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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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.