Try It, You'll Like It: Should Jews Proselytize?

Liberal Jews who support outreach claim that active proselytism was the Jewish tradition until the Roman Empire outlawed conversion to Judaism under penalty of death.

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Reprinted with permission from the July/August 2002 issue of Moment Magazine.

Christopher and Marie O'Malley are sitting at home one evening when the doorbell rings. Chris opens the door to find a well-dressed couple on his steps, smiling politely.

 "Excuse me, are you Jewish?" one of them asks.

 "No," Chris responds.

 "Have you ever considered Judaism for your spiritual needs?" the interloper continues, reaching into her satchel for a bunch of brochures, which she hands over to the bewildered homeowner. "We're holding a class tomorrow night. Perhaps you'd like to stop by and see what we have to offer."

 This would never happen, right? One thing that has always set Jews apart from Christians and Muslims, something we point to with pride, is that Jews don't push their religion on other people. Jews don't tell non-Jews that they're going to hell, that they'll be denied salvation if they don't accept the halachic yoke. Jews don't proselytize.

But we sure used to. Most Jews today may not be aware of it, but Judaism has a long history of not only welcoming, but encouraging gentiles to become Jewish. From the day Abraham picked up a flint and performed his own circumcision, thus becoming Judaism's first convert, ancient Israelites openly spread their teachings among the nations they encountered.

Jewish proselytizing was so successful, it's estimated that by the first century C.E. fully 10 percent of the Roman Empire was Jewish, close to 8 million people.

"It's an incredible number, and it means that the Jewish community was not meant to be this tiny, minuscule group," notes Rabbi Lawrence Epstein, founder and president of the Conversion to Judaism Resource Center in Commack, N.Y.

 Jews only stopped open proselytism because of pressure from Christian and then Muslim rulers, beginning in 407 C.E. when the Roman Empire outlawed conversion to Judaism under penalty of death. But the internal, theological impetus to be "a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6) persisted through the centuries, albeit undercover, advancing and retreating along with Jewish fortunes in the Diaspora.

 Now in 21st-century America, where Jews are a privileged minority openly practicing their religion, powerful in every area of political, social, and economic life, some rabbis and Jewish leaders are suggesting that it's time to cast off the prohibition forced upon us by anti-Semites and return to our original universalistic mission. Judaism is a great religion, with much to offer today's society. Why shouldn't we make it more available to outsiders who might wish to join the tribe?

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Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is a special correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, based in Northern California and covers American Jewish issues, with a special focus on Jewish identity and affiliation. She was previously the associate editor of a weekly newspaper in Monterey, California and a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Post, Moment magazine, and other Jewish publications.