Conversion History: Secularization of the Jewish Mission

While the early Reform movement presented selected universal, liberal moral teachings as the core of Judaism, the contemporary Reform movement is rediscovering many particularistic Jewish practices.

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

As Judaism entered the modern world, its negative attitude toward conversion continued [despite emancipation].

Anti-Semitism and Jewish Secularization Maintain Negative Attitude to Conversion

Secularization and social and legal emancipation were modernity's chief characteristics for Jews. Many laws against accepting converts were rescinded. The end of legal persecution did not eradicate gentile hatred of the Jews; modernity could make discrimination illegal, but it could not make prejudice disappear. Modernist Christian anti-Semites saw Judaism as an overly legalistic archaism and thus unattractive. Modernist racial anti-Semites, superceding theological anti-Semites, saw the Jews asÖ biologically inferior and so unworthy to join.

Within Judaism, many modernist Jews rejected all religion, so Jewish universalism was not an option for them; they could not offer to others what they did not believe in themselves. It seemed as though Jewish universalism would not reappear in Jewish life.

Reform Jews Revive the Idea of a Jewish Mission

A universalist notion, though, did reappear in a new guise in the 19th century as an idea propounded by the Reform movement. The Reform thinkers, operating in a post-Enlightenment world, asserted that Judaism's attractiveness would be enhanced if it embraced universally accepted moral values as its core and presented itself to the world in a fashion that would be familiar and therefore comfortable to non-Jews. The particularist elements of Judaism were de-emphasized. Jewish nationalism was declared at odds with Jews being full citizens in the countries in which they lived. Jewish law was declared no longer binding. Selected universal moral teachings of Judaism, most specifically as embodied in the Prophets, were advanced as the heart and soul of Judaism.

This was, of course, liberal universalism and not Jewish universalism. A universalism more grounded in its Jewish roots, and more politically sophisticated about the elements needed for any such mission's success, would have maintained attachment to Jewish law even if re-interpreting it, embraced Jewish nationalism, and kept the particularist ceremonies. In advancing their view, though, the Reform thinkers reintroduced into theological discourse the very concept of universalism in Jewish life, however conceived.

Similarly, in suggesting that Judaism contained the moral values that all people could embrace, these reformers were led to another great historical contribution: the re-introduction of the concept of historical mission in Jewish life. As the early Reform leader Samuel Holdheim put it, "It is the messianic task of Israel to make the pure knowledge of God and the pure law of morality of Judaism the common possession and blessing of all the peoples of the earth."

In a sense, Reform Jewish thinkers secularized the messianic interpretations of the original Jewish mission. These thinkers, in rejecting chosenness, replaced it with the notion that each people on earth has a mission and the Jew's mission was a religious one: to advance the social conditions of humanity by making people adhere to the ideals of classical prophetic Judaism. Reform Jews saw their new Judaism as fully capable of being acceptable to the entire world while simultaneously saving that world.

Reform Notion of Universalism Lacks Jewish Character

The problem was that, based on a liberal rather than a Jewish universalism, the mission idea was not so much to bring gentiles to traditional Judaism as it was to bring gentiles to an already-accepted ethical system stipulated as normative Judaism. Of course, even liberal gentiles friendly to Jews already accepted those moral principles and were already willing to fight for the same social goals as Reform Jews. These liberal gentiles saw no need to call themselves by the name "Jewish." Ironically, because they were not offered the particularist elements of Judaism along with the universal, they saw no substantive distinction between Judaism and their own religion, and therefore did not even see an alternative to consider.

The misinterpretation of Jewish universalism and mission by the early reformers was important because their misinterpretations became the standard modern definitions of those concepts. This led to significant mistakes, such as the identification of "universalism" in Jewish life with liberal universalism rather than with Jewish universalism, the identification of "mission" with the reformist notion rather than the Jewish universalist notion, and the inaccurate identification of Jewish nationalism as antithetical to Jewish universalism.

Despite these misinterpretations, the Reform movement had made an extraordinary contribution to the reclamation of Jewish universalism.

Conversion by Reform Movement Successful in America

The Reform movement made its greatest headway in the new Golden Land. There had always been conversion to Judaism in the United States. Many of the early converts were black slaves, some of whose descendants formed Jewish congregations. American Jewry was changed after the 1848 revolution in Germany failed, bringing religiously liberal refugees to the United States. Some of the children of these refugees married Jews and wished to convert. Their fascinating stories were carefully traced in several Jewish periodicals such as The Occident (1843-1869) and The American Israelite (founded in 1854).

The most famous of early American converts was Warder Cresson (1798-1860), who was put on trial and charged with insanity after he converted to Judaism. Eventually, he was cleared and moved to the land of Israel.

Various American Reform rabbis emphasized conversion. Rabbi David Einhorn (1809-1879) so regularly admitted converts to his congregation, Har Sinai in Baltimore, that his prayer book included a specific service to accept converts. Einhorn fervently believed that Judaism would become universally accepted.

Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), who founded the central institutions of Reform Judaism in the United States, noted with satisfaction the increase in converts. In 1849 he wrote, "The mission of Israel was and still is to promulgate the sacred truths to all nations on earth; to diffuse the bright light that first shone on Sinai's sanctified summit all over the world."

On November 3-6, 1869, Reform rabbis held a conference in Philadelphia. They reaffirmed that the purpose of their exile was "to lead the nations to the true knowledge and worship of God."

At the 1885 Pittsburgh Conference, the Reform rabbis recognized the Bible as the "consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as the priest of the One God."

Other Reform leaders who supported the mission concept included Kaufmann Kohler, Samuel Schulman, and Leo Baeck (1873-1956), who wrote in his famous book The Essence of Judaism that "the Jewish religion is intended to become the religion of the whole world... Every presupposition and every aim of Judaism is directed towards the conversion of the world to itself."

It is important to note that over time the Reform movement has engaged in significant self-correction. It now sees Zionism as central to the Jewish enterprise. It has led the way in welcoming and integrating converts. If it is still to be faulted, that fault lies in the continuing fact that its universalism still does not sufficiently recognize the particularist Jewish elements that make up Jewish universalism; Reform's remains still more a liberal than a Jewish universalism, but may be moving in the direction of reforming itself on this issue as well. As Reform Judaism rediscovers the values of particularistic practices and grafts them onto the unique but modified insights of historical Reform, Jewish universalism will become an attractive ideology for the Reform movement.

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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.