Conversion History: Orthodox and Conservative Understandings

Orthodoxy maintains a strict legal approach to conversion, while Conservative Judaism has responded pragmatically rather than ideologically.

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Reprinted with permission from The Theory and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.).

Stringent Approach to Conversion Prevails Among Orthodox

The Orthodox movement was split at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. One group permitted conversions of those who came for intermarriage and encouraged Jews to accept children of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers to convert to Judaism. This group consisted of such rabbis as Zvi Hirsch Kalishcher (also famous as a forerunner of Zionism), David Hoffmann, Marcus Horovitz, and the Imrei David, David Horowitz.

Another group of Orthodox rabbis was more stringent. The stringent view prevailed after the Second World War for a variety of reasons. Intermarriage had greatly increased, emphasizing to the stringent a continuing need for Jewish self-segregation so that Jews and gentiles could not meet and fall in love. Such self-segregation necessitated a decline in all interactions with Christians, including interactions that could lead to conversion to Judaism.

jewish mikvehAlso, the Conservative and Reform movements had continued to grow and promote policies that the Orthodox often found troubling. The Orthodox reaction against leniency in conversion can to some extent be seen as a reaction especially to the Reform movement. By being strict, the Orthodox presented themselves as refusing to have the same pro-conversionary views that were widely identified with the Reform movement. Indeed, more and more as [ultra-]Orthodoxy dismissed the religious legitimacy of the non-Orthodox, the moderating influences within halakhic [Jewish legal] discussions that once prevailed disappeared.

Orthodoxy has also engaged in self-correction. [Some camps within] Orthodoxy, once hostile to Zionism because the messiah had not arrived to lead Jews back to Zion, [are] now staunchly pro-Israel. But Orthodoxy has not fully overcome the traumas of Jewish history. It continues to believe Judaism must be kept apart from the non-Jewish world, privately following God's laws. Such a view, so vital to Jewish survival for so many centuries (making the reluctance to abandon it understandable), is not as useful for contemporary Jewish life. Orthodoxy continues to reject the universalist elements of Judaism, choosing instead to focus on the particularistic, especially the legal, aspects of Judaism.

Conservative Judaism Tries to Balance Particularism and Universalism

Conservative Jewry has had a continuous pro-Zionist stance and maintains a delicate balance between particularism and universalism within Jewish tradition. However, perhaps wary because the ideas of universalism and mission were reintroduced to the Jewish theological vocabulary by the Reform movement, Conservative Judaism has been reluctant to accept the missionary implications of Jewish universalism.

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Lawrence J. Epstein is the author of numerous books, including Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook and Readings on Conversion to Judaism.