Conversion History: Talmudic Period

Conversion waxes and wanes, based on the historical and national circumstances of the Jews.

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

One of the difficulties about considering conversion in the talmudic period was that the biblical terminology used to discuss the subject was redefined by the rabbis. For the rabbis, for instance, a ger [a "stranger" in the Bible] specifically meant a convert to Judaism. 

Categories of Gerim

The rabbis made a distinction between two types of gerim. A ger toshav, or settler convert, also called a ger ha-sha'ar (or proselyte of the gate, as in Exodus 20:10), was a resident alien given permission to live in land controlled by Jews if he or she did not worship other gods or engage in idolatry of any kind or blaspheme God. The ger toshav agreed in the presence of three scholars to follow these Jewish principles. In addition, a ger toshav had to observe the Noahide laws [seven laws considered binding on all humam beings, including prohibition of idolatry and murder]. The ger toshav did not have to perform work on the Sabbath, but was not required to join in worship or perform specifically Jewish religious commandments. Maimonides called them righteous gentiles. They were clearly not full converts to Judaism.

old stone jewish starThe second category of gerim was the ger tzedek, a righteous proselyte, one who converted for the sake of religious truth and not for any other motive. (Such a ger was also called a ger emet, a true proselyte, or a ger ben b'rit, a proselyte who is a child of the covenant.) These gerim didn't just follow the principles of Judaism, but also its rituals and practices. They are mentioned in the 13th blessing of the Amidah [the major prayer in Jewish liturgy].

Some people, the gerurim, converted to Judaism for nonreligious reasons such as marriage or a perceived economic or other advantage. Such proselytes (including, for example, the Gibeonites, who became Jewish by a trick to avoid destruction, and those who had been forcibly converted) were considered to be fully Jewish.

In addition to those who formally converted, there was another group mentioned in Psalms and by Josephus, among other places. This group, known as "God-fearers," frequently kept the Sabbath, and many believed in monotheism and prophetic ethics. They did not eat meat from a pig. However, they did not observe the other prescribed rituals of Judaism. They were not proselytes, just gentiles following many Jewish customs in a very wide variety of ways. The God-fearers, sometimes called semi- proselytes, included the magi of Persia, the Gymnosophists of India, and such well-known Greek thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, and many of the stoics.

Part of the problem with developing such categories is that, apart from those who formally converted, there were many ways with which gentiles identified with Judaism short of actually becoming Jewish. These ways have been defined by Shaye J. D. Cohen, and include:

    1.        admiring an aspect of Judaism or Jewish life;

    2.        acknowledging that the Jewish God is powerful;

    3.        receiving a benefit from Jews or being friendly with Jews;

    4.        practicing some or many Jewish rituals;

    5.        praising the Jewish God; and

    6.        joining the Jewish community.

Some of these led to Cohen's seventh category, actual conversion.

External Restrictions Bring a Decline in Proselytism

The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the defeat of Bar Kochba (135 CE) marked the end of Jewish sovereignty, or even national existence under occupation, for almost 2,000 years. The existence of Jewish life in the Diaspora, as it had during the Babylonian exile, propelled the importance of religious views. The Jews themselves still had a favorable attitude toward converts, and Judaism was still considered attractive by many, but various factors imperiled Jewish universalism's survival.

The external restrictions imposed on a stateless and militarily weak Jewish people by Christian and Muslim authorities were a major factor in the decline of proselytism. Converts, for instance, were persecuted by Domitian between 81-96 CE. The converts' property was confiscated, and they were sentenced to death or exile. In 131 CE, Hadrian prohibited circumcision and public instruction in Judaism. Five years later he added to the list of prohibitions the observance of the Sabbath and the public performance of any Jewish ritual.

In the year 200, the Emperor Severus promulgated laws forbidding heathens to embrace Judaism. In 325, Constantine reenacted Hadrian's law, forbidding Jews to convert slaves or engage in any proselytizing activity. In 330, Emperor Constantius decreed that Jews would forfeit any slaves converted to Judaism and the circumcision of a Christian slave carried a death penalty and the confiscation of property. Seven years later, Constantius passed a law confiscating all property of a Christian who converted to Judaism.

These and other early prohibitions greatly affected Jewish religious leaders. The rabbis who wrote and edited the Mishnah [an early rabbinic legal code] and the Gemara [a commentary on the Mishnah that, together with the Mishnah, makes up the Talmud], as well as other writings, had, as has been seen, generally favorable attitudes toward converts. Drawing on the prophetic implications that proselytism was, in effect, the Jewish mission, the rabbis saw conversion as affirming both the truth and the eventual triumph of Judaism.

Despite Difficulties, Conversion Continues

These conversions did not stop even after the loss of national sovereignty. In the second and third centuries, there continued to be a series of conversions, especially among the intellectuals. Both Raba and Rab Ashi, Babylonian scholars in the fourth century, vociferously advocated proselytism. It seems as though entire villages approached Rabbah ben Aboah to be converted, and the Talmud notes that Mahoza, a major Jewish community, had many proselytes. (Avodah Zarah 64a; Kiddushin 73a)

The post-Mishnaic minor tractate [of the Talmud] Gerim detailed a procedure for welcoming converts; provided regulations regarding circumcision, ritual baths, and sacrifices; defined the ger toshav; and reminded the Jews that they were to have a friendly attitude toward converts. M. Simon suggests that "the existence of Masseketh [Tractate] Gerim--a manual of the laws relating to converts--is in itself a substantiation" of a claim by George Foot Moore that all the persecutions did not prevent the Jews from persisting in vigorous missionary efforts.

With Rise of Christianity, Attitudes Change

Still, slowly, over time, the rabbinic attitude, and the Jewish peoples' attitude, changed. The rise of Christianity was one reason for the change. Christianity used the Jewish missionary zeal and methods, ultimately transforming the Jewish concept of conversion from an ideal into a requirement and transforming the means of effecting conversion from offering into intrusive missionary work. When such zeal was combined with a relaxation by Paul of existing conversionary obligations, especially circumcision, the Christians became very successful in attracting converts.

Indeed, many gentiles close to Judaism who had not formally converted chose instead to take the easier route and become Christians. The rabbis began to discourage would-be converts for fear that instead of becoming Jewish they would become Christian.

Another reason for the change was that the horrible defeats by the Romans had turned Jewish life inward, making it focus on religion and ritual observance rather than nationalism and militarism as a means of survival. The rabbis saw their mission increasingly as one of educating Jews about the Torah and making them follow religious laws. This mission, in brief, was one of survival; saving the world couldn't take place while the Jews first had to save themselves.

The rabbis were trapped and desperate. They had to preserve Judaism under the most trying circumstances but still felt the missionary obligation to welcome gentiles. The rabbis praised conversion, going so far as to put the praise in daily Jewish prayer. But fear of persecution and the need for self-preservation in the Diaspora was making the Jews a religious body segregated from the gentiles by both external legal authority and internal religious authority.

If seeking converts would endanger the very existence of the Jewish community, the Jewish leaders would take the prudential route of protecting the community. If the Godly mission was not to be allowed by contemporary history, rabbinic Judaism organized to protect and preserve the Jewish people for the day when that mission could be resumed.

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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.