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    Should we be seeking converts?

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in Gesher, the magazine of the Council of Christians and Jews (Victoria).

    ritualWorld ecology is rightly concerned about endangered species. In human ecology, Jews are also an endangered species. In Israel this may not always be so obvious, but in global perspective it is one of our most serious problems. Whatever statistical methodology one adopts, our numbers are less than they were prior to the Holocaust, and they do not seem to be growing.

    The solution is to try to gain some Jews. An increase in Jewish numbers by means of the entry of outsiders could come in two ways, already known from the time of Abraham. There are outsiders who find God on their own, illustrated by the midrashic story of Abraham gazing at the sky and deducing that it is not the heavenly bodies which are God, but the force that is behind them; and there are outsiders who are brought to God by others (Rashi’s example is Abraham’s outreach to the men and Sarah’s to the women).

    There is actually a third way, that of Jews themselves coming back: insiders reaffirming their identity and re-entering Judaism. The earliest example is Moses, the Jew on the fringe, finding his brethren. In this phenomenon we see the symbolic origins of the Ba’al T’shuvah movement which has become so significant in our time.

    But it is not so much the Jew coming back which is our particular subject today, but the outsider coming in on their own initiative or responding to a conversionist outreach.

    In Biblical times there were two categories: the ger toshav, the “resident alien” or partial convert, living Jewish-style, and the ger tzedek, the full convert, called by Isaiah 56:6, “one who joins himself to God”. The full convert is deemed by the sages to be retracing the steps of Ruth: “Where you go, I will go; where you dwell, I will dwell; your people will be my people, your God will be my God; where you die, I will die and there will I be buried; only death will part you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).

    To Maimonides, the convert re-enacts Sinai by undertaking circumcision if a male (the Sinai law was, “uncircumcised males shall not eat (the Pesach offering)”); immersion (“sanctify yourselves today and tomorrow”); bringing a sacrifice (a rule now suspended); and accepting the yoke of the Torah (“we shall do and we shall listen”) (Maimonides, Issurei Bi’ah 13:1-4).

    The ger tzedek/ger toshav dichotomy had its parallels in late Second Temple times, which knew both full proselytes and “God-fearers”. This latter phrase from the Hallel Psalms is found in Num. R. 8:2, Mechilta Mishpatim 18, Avot d’Rabbi Natan, version A, 36 and version B, 18; cf. the New Testament, Acts 13:16, 26 etc. “God-fearers”, according to Joseph Klausner, “accepted Judaism as a great and beautiful ideal but did not become complete Jews” (Klausner, From Jesus to Paul, ch. 3).

    There were times of active Jewish proselytism. According to some estimates, ten per cent of the Roman Empire was Jewish. There were up to eight million Jews altogether then, and these must have included significant numbers of full proselytes. The New Testament makes the scathing comment, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you compass sea and land to make one proselyte” (Matt. 13:15). Why were they “hypocrites”? Because “you make him twice the child of hell as yourselves”.

    Klausner takes the reference to militant proselytising seriously, whereas Salo Baron (“Social and Religious History of the Jews”, vol. 1, p.173) sees it as an exaggeration though he accepts that there were individual propagandists such as merchants and migrants (how ironic it is that before long the Christians themselves were compassing sea and land in their coercive proselytising of Jews!)

    Josephus (Against Apion, II:39) reports that “the masses have long since shown a keen desire to adopt our religious observances”, and his comment is corroborated by Greek and Latin authors.

    Why did Judaism appeal to outsiders? Salo Baron suggests (pages 173-6) that the Jewish faith offered spirituality, rationality and morality at a time of philosophical restlessness, a stable way of life at a time of world change. There were also socio-economic factors such as solidarity and charity, and though Judaism was convinced it had the truth, it also stood for theological broadmindedness and universalism.

    The movement abated as the result of Roman policies and, when the daughter faith gained political power, of Christian pressure. Jewish thinking was not too reluctant to adjust to the new circumstances. Despite rabbinic dicta such as “one receives a proselyte with open arms so as to bring him under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Lev.R. 2:9), Jews had long been concerned about converts who lapsed (Gitt. 45b, Kidd. 17b, A.Z. 64a); some even said that proselytes were like a sappachat or boil (Yev. 47b, 109b; Kidd. 70b; Nidd. 30b) – a play on the words of Isaiah (14:1), who said v’nis’p’chu: “They shall cleave like a sore to the House of Israel”. More positively, Judaism now engaged in internal rationalisation, arguing that conversion was unnecessary and it was enough for “the pious of the nations” to accept the seven Noachide laws (Maimonides, Melachim 8:10). Nonetheless conversion was never entirely barred, and the sages said that one may not “close the door before proselytes who come” (Mechilta, Mishpatim 18).

    Converts continued to enter Judaism, sometimes in groups (the most famous are the Khazars). But the fragility of Jewish life often led Jews (e.g. in Cromwellian England) to decline to accept proselytes for fear of upsetting the host society, and the rabbis developed halachic reservations that sometimes became a paranoia.

    Yet from about the 1950s there have been voices advocating a Jewish outreach to the world, presenting Judaism as an idea whose time has come. There are both internal and external reasons. Internally, there is a problem with Jewish numbers: we have an inadequate critical mass. With more Jews our survival could be less at risk. More Jews could mean a better image of Judaism and Israel. Externally, we would be doing the world a favour. The world is mostly pagan, far from the prophetic ideal of a “world as full of knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9). Individuals would gain from what Matthew Arnold called “Hebraic strictness of conscience”. The world would benefit from Jewish concepts such as pragmatic holiness, social cohesion and messianic destiny. Why should Judaism not continue to add to human wisdom?

    Yes, there are reasons against Jewish proselytising. Not every gentile is ready for a full commitment to Judaism. Elie Wiesel argues that our task is not to Judaise the world but to make it more human. If we have a numbers problem, there is another way – a higher Jewish birth-rate. There are practical problems such as how to initiate and administer a proselytising campaign. There are halachic issues such as whether active proselytising is permissible, though the sages said, “The Holy One, blessed be He, exiled Israel among the nations in order to increase their numbers with the addition of proselytes” (Pes. 87b).

    I personally support a Jewish outreach to the world, but as part of a five-pronged agenda:

    • Those who are ready for full commitment should be welcomed and integrated.
    • Those who are not ready for full commitment should be appreciated as “Jewish-style gentiles”.
    • The Jewish voice should be more dynamically heard in the market-place of ideas.
    • The Jews who are able to have more children should be encouraged to do so.
    • The Jews who have drifted should be lovingly welcomed back home.

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