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.

Rabbinic Times

In the Talmudic era (about 200-800 C.E.), formal rituals were established to welcome proselytes into the Jewish religion, suggesting that conversion to Judaism was still a relatively widespread phenomenon. The Hebrew word ger was now understood to refer to "one who had converted to Judaism" instead of a "stranger" or "foreigner."

Rabbis' attitudes toward proselytes were mixed, although on the whole, positive. The most famous negative statement in the Talmud about converts was made by Rabbi Helbo, who believed proselytes were "as troublesome as a sore." Most sages appear to have disagreed with Helbo, however, and tried to list specific historical circumstances which led him to this conclusion. Most prominent among these was the fact that the proselyte and his new Jewish community often suffered punishment from Christian leaders following a conversion.

Toward the close of the Talmudic period, Jews began to feel increasingly ambivalent about the proselytes. In addition, anti-Semitic authorities prohibited Jews from accepting any new converts and punished them if they attempted to do so. 

The Middle Ages

Jewish ambivalence toward converts also appears in the literature of the medieval period. On the one hand, the Tosafists (talmudic scholars who lived in France during the 12th to 14th centuries) declared that Jewish law requires full acceptance of proselytes. They felt distinctly uncomfortable with Rabbi Helbo's understanding of converts, and offered a number of interpretations of his statement to lessen the severity of its impact.

On the other hand, the Zohar (the classic work of kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism) strikes a different chord. The Zohar emphasizes the superior position of the born Jew in relation to the proselyte. This theme probably reflects the extent to which Jews felt persecuted and, consequently, entirely separate from the Gentile majority.

Modern America

Even among Jews in early America, attitudes toward converts were not always welcoming. The Sephardic community (Jews of Spanish descent) that immigrated in the 18thcentury clung to a perspective on proselytes established in late seventeenth-century England. It was considered a crime in England to deny Christianity's role as the true religion. To embrace converts to Judaism was virtually against the law. Those Jews who established the first American congregations treated outsiders with suspicion. Many new synagogues explicitly forbade assisting someone in conversion to Judaism.

The pendulum began to shift in the 19th century with the rise of Reform Judaism. Classical Reform rabbis in the U.S. viewed modern Jews as a "light unto the nations," restoring the universalistic vision of the Jewish religion. Following the legal emancipation of European Jews and their higher level of integration into Gentile society, Reformers considered it part of their mission to educate others on the precepts of ethical monotheism (for them, the essence of Judaism).

Leaders such as Rabbi Emil Hirsch tried to shed Judaism of its negative attitude toward outsiders. It was possible, Hirsch believed, to open the doors to proselytes without sacrificing Judaism's distinctiveness from other religions. Nonetheless, practice seldom followed theory, and few Reform congregations in late 19th-century America proved to be especially welcoming to proselytes.

The Contemporary Scene

In the 1960s, conversion became a prominent feature in American Jewish life. At least part of the impetus for this trend was the decade's embrace of ethnic distinctiveness. Another factor encouraging conversion to Judaism may have been American Jews' high degree of comfort in American society following World War II.

Today's "Jews by choice" are in large part accepted by American Jewry. Most Jews consider them a welcome addition to a community struggling to ensure its own survival in future generations. Some Jewish-born spouses of a convert renew their interest in Judaism in light of the enthusiasm and depth their spouse brings to their religion. Yet even as they might fully accept proselytes as co-religionists, American Jews often feel that Jews-by-choice cannot fully share the bond of Jewish ethnicity, peoplehood, or history--at least not immediately. The contemporary situation is especially complex in Israel, where only conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis are regarded as legitimate.

Attitudes toward converts in Jewish history have been anything but consistent or unidimensional. Throughout the centuries, Jewish professionals and laypeople have heatedly debated the "right approach" to proselytes.

The following works were consulted for this article: Lawrence Epstein, Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook (Jason Aronson, Inc., 1994), The Theory and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), andReadings on Conversion to Judaism(Jason Aronson, Inc., 1995); Dana Evan Kaplan, "Conversion to Judaism: A Historical Perspective,"Judaism 48.3 (1999): 259-74; National Jewish Population Survey, 1990.

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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.