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Notes from Limmud 2005

Is Proselytising Jewish?

Saul Singer (An editor and columnist for the Jerusalem Post)

[This transcript focuses on the talk, about the historical attitudes, not the interactive discussion on what the attitude towards conversion should be nowadays afterwards.]

How do you even start with this concept? There's no such concept of converting in the Bible!

In ancient times religion was associated with a particular place. In Judaism we think of ourselves as the descendants of the Patriarchs, and (pace [livejournal.com profile] rysmiel et al.)) you don't opt into a family. Either you're born into it, or you marry into it. In ancient times you could marry into Jewry. The prime example is Ruth... though even afterwards, she is called the Moabite.

Also the Patriarch Jacob: seventy people, all one family, went down into Egypt. But what of Abraham's converts? They were not really counted as full Jews as they don't turn up in this list. [Though I have heard they were the progenitors of the mixed multitude who left along with the Exodus, and were wiped out in a plague in the desert.]

So given this lack of textual basis, where does the rabbinic position come from? Some rabbis talk about converts as if they're a plague or sores; others are friendlier: e.g. the famous midrash about Hillel welcoming the would-be convert who wished to be taught the whole Torah whilst standing on one leg.

How you treat conversion as an issue says a lot about how you feel about Judaism and its place in the world. Genes (family, as above) versus way of life: anyone who's willing to adopt the laws can join. This is manifest even in the Israeli Declaration of Independence: the state is to be Jewish, but also a democracy. Can these be compatible? Yes, if with the right mindset. Even becoming part of the family: converts become sons/daughters of Abraham and Sarah.

Opponents to conversion have a variety of reasons. The rabbis of the Talmud talked about how they would not eat in the homes of עם הארץ—the masses—because they feared they would not be kosher. If even the Jews could not keep their own laws, how could anyone else be expected to do so?

Another reason for opposition to conversion was fear that proselytising would aggravate anti-Semitism. There is some justification for this: In 131 CE the Emperor Hadrian banned circumcision, at the start of the third century Septimius Severus outlawed conversion, and in 330 Constantine enacted the death penalty for converting a Christian slave. These laws (and other ones) would not exist, though, if there was not an interest in converting.

There were three times in history when the Jewish population grew enormously. One was during the pre-Mosaic Egyptian exile, when the population grew from seventy up to three million (allegedly—take with a grain of salt!) in two centuries. [Linguistic aside: the Etz Chayim chumash says that אלף should be regarded in the census information as constituting a small military unit (אלוף = "chieftain") rather than meaning "thousand", which makes the figure more realistic.]

The secondly period was from 200 BCE to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, when the Jewish population went from 150,000 (a low point) to an estimated one eighth of the Roman Empire: 8 million people (again, there are disputes about this: some say four million, some six). There is no dispute about this growth; what is disputed is whether this was due to proselytising. There is a lot of collateral evidence: the Book of Matthew complains that the Jew will go to the ends of the earth for a single convert.

[Hmm, but the evidence from molecular genetics shows (though admittedly the variation is almost as wide within groups as between groups in the studies I have heard of) that today's Jews are largely descended from a mix of peoples at the eastern end of the Mediterranean two thousand years ago. (I.e. not the entirety of the Roman Empire—but also not just the inhabitants of Israel three or more thousand years ago, nor (as the likes of Arthur Koestler would have had us believe) the Khazars (see below).)]

How much the growth in world Jewry is due to proselytising depends, also, on the definition of proselytising: perhaps the Jews of this period did not openly proselytise as the Christians did, but the synagogues were open: non-Jews could come in and learn about Judaism, and were welcomed if they wished to convert. [There is a famous instance cited in the Mishnah where Hillel once carried out a mass conversion to Judaism.] Also, Judaism came across positively compared to paganism.

There were also a lot of "G-d fearers"—non-Jews who kept some laws without going all the way and converting.

This period of rapid growth came to an end when the Temple was destroyed. The Jews went into exile, and lost all national autonomy. But the pro-conversion point of view remained very resilient through the dark times, as the above laws against conversion show.

There is a tension in the Jewish mind between conversion and survival. What replaced conversion was the belief that the Messiah would come and sort it all out. The whole point of view of being a light unto the nations was beaten out of us over the century, and the belief in conversion (the speaker argued) went with us. Survivalist reasons for not being pro-conversion, but, century after century, the embers remained.

For instance, the post-Mishnaic tractate גרים (Converts)—written in the middle of this period of persecution—put forth regulations for dealing with converts. It wasn't all heads down and concentrating on surviving: people were thinking about converts. Also, it was at this time that prayers for conversion included into the daily prayers. And in 720 the Khazar kingdom [or at least their nobles] converted to Judaism. Judah haLevi wrote The Kuzari about this in the year 1000, during another dark time. Trying to keep the ideal alive.

Abulafia (1240-91) went to Rome once, to try and convert Pope Nicholas III. He wanted to see the Pope on ערב ראש השנה (the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year). The Pope was not there, but in his summer residence. Hearing of Abulafia's plan, he ordered him burned at the stake. Abulafia was arrested—but he was not burned: the Pope had died overnight of an apoplectic stroke. Instead, he was jailed for 28 days, and then released.

Joseph Karo wrote in the שלחן ארוך [Shulchan Aruch, code of Jewish law] (1565) that the prospective convert is to be told that all idolatrous nations would perish and that Judaism would become the universal religion.

Today, many people think that Jews do not proselytise, and we are proud of that. But there are other, subliminal, ideas which go along with that: Elitism, for instance: the belief that bringing in other people would dilute us. This attitude is anachronistic: why should the convert be like the best of us and not like the rest of us? Our attitude to conversion is a relic of the mediaeval persecution. Such a protective attitude was helpful once, but is now harmful. And with a shrinking world Jewish community, this attitude may be suicidal.

Eliezer Berkowitz wrote: "One has to start with the smallest unit of... reality... such a unit is the nation." [Sorry, too fast for me to catch it all] Implies we need outreach.

Leo Baeck wrote: "The Jewish religion is intended to become the religion of the whole world. Every presupposition and every aim of Judaism is directed towards the conversion of the world to itself."

[To which last point my response is: *boggle*]


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