Conversion History: Talmudic Period

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

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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.

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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.