Opening the Gates of Judaism
The high rates of intermarriage among people who have been raised as Reform or Conservative Jews are well known. Less well known, but statistically demonstrable, is the decline in the number of American Jews who continue to belong to non-Orthodox denominations. In a recent essay on Jewish Ideas Daily, Andrew Apostolou warned that intermarriage threatens to bring about the demographic collapse of the Reform and Conservative movements.
While Apostolou himself did not propose a solution to the problem he identified, many other people in the Jewish community have launched projects designed to promote Jewish education and outreach in order to keep the younger generations of Jews involved and engaged. Unfortunately, these “inside the box” efforts have met with only limited success. I think that it is therefore time to think “outside the box.” I want to make an argument for opening the gates of Judaism to enable mass conversion. With the demographic and spiritual decline among “biological” Jews in America, the most promising solution for keeping Judaism alive lies with the acceptance of converts. They are the future of American Jewry.
Experienced observers of non-Orthodox congregations in the United States today know that converts are assuming major roles in their congregations. I myself am familiar with many converts who have become the most dedicated members of the congregation. They are often among the few who bother to come to services. Their children fill the ranks of emptying Sunday school classes. They volunteer to serve on committees. Generally speaking, they are very engaged.
It is widely assumed that spousal demand is the reason for most conversions to Judaism in this country. But from what I have seen, this is not the case. In most non-Orthodox congregations, non-Jewish members of interfaith couples can belong to the community without converting, and their children will receive the same treatment as others who have the right “biological” origin. Converts become Jews because they want to: because they couldn’t find a spiritual home elsewhere. This is why they care. One should be very wary of misjudging them.
There are, of course, good grounds for arguing that Judaism is opposed to proselytizing. One can cite, for instance, the talmudic statement from tractate Kiddushin, “Converts are as hard on Israel as a tumor,” and one can point to a centuries-long history of discouraging conversion. However, there is also abundant evidence of the conversion of entire nations to Judaism in central Asia, North Africa, and Yemen. Alongside Jewish communities in the ancient world there were “Judaizing” communities that accepted the monotheistic ideas of Judaism without fully converting to it.
In late antiquity, Jews and Christians competed for the same pool of people, but when Christianity took the lead and became the official religion of the Roman Empire, conversion to Judaism became illegal and dangerous. In the Muslim world as well, conversion to Judaism was against the law. The rabbinical restrictions on conversion are a response to these prohibitions, not a reflection of the essential nature of Judaism. Today, in the United States, where society views religion as a personal matter and changing one’s religion and becoming Jewish is an acceptable act, these restrictions are no longer relevant.
Not very long ago, in the late 1970s, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the longtime president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, made the case for encouraging the conversion of non-Jews. Although he was mostly concerned with the partners in mixed marriages, he also considered America’s masses of “unchurched” people to be fair game. At the time, there was a lot of positive response to his proposals, but it amounted in the end to little more than passive approval. I believe it is time to move to a more active phase.
We may already be on the brink of such a phase in Israel. Intermarriage is rare there, but the Jewish population’s lower birth rate than that of the surrounding population has made Jews a steadily diminishing proportion of the people living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Until fairly recently, immigration has helped to shore up the Jewish population. But there is no realistic prospect of immigration’s continuing at comparable rates in the years to come. The most recent mass immigration, from the former Soviet Union, has in fact brought to Israel hundreds of thousands of people who are related to Jews but who are not Jewish, either halakhically or biologically. The Orthodox establishment in Israel is facing growing pressure to accept a more flexible approach to mass conversions, and some prominent religious Zionist rabbis, including Chaim Drukman and Yoel Bin-Nun, have begun to respond to this pressure. Rabbi David Stav, the leading candidate for the Ashkenazi chief rabbi in the elections that will take place in a few months, has declared that he intends to solve 70 to 80 percent of the problem in “creative” ways, whatever they may be. Meanwhile, private rabbinical courts are converting more and more Israelis outside the framework of the chief rabbinate.
The situation is, of course, more complicated in the United States. How, we must ask, would the Christian community react to a major Jewish outreach campaign? Would it lead to more anti-Semitism? Can Judaism allow itself to be compared with other proselytizing religions like evangelical Christianity, Mormonism, and the Hare Krishna movement? How would the Israeli religious establishment react? These and many other questions must be addressed before taking any action on the proposal I have broached. Now, I believe, is the time for us to do so.
Motti Inbari is an assistant professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. His most recent book is Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Israeli Territorial Compromises.
your home is in Israel.
Read the article on the cover. This is not just about Reform and Conservative Jews. Orthodoxy is in the same boat. The only difference is that their hermetically sealed neighborhoods let in less information.
However, the real problem for most Reform and Conservative congregations is that, unlike the Orthodox, they have no attractive and functional community to offer a potential convert as an alternative to isolation and anomie, which is the fate of most secular Americans. People who have a spiritual interest in life are not going to be attracted to moribund congregations that have driven away their committed members to Orthodoxy and their uncommitted members to the shopping malls for decades now.
In other words, for the liberal movements - especially the Conservatives who preserved more of the spirit of traditional Judaism - to attract converts they would first have to display the depth and communal life that would keep more of their own members inhouse.
The main point to be recognized here, of course, is that the liberal movements over the past 60 years when they were dominant, have produced a mass of secular Jews who exhibit a level of spiritual hollowness and shallowness that serves as a warning of how hollow and shallow liberal Judaism turned out to be in America. Unless it changes itself to be less hollow and shallow, why would anyone of intellectual or spiritual depth want to belong to its dying synagogues? Especially now, when revitalized Orthodox synagogues are everywhere in America, including in places that one would never assume (eg, Chabad of northwest Arkansas, Eugene Oregon, etc), people have that option as an alternative.
Reform and Conservative had their chance when the traditionalists were down and out, and they didn't produce much of lasting value. It's probably too late for them, except a small Conservadox wing that would serve as a satellite to modern Orthodoxy. That's really all that exists today in Teaneck, NJ, which used to be a bastion of liberal Judaism. Teaneck is the model of the future.
Jews in the USA, are 50% from europeans converted People to Judaism from Julius Caesar times to the late High middle Age....and mostly a "Concentration" of european Genes. (I am pure polish frummer Yidden child and gran,d child and have 99,6% strict European genes.....(at 23 and Me.com)
I promoted a Civilization-Cultural Judaism 55 years ago...a few years after my bar Mitzvah and while studying Tanach Guemara and Dinim and Pirke Aboth etc etc once a week, on Oneg Shabbat...)
It is coming...!!! Now..I am Happy to have seen it coming before my death...The way remains hard against our Catholic-like Dogmatist Jewish Clerics called rabbis... who pretend to BE THE JUDAISM as they are the Contrary of that "Hermeneutical Constant Progressive Work which near doesn't need a belief in anything else than the DEFINITION OF NON IDOLATRY... (I shall not use the name of Gd who is useless IN FACT. Abstraction of Deity is the base nobody in the world, invented and kept in Mind like Jews did.
More than 9 millions US Citizen claim they are "Jewish" but the tragedy JTA is talking about isn't the vanishing of "Jews" who "Feel" Jewish but that THEIR congregations and Synagogues are emptying drastically...and consequently, the Money running in...! Religion as such, has no future...A Kulturkampf is on the contrary the way to save Humanity.
The top story on that page is "International thief who stole Dali drawing arrensted". So I have no idea what point you were trying to make.
And while there are converts from the heart among the intermarried, most intermarriage converts are seal-the-deal types.
Proselytize? We don't need to. Welcome, teach and embrace - a good idea that still often eludes the Jewish community.
Our different branches, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, add to our appeal. I work with rabbis & congregations of all types and find that each attracts individuals who respond to their view of Jewish tradition.
Drew Barrymore has expressed an interest in converting to Judaism now that she has found so much to like about her new Jewish husband's family. Why not a public appeal to her and all those who have chosen to marry Jews to embrace their spouse's traditions and unify their families?
From the time of Ezra, maybe, but not from the time of the Exodus.
From an authenic Jewish (Torah) perspective there is no shame at all in not being Jewish. On the contrary. A non-Jew who keeps the 7 laws of Noah is considered like the Kohen Gadol (High Priest).
What is the point of leaving a noble religious life as a fully observant non-Jew (observing the 7 laws of Noah) to become by choice(!!) a non-observant Jew?
All others are stubborn conservatives condemned to vanish with the History of mental evolution; or at least, remain some bizarre future tiny Reservation of Foolish psychotic truth believers.
I have no doubt, but then my work takes me into the Heartland, especially Texas and throughout the Southwest. The answer is that many would embrace Judaism, and not, as is frequently the case -- and you are right to point it out -- in order to "seal the deal." My guess is that the Jewish attitudes reflected here are articulated by people close to Jewish communal life either as members or else as professionals. I'm neither, though I was brought up in an observant (Conservative) home and a fervently Zionist one. I am guessing that the insularity I am feeling in many of the responses here (and many are insightful despite that)are from Jews from parts of America that have large Jewish populations, especially the coasts. Religion has retained its power mostly in the country's Heartland, where many Christians, Evangelicals and those close to Evangelical, have an intense attraction to all things Jewish -- and NOT, let me repeat that, and NOT in order to convert Jews. The comments made about that are mostly simplistic and paranoid. There is, in fact, a huge market out there and we have a magnificent product. Our problem is that we have no marketing department, and I fear that some of the reason is an unkind and ugly stance of superiority towards the "stupid goyim." Let's remember that the Targum, the equivalent of the Guttenburg Bible, was the work of Onkeles, a Greek monk that converted to Judaism, translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek and gave the Hebrew Bible to the classical world.
Jews do not have to go door to door "witnessing" about Judaism. Simply getting into the news more about desiring and welcoming converts would be a huge leap forward. There are a lot of people out there who are unknowingly Jewish in spirit.
apprehension about whether or not to openly invite people into Judaism.
I hope that time will gradually change this and Judaism will be able to open the gates to sincere converts and continue long into the future.
Your observation is spot on that religious life is very strong and highly influential in the broader culture in the heartland of the US, which is not the case in the Northeast. Liberal Jews in the northeast have amazingly ignorant and terribly out-of-date stereotypes of Christian views of Judaism in the Bible Belt. I once listened to a harangue from an older woman in her 70's who assured me that they were anti-Semites, in spite of their strong support for Israel, because 50 years when her husband served in the military in Texas that is the way they were.
Would she compare the attitudes of any other group of people to what they were 50 years ago? No, of course not. Many liberal Jews in the Northeast have dinosaur views of religious life in America and the believing Christian population, specifically. This is partly because they live in a region where believing Protestants are close to extinct and practicing Jews are the sort of people who live in different neighborhoods than one's own. This is the Pauline Kael problem. Nixon won the 1968 election but she didn't know of anyone who voted for him in the fashionable districts of Manhattan. How could it possibly happen then?
Provinciality comes in all types. The most provincial people in the world are those in the chic districts of the New York area, who can't imagine why everyone doesn't think the way they do.
I agree so much.
Ghetto-like ways of thinking are the way most Humans are using their brain...WE feel Insular in such a world, for sure...
Hopefully, it will take some time until Messiah is coming...? So we will have the leisure to our Tikun Olam...
About it I have an old galician Witz: a Wiener Kaiser's engineer is on a stay for Great Works supervising for a few weeks (let's say in Brody) he is informed there is a wonderful tailor the Master of the trousers...He orders one and comes back two weeks later but the pair of trousers isn't yet ready.
He says he left to Vienna and doesn't know when he comes back and leaves the undone trousers.
When he comes back a year later, he go for his trousers. It is ready and unbelievable wonderful.
Nice! , says the engineer.. but he adds: 0ne year for trousers when The Good Lord made the World in 6 days!!!!????
Yes Sir, answers the Jewish tailor, but please, look at my trousers.... and look at the World.......!!!!
It is a capital mistake to allow yourself to be defined by your enemies. -- The Ghetto Jew.
Being a member of an enclosed tribal culture may be most comforting, but to demand everyone adhere to that judgment is not wise. To be a Jew is to be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Obviously, not necessarily in the flesh. Obviously, necessarily in the spirit. If being born of a Jewish woman is necessary to be jewish, why do not the insist-ers emphisize Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel (and the two concubines) rather than the Patriarchs?
Proselytizing is good, for it makes anchors in the culture. It may be the way to repair the world that has been chosen by G-d.
Those who insist on only one way -- their way -- may be pious, but are they truly faithful?
There is only one way to save US Jewry - Aliyah. Make Aliyah or disappear or live in a ghetto. That's your only choices. There is no future for you.
Comments are closed for this article.
2. The "kiruv" industry is already incredibly distasteful. The way to attract converts is by building welcoming, attractive, desirable communities that others will want to join. If Judaism were to attract converts, even masses of them, that way, it would be beautiful. Inbari seems to suggest going door to door, actively pursuing the unaffiliated. He works at a university - perhaps he can inquire at Hillel about the organizations that proselytize AMONG UNAFFILIATED JEWS and see how successful they are, and how much emotional wreckage they leave in their wake. Inbari wants to put "kiruv" on steriods.
3. Proselytization generally results in syncretism, as proselytes inevitably retain aspects of their original culture. Individuals can assimilate into another community, but when an entire community converts, it ends up with a modified and syncretic version of the adopted religion. Given the current Christian fascination with Judaism in America, it would not take but a few generations for the lines between Judaism and Christianity to be completely effaced.
4. Accepting patrilineality was the last big attempt to resolve this issue. How did that work out?
5. There is no such thing as an a priori, top-down "decision" by "Judaism" to adopt a different attitude on conversion. If it's a compelling idea, some rabbi will eventually do it (in practice, not by writing a position paper), and others either will or will not follow suit.