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 Many laws against accepting converts were rescinded.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 as… 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."

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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.