Ask the Expert: Proselytism

Why don't Jews seek converts?

Question: Why don’t Jews proselytize like Christians and Muslims?
–Navid, Los Angeles

Answer: In order to give you a good answer, Navid, I want to first flip your question around. Why do Christians and Muslims, traditionally, proselytize? Because they believe that in order to achieve salvation—that is, to make it to heaven—you have to believe in the same things they believe in.

Judaism doesn’t operate in the same way. According to the Talmud, righteous gentiles have a place in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 105a). As a result, there’s less of an incentive for Jews to encourage conversion, and for non-Jews to join up. If someone who isn’t born a Jew is a good person, she’ll get to hang out in the Garden of Eden whether or not she ever gets a Hebrew name.

I think that’s really at the root of why Jews don’t proselytize, but there are a few other reasons that also figure in.

First of all, historically there’s been a significant connection between proselytizing and politics. New groups come to power and coerce the local people to join their religion. Among many other advantages, converting conquered lands to your religion makes them easier to govern. This accounts for much of the spread of Christianity and Islam.

Historically, Jews have not had this kind of power, though there is one known case in which Jews (as a ruling power) did in fact force gentiles to convert. This took place in the Maccabean era, around 168 BCE. A group called the Idumeans was forcibly converted by second generation Maccabees. However, in his book Galilee: History, Politics, People, Richard A. Horsley wrote that, “the Idumeans’ ‘conversion’ was not especially effective.” And it doesn’t appear that the policy of forced conversions was popular with other Jewish zealots of the time.

According to Rabbi Michael Myers, the Dean of the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, during Roman times, before Christianity, there was “a tremendous interaction between Romans and Jews and it’s estimated that there were thousands of converts from Romans to Jews.” This was probably more as a result of Jews having a high profile at the time, and less because they were actively trying to recruit converts, but it’s certainly possible that some proselytism was taking place.

In any event, when Paul showed up and began preaching Christianity, many of those who had been attracted to Judaism joined him. This caused the rabbis at the time to worry about whether converts’ commitments could be trusted, and at that point they began actively discouraging proselytizing.

It is interesting, though, that in recent years the Reform movement has been reaching out to non-Jews, particularly non-Jews who are married to Jews, and encouraging them to convert. In 2005, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, made converting the spouses of Jews a topic of his address at the Reform movement’s biennial convention.

So no, you’re not likely to find Jews knocking on your door offering to give you a copy of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and telling you about the joys of abstaining from eating shellfish. There are a lot of reasons Jews aren’t on a mission to save non-Jews. Now if we could just get the non-Jews to stop trying to save us…

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