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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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).

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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.