Opening the Gates of Judaism

By Motti Inbari
Wednesday, February 20, 2013

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.

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