toward conversion continued [despite emancipation].

Anti-Semitism and Jewish Secularization Maintain Negative Attitude to Conversion

Secularization and social and legal emancipation were modernity’s chief characteristics for Jews. Many laws against accepting converts were rescinded. The end of legal persecution did not eradicate gentile hatred of the Jews; modernity could make discrimination illegal, but it could not make prejudice disappear. Modernist Christian anti-Semites saw Judaism as an overly legalistic archaism and thus unattractive. Modernist racial anti-Semites, superceding theological anti-Semites, saw the Jews as… biologically inferior and so unworthy to join.

Within Judaism, many modernist Jews rejected all religion, so Jewish universalism was not an option for them; they could not offer to others what they did not believe in themselves. It seemed as though Jewish universalism would not reappear in Jewish life.

Reform Jews Revive the Idea of a Jewish Mission

A universalist notion, though, did reappear in a new guise in the 19th century as an idea propounded by the Reform movement. The Reform thinkers, operating in a post-Enlightenment world, asserted that Judaism’s attractiveness would be enhanced if it embraced universally accepted moral values as its core and presented itself to the world in a fashion that would be familiar and therefore comfortable to non-Jews. The particularist elements of Judaism were de-emphasized. Jewish nationalism was declared at odds with Jews being full citizens in the countries in which they lived. Jewish law was declared no longer binding. Selected universal moral teachings of Judaism, most specifically as embodied in the Prophets, were advanced as the heart and soul of Judaism.

This was, of course, liberal universalism and not Jewish universalism. A universalism more grounded in its Jewish roots, and more politically sophisticated about the elements needed for any such mission’s success, would have maintained attachment to Jewish law even if re-interpreting it, embraced Jewish nationalism, and kept the particularist ceremonies. In advancing their view, though, the Reform thinkers reintroduced into theological discourse the very concept of universalism in Jewish life, however conceived.

Similarly, in suggesting that Judaism contained the moral values that all people could embrace, these reformers were led to another great historical contribution: the re-introduction of the concept of historical mission in Jewish life. As the early Reform leader Samuel Holdheim put it, "It is the messianic task of Israel to make the pure knowledge of God and the pure law of morality of Judaism the common possession and blessing of all the peoples of the earth."

In a sense, Reform Jewish thinkers secularized the messianic interpretations of the original Jewish mission. These thinkers, in rejecting chosenness, replaced it with the notion that each people on earth has a mission and the Jew’s mission was a religious one: to advance the social conditions of humanity by making people adhere to the ideals of classical prophetic Judaism. Reform Jews saw their new Judaism as fully capable of being acceptable to the entire world while simultaneously saving that world.

Reform Notion of Universalism Lacks Jewish Character

The problem was that, based on a liberal rather than a Jewish universalism, the mission idea was not so much to bring gentiles to traditional Judaism as it was to bring gentiles to an already-accepted ethical system stipulated as normative Judaism. Of course, even liberal gentiles friendly to Jews already accepted those moral principles and were already willing to fight for the same social goals as Reform Jews. These liberal gentiles saw no need to call themselves by the name "Jewish." Ironically, because they were not offered the particularist elements of Judaism along with the universal, they saw no substantive distinction between Judaism and their own religion, and therefore did not even see an alternative to consider.

The misinterpretation of Jewish universalism and mission by the early reformers was important because their misinterpretations became the standard modern definitions of those concepts. This led to significant mistakes, such as the identification of "universalism" in Jewish life with liberal universalism rather than with Jewish universalism, the identification of "mission" with the reformist notion rather than the Jewish universalist notion, and the inaccurate identification of Jewish nationalism as antithetical to Jewish universalism.

Despite these misinterpretations, the Reform movement had made an extraordinary contribution to the reclamation of Jewish universalism.

Conversion by Reform Movement Successful in America

The Reform movement made its greatest headway in the new Golden Land. There had always been conversion to Judaism in the United States. Many of the early converts were black slaves, some of whose descendants formed Jewish congregations. American Jewry was changed after the 1848 revolution in Germany failed, bringing religiously liberal refugees to the United States. Some of the children of these refugees married Jews and wished to convert. Their fascinating stories were carefully traced in several Jewish periodicals such as The Occident (1843-1869) and The American Israelite (founded in 1854).

The most famous of early American converts was Warder Cresson (1798-1860), who was put on trial and charged with insanity after he converted to Judaism. Eventually, he was cleared and moved to the land of Israel.

Various American Reform rabbis emphasized conversion. Rabbi David Einhorn (1809-1879) so regularly admitted converts to his congregation, Har Sinai in Baltimore, that his prayer book included a specific service to accept converts. Einhorn fervently believed that Judaism would become universally accepted.

Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), who founded the central institutions of Reform Judaism in the United States, noted with satisfaction the increase in converts. In 1849 he wrote, "The mission of Israel was and still is to promulgate the sacred truths to all nations on earth; to diffuse the bright light that first shone on Sinai’s sanctified summit all over the world."

On November 3-6, 1869, Reform rabbis held a conference in Philadelphia. They reaffirmed that the purpose of their exile was "to lead the nations to the true knowledge and worship of God."

At the 1885 Pittsburgh Conference, the Reform rabbis recognized the Bible as the "consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as the priest of the One God."

Other Reform leaders who supported the mission concept included Kaufmann Kohler, Samuel Schulman, and Leo Baeck (1873-1956), who wrote in his famous book The Essence of Judaism that "the Jewish religion is intended to become the religion of the whole world… Every presupposition and every aim of Judaism is directed towards the conversion of the world to itself."

It is important to note that over time the Reform movement has engaged in significant self-correction. It now sees Zionism as central to the Jewish enterprise. It has led the way in welcoming and integrating converts. If it is still to be faulted, that fault lies in the continuing fact that its universalism still does not sufficiently recognize the particularist Jewish elements that make up Jewish universalism; Reform’s remains still more a liberal than a Jewish universalism, but may be moving in the direction of reforming itself on this issue as well. As Reform Judaism rediscovers the values of particularistic practices and grafts them onto the unique but modified insights of historical Reform, Jewish universalism will become an attractive ideology for the Reform movement.

Conversion History: Orthodox and Conservative Understandings

Reprinted with permission from The Theory and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.).

Stringent Approach to Conversion Prevails Among Orthodox

The Orthodox movement was split at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. One group permitted conversions of those who came for intermarriage and encouraged Jews to accept children of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers to convert to Judaism. This group consisted of such rabbis as Zvi Hirsch Kalishcher (also famous as a forerunner of Zionism), David Hoffmann, Marcus Horovitz, and the Imrei David, David Horowitz.

Another group of Orthodox rabbis was more stringent. The stringent view prevailed after the Second World War for a variety of reasons. Intermarriage had greatly increased, emphasizing to the stringent a continuing need for Jewish self-segregation so that Jews and gentiles could not meet and fall in love. Such self-segregation necessitated a decline in all interactions with Christians, including interactions that could lead to conversion to Judaism.

jewish mikvehAlso, the Conservative and Reform movements had continued to grow and promote policies that the Orthodox often found troubling. The Orthodox reaction against leniency in conversion can to some extent be seen as a reaction especially to the Reform movement. By being strict, the Orthodox presented themselves as refusing to have the same pro-conversionary views that were widely identified with the Reform movement. Indeed, more and more as [ultra-]Orthodoxy dismissed the religious legitimacy of the non-Orthodox, the moderating influences within halakhic [Jewish legal] discussions that once prevailed disappeared.

Orthodoxy has also engaged in self-correction. [Some camps within] Orthodoxy, once hostile to Zionism because the messiah had not arrived to lead Jews back to Zion, [are] now staunchly pro-Israel. But Orthodoxy has not fully overcome the traumas of Jewish history. It continues to believe Judaism must be kept apart from the non-Jewish world, privately following God’s laws. Such a view, so vital to Jewish survival for so many centuries (making the reluctance to abandon it understandable), is not as useful for contemporary Jewish life. Orthodoxy continues to reject the universalist elements of Judaism, choosing instead to focus on the particularistic, especially the legal, aspects of Judaism.

Converting Infants and Children

In the following article, the author omits mention of Reconstructionist Judaism, but in this matter, the movement, like Reform Judaism, accepts the notion of patrilineal descent. Reprinted with permission from www.convert.org.

Parents may want to consider converting their infants or children to Judaism for a variety of reasons. Some Jewish parents are intermarried, and the gentile spouse does not plan to become Jewish, but both parents agree that the single religion of Judaism will be in the child’s best interest. Perhaps either a gentile parent in an intermarriage or a couple made up of two gentile parents decide to convert to Judaism, but their children were born before the conversion. Perhaps a Jewish couple adopts a gentile child. 

converting infantsIn all these cases, conversion to Judaism can be seen as a desirable option for the infants and minor children. (A minor child in Jewish law means the child is under age 12 for a female and under age 13 for a male.)

When Must a Child Be Converted?

In the case of intermarriage, the child of a Jewish woman and her gentile male spouse is universally recognized as Jewish, so that the conversion of the infant or child is unnecessary. A more delicate and difficult situation arises when the infant or child is born to a Jewish father and gentile mother. The Orthodox and Conservative movements do not recognize such a child as legally Jewish, so that, in such cases, Orthodox and Conservative parents need to have their child legally converted to Judaism.

Under the Reform movement’s patrilineality principle, the child of a Jewish father and gentile mother is presumed Jewish if the child is raised exclusively in Judaism and engages exclusively in public Jewish acts. The children, then, are legally Jewish. However, some of these Reform parents may voluntarily choose to have their children converted for various reasons, such as wider acceptance of the child’s Jewishness by the non-Reform Jewish community.

Jewish parents in all movements need to convert adopted gentile minors for the minors to be considered Jewish. The adoption itself, or even the raising of the children as Jewish, does not make the child Jewish.

Considering Conversion

Reprinted with permission from www.convert.org/.

Conversion to Judaism means accepting the Jewish faith and becoming part of the Jewish people. Judaism welcomes sincere converts. In fact, Abraham and Sarah, the founders of the Jewish people, were not born Jewish. Throughout the ages, untold numbers of people have converted to Judaism.mikvah conversion

Still at the Thinking Stage

If you are considering becoming Jewish too, here are some suggestions for you as you explore Judaism a step at a time.

Consider why you are thinking about conversion. People choose to become Jewish for many different reasons. Some came to Judaism after a long spiritual search. Many people who eventually convert had their interest sparked because of a romantic relationship with someone Jewish. Among the reasons most given by people who do convert are that

    1.        Judaism has sensible religious beliefs.

    2.        Becoming Jewish allows the convert to share the faith of the partner.

    3.        Becoming Jewish makes the family religiously united.

    4.        Becoming Jewish will make it easier for children by giving them a clear religious identity.

Think about your own reasons. Remember, conversion must be your own free choice, not done because of pressure, but out of a genuine desire to embrace Judaism.

Learn as much as you can about Judaism. Some reading suggestions are included in the bibliography on conversion. Go to lectures, take introductory courses on Judaism that are offered by many colleges and Jewish congregations, and talk to some Jewish friends. Remember that Judaism has an important ethnic component. You are joining a people, not just a religion, and so need to learn about different aspects of Jewish culture and about Israel [and the Holocaust].

See if Judaism’s basic beliefs and practices make sense to you. Remember, though, that Judaism is a faith of good deeds [and other ritual observances], not forced creeds. There is more concern in Judaism that you act morally than that you have specific beliefs [at least among liberal Jews]. All Jews share a passion to make the world a better place. It is difficult to provide a brief summary of basic Judaism. To get you started, though, here are some general Jewish beliefs that are widely held among Jews: