Is Judaism a Proselytizing Religion?

By Shlomo M. Brody
Friday, October 19, 2012

When Mitt Romney became the Republican Presidential candidate, some of the media attention focused on his experience as a Mormon missionary in France and asked, subtly or not so subtly, whether a member of a proselytizing religion could properly lead a pluralistic society.  In contrast, when Joseph Lieberman was nominated for Vice President in 2000, though many questions were asked about his Jewish observance, few suggested that his heritage would compromise his ability to respect the rights of other faiths.  After all, it was assumed, Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. 

But is that true?

Certainly when it comes to modern Judaism, all the acrid debates regarding conversion standards might lead an outsider to think that Judaism, apart from Orthodoxy, is actively missionizing.   For example, the Conservative movement’s 2005 policy statement "Al Ha-Derekh: On The Path," noting the growing numbers of intermarried couples in its synagogues, declares, "Conservative Judaism intends to reach out to intermarried couples and to potential converts . . . .  People will join us because of our sincere love of God, of Torah, of the Jewish people, of Israel, and of humanity."  This platform of conversion echoes the "outreach" strategy that raised eyebrows when it was launched by Rabbi Alexander Schindler in 1978 and adopted by his Reform movement in the 1990s.

But one must first define the amorphous term "proselytizing,"which in some circles is a "bad word."  Because of this cultural baggage and the complex, sometimes conflicting ways in which various traditions express their perspectives on the "other," historians of missionary movements argue vociferously over what constitutes proselytizing.  For present purposes, let us call it an eagerness to attract Gentile converts, including concerted institutional or individual efforts to draw in new members through a relatively easy conversion process.  Under this definition, one might indeed call the modern non-Orthodox initiatives a kind of missionizing, especially when added to independent "population growth" projects advocated by the late Gary Tobin and others.

Still, no one is sending Camp Ramah kids to Sub-Saharan Africa—or even the New York City subways—to encourage non-Jews to convert.   The primary intended targets of these contemporary non-Orthodox efforts are non-Jews already embedded within Jewish communities—non-Jewish spouses and children of intermarried families.  One might more properly call this "inreach," an attempt to keep intermarried Jews within the communal framework.  In the absence of such efforts, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, then head of the Union of Reform Judaism, wrote in 2006, "innumerable Jews who marry non-Jews would be denied any but the slimmest hope of a Jewish future."  The thrust of these activities does not seem to include missionizing to "unaffiliated Gentiles" who have no previous connection to the Jewish people.

Orthodoxy has its own version of the inreach-outreach dilemma.  Around the world, Orthodox rabbis debate the level of mitzvah observance that should be expected from non-Jewish spouses or fiancées (the consensus is a relatively high standard); yet the notion of non-Jewish spouses converting, and committing themselves to following Jewish law, is accepted today throughout the Orthodox community.  This is a departure from talmudic norms, which reject those who convert for the sake of marriage.  (The halakhic justification frequently cited for this rejection, albeit with some controversy, is that with the advent of civil marriage, Gentiles do not really need to convert in order to wed their beloveds.)

In Israel, there is a raucous debate within the rabbinate over what the conversion criteria should be for Israeli immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union, who have Jewish roots but are not halakhically Jewish.  Some Religious Zionists argue that conversion should be facilitated; otherwise, Israel will quickly see a sharp rise in intermarriages, which will threaten the Jewish character of the state.  Their opponents answer that we cannot accept Jews whose commitment to mitzvah observance is lackluster—especially if they seek to convert in order to gain the civic and social benefits of being a Jew, a motivation for conversion forbidden by the Talmud.

These debates highlight the general rule that Orthodox Judaism does not seek converts.  As Rabbi Michael Broyde has written, the Jewish tradition "absolutely prohibits proselytizing among Gentiles, in the sense of soliciting converts."  Indeed, it "creates barriers—whose exact heights are in some dispute—to conversion" and "views insincere conversions to Judaism as problematic."

Yet, did Judaism always reject active proselytizing?  Certainly one finds nothing in the Tanakh even remotely similar to the New Testament's admonition, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 28:19).  Among all the medieval sources interpreting the 613 biblical commandments, only two lesser-known works included accepting converts, and then only as a generic obligation on courts to accept those who genuinely want to join the Jewish people.  Even prophetic visions of the end of the days do not include calls for mass conversion; medieval scholars continued to debate the question of whether Gentiles would actually convert in the messianic era. 

The Book of Esther reports that following the defeat of Haman, many local Gentiles were mityahed because "the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them."  In the Jewish Publication Society translation, this term is rendered as "professed to be Jews," avoiding the issue of whether they actually converted, as Rashi claims, or merely took the Jews' side.  Many talmudic sages sounded weary of such socially motivated converts—as they were of the Egyptian erev rav ("mixed multitude") believed to have joined the Jewish Exodus, or the Gibeonites, whose presence amongst the Jewish people was merely tolerated after they tricked Joshua into making a peace treaty with them.

Josephus reports that the Idumeans and the Itureans, after their military defeat by Hasmonean kings, circumcised themselves and adopted Jewish practices.  Contemporary historians debate the question of whether this was a forced religious conversion or a largely voluntary political arrangement.  Either way, it didn't work out too well: It created great resentment and boomeranged once the vicious Herod, of Idumean descent, took the throne.  Besides, given the talmudic condemnation of many Hasmonean activities, it is hard to use their alleged proselytizing as precedent within rabbinic law.

In a central talmudic passage, some sages asserted that converts cannot be accepted in times of Jewish political supremacy—or in the messianic era (Yevamot 24b).  These are not the attitudes of a missionary religion.  Indeed, one sage, Rabbi Yitzhak, cursed those who engage in conversions: "Evil after evil comes upon those who receive proselytes . . . for Rabbi Helbo stated, proselytes are hurtful to Israel as a sore on the skin" (Yevamot 109b).

An opposing talmudic stream, however, embraced not only sincere converts, but also conversion as a whole, interpreting Genesis as teaching that "Abraham converted people, and gathered them under the wings of the Shekhinah [the Divine Presence]" (Sifre Deuteronomy 32).  Similar missionary attributes are attributed to other forefathers, as well as Jethro.  In another famous talmudic passage, Rabbi Eliezer declared, "God exiled the Jews amongst the nations in order that converts might join them" (Pesahim 87b).

Historians agree that there were different attitudes toward conversion in the talmudic period, but disagree regarding the historical record.  Historian Louis Feldman argues that Judaism took an "active approach" toward proselytizing during the Hellenic period, as shown by the dramatic increase in Jewish population at this time.  It is precisely because this Jewish approach continued into the 5th century, Feldman says, even after the Roman conquest and the ascent of Christianity, that Roman-Christian jurists felt the need to issue repeated bans on Jewish proselytism.   But Shaye Cohen contends that while the Judaism of late antiquity accepted converts, it never engaged in any outreach, especially institutional outreach.  Martin Goodman generally sides with Cohen, arguing that while some 3rd century rabbis, influenced by missionary Christianity, "began assuming the desirability of a mission to proselytize," this notion was never widely held or seriously implemented, especially following the Roman bans on proselytizing.

Understandably missing from this debate is the phenomenon of conversion of Gentile slaves to Judaism upon the completion of their servitude.  Throughout the centuries, Jews, alas, definitely owned non-Jewish (and sometimes Jewish) slaves.  Many talmudic sages argued that a Gentile slave purchased by a Jew must immerse in the mikveh and, if male, undergo circumcision in a partial conversion; when the servitude was done, conversion could be completed.  In line with the rule that conversion must be voluntary, a slave could reject this process; after 12 months of refusal, the slave would have to be sold.  But slaves that agreed to the conversion process were required to keep most commandments; and their Jewish owner was prohibited from selling them to Gentiles, since such a sale would preclude their full conversion. 

Because of economic pressures and restrictions on conversion, Jews sometimes bought slaves without converting them, a practice allowed by some talmudic sages.  Thus, it is difficult to argue that slavery was used to proselytize; the motivation for purchasing slaves was almost certainly socio-economic, not religious.  Yet many historians believe that released slaves became a regular source of new members of the Jewish community, even after the talmudic period.

Whatever occurred in antiquity, by medieval times there was no organized missionizing: Governments regularly banned conversion to, let alone proselytizing by, minority faiths like Judaism, which were only minimally tolerated.  Some medieval historians have argued that in response to Christian missionizing and polemical stances, individual Jews might have made ad hoc attempts to convert neighbors; but this was rare.  Indeed, by the 16th century, the political situation had deteriorated so badly in some places that Rabbi Shlomo Luria, citing the curse of Rabbi Yitzhak, declared that no courts should perform conversions, lest they endanger the Jewish community.

Secret conversions did continue to occur, as in the earlier medieval period.  The medieval Tosafists ("Supplementers") considered the possibility of accepting converts critical.  Attempting to harmonize the conflicting talmudic trends, they limited R. Yitzhak's curse to the practice of actively engaging in inducing people to convert, but not to accepting those who sought, on their own initiative, to join the Jewish people.

Despite the dangers, continued conversion to Judaism gave hope—and, one might say, witness—to medieval Jews that their beliefs remained binding and compelling.  One wonders whether they could have imagined a non-messianic era in which Jews would debate, as they do now, how aggressively to pursue converts.  Welcome to the free market of the 21st century. 

Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, writes the Ask the Rabbi column for the Jerusalem Post, and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post-High School Students.

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