Jewish Attitudes Toward Proselytes

At times, Jews have embraced large numbers of converts, but hostile relations with Gentile neighbors often led to suspicion of proselytes as well.?

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In the United States, there are about 185-200,000 individuals who have converted to Judaism, with approximately 3,600 people converting each year. "Introduction to Judaism" classes flourish around the United States in Reform and Conservative synagogues, and some congregations count large numbers of proselytes among their members. All of this data suggests that, today, much of the American Jewish community is particularly welcoming to Jews-by-choice.

 

This survey of the contemporary scene begs the question: How did Jews of other eras treat the new Jews within their midst? This article attempts to outline the conclusions scholars have reached on this sensitive subject.

Biblical Times

In the biblical era, the notion of a full religious conversion as we know it today did not yet exist. Joining the Israelite population meant following a specific set of communal practices without necessarily adopting Israelite ritual laws. Central to this process was a commitment to monotheism, the factor which most set pagans apart from Hebrews. Those Gentiles who were members of Israelite society were known as gerim (strangers or foreigners), and the Bible repeatedly emphasizes the obligation to welcome such people.

In addition, after the Sinaitic revelation, the prophets enjoined the Israelites to uphold Jewish ritual and moral teachings, and to expose the problems inherent in paganism. However, this message is not to be confused with actively seeking converts.

Jews have never believed that one had to be Jewish to achieve salvation. Jewish tradition holds that a special covenant between God and Noah established moral precepts for non-Jews (the Noahide Laws). If Gentiles observed these commandments (refraining from murder, theft, and idolatry, among others things), they would receive a portion in the World to Come. Jews in biblical times were open to prospective proselytes, but they did not see it as their mission to convert Gentiles.

The Second Temple Period

Between 323 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. (the year the Second Temple was destroyed), many individuals converted to Judaism. The vast majority of these proselytes made the decision to become Jewish on their own. Judaism's belief in one God was particularly appealing, as was the tenor of the Hebrew liturgy. Still other proselytes fell in love with Jewish partners and wished to be of the same faith.

We lack direct evidence of how Jews of the Second Temple era received their new co-religionists, but the high number of proselytes in this period suggests a welcoming attitude. The opposite was the case for the small number of Gentiles who were forcibly converted to Judaism (a measure that has traditionally been rejected in Judaism). The first example of forced conversion known to us was the High Priest John Hyrcanus's conversion of the Edomites in 125 B.C.E. During his reign, Hyrcanus conquered the Samaritans and the Edomites, and gave them the option of converting to Judaism or being exiled from Judea.

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Valerie S. Thaler

Valerie S. Thaler is a Ph.D. student in the Judaic Studies Program at Yale, where she concentrates on 20th-century American Jewish history. She is beginning dissertation research on American Jewish identity in the 1950s. An alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Valerie received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Jewish Education from Brandeis, and has her B.A. in American Studies from Yale.