Attitudes Toward Proselytes
At times, Jews
have embraced large numbers of converts, but hostile relations with Gentile
neighbors often led to suspicion of proselytes as well.
By Valerie S. Thaler
In the United
States, there are about 185-200,000 individuals who have converted to Judaism,
with approximately 3,600 people converting each year. "Introduction to
Judaism" classes flourish around the United States in Reform and
Conservative synagogues, and some congregations count large numbers of proselytes
among their members. All of this data suggests that, today, much of the
American Jewish community is particularly welcoming to Jews-by-choice.
This survey of the
contemporary scene begs the question: How did Jews of other eras treat the new
Jews within their midst? This article attempts to outline the conclusions scholars
have reached on this sensitive subject.
In the biblical era,
the notion of a full religious conversion as we know it today did not yet
exist. Joining the Israelite population meant following a specific set of
communal practices without necessarily adopting Israelite ritual laws. Central
to this process was a commitment to monotheism, the factor which most set
pagans apart from Hebrews. Those Gentiles who were members of Israelite society
were known as gerim (strangers or foreigners), and the Bible repeatedly
emphasizes the obligation to welcome such people.
In addition, after
the Sinaitic revelation, the prophets enjoined the Israelites to uphold Jewish
ritual and moral teachings, and to expose the problems inherent in paganism. However,
this message is not to be confused with actively seeking converts.
Jews have never
believed that one had to be Jewish to achieve salvation. Jewish tradition holds
that a special covenant between God and Noah established moral precepts for
non-Jews (the Noahide Laws). If Gentiles observed these commandments
(refraining from murder, theft, and idolatry, among others things), they would
receive a portion in the World to Come. Jews in biblical times were open to
prospective proselytes, but they did not see it as their mission to convert
The Second Temple Period
Between 323 B.C.E.
and 70 C.E. (the year the Second Temple was destroyed), many individuals
converted to Judaism. The vast majority of these proselytes made the decision
to become Jewish on their own. Judaism's belief in one God was particularly
appealing, as was the tenor of the Hebrew liturgy. Still other proselytes fell
in love with Jewish partners and wished to be of the same faith.
We lack direct
evidence of how Jews of the Second Temple era received their new
co-religionists, but the high number of proselytes in this period suggests a
welcoming attitude. The opposite was the case for the small number of Gentiles
who were forcibly converted to Judaism (a measure that has traditionally been
rejected in Judaism). The first example of forced conversion known to us was
the High Priest John Hyrcanus's conversion of the Edomites in 125 B.C.E. During
his reign, Hyrcanus conquered the Samaritans and the Edomites, and gave
them the option of converting to Judaism or being exiled from Judea.
In the Talmudic era
(about 200-800 C.E.), formal rituals were established to welcome proselytes
into the Jewish religion, suggesting that conversion to Judaism was still a
relatively widespread phenomenon. The Hebrew word ger was now understood to refer to "one who had converted to
Judaism" instead of a "stranger" or "foreigner."
toward proselytes were mixed, although on the whole, positive. The most famous
negative statement in the Talmud about converts was made by Rabbi Helbo, who
believed proselytes were "as troublesome as a sore." Most sages
appear to have disagreed with Helbo, however, and tried to list specific
historical circumstances which led him to this conclusion. Most prominent among
these was the fact that the proselyte and his new Jewish community often
suffered punishment from Christian leaders following a conversion.
Toward the close of
the Talmudic period, Jews began to feel increasingly ambivalent about the
proselytes. In addition, anti-Semitic authorities prohibited Jews from
accepting any new converts and punished them if they attempted to do so.
The Middle Ages
toward converts also appears in the literature of the medieval period. On the
one hand, the Tosafists (talmudic scholars who lived in France during the 12th
to 14th centuries) declared that Jewish law requires full acceptance of
proselytes. They felt distinctly uncomfortable with Rabbi Helbo's understanding
of converts, and offered a number of interpretations of his statement to lessen
the severity of its impact.
On the other hand,
the Zohar (the classic work
of kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism) strikes a different chord. The Zohar
emphasizes the superior position of the born Jew in relation to the proselyte.
This theme probably reflects the extent to which Jews felt persecuted and,
consequently, entirely separate from the Gentile majority.
Even among Jews in
early America, attitudes toward converts were not always welcoming. The
Sephardic community (Jews of Spanish descent) that immigrated in the 18thcentury
clung to a perspective on proselytes established in late seventeenth-century
England. It was considered a crime in England to deny Christianity's role as
the true religion. To embrace converts to Judaism was virtually against the
law. Those Jews who established the first American congregations treated
outsiders with suspicion. Many new synagogues explicitly forbade assisting
someone in conversion to Judaism.
The pendulum began
to shift in the 19th century with the rise of Reform Judaism. Classical Reform
rabbis in the U.S. viewed modern Jews as a "light unto the nations,"
restoring the universalistic vision of the Jewish religion. Following the legal
emancipation of European Jews and their higher level of integration into
Gentile society, Reformers considered it part of their mission to educate
others on the precepts of ethical monotheism (for them, the essence of
Leaders such as
Rabbi Emil Hirsch tried to shed Judaism of its negative attitude toward
outsiders. It was possible, Hirsch believed, to open the doors to proselytes
without sacrificing Judaism's distinctiveness from other religions.
Nonetheless, practice seldom followed theory, and few Reform congregations in
late 19th-century America proved to be especially welcoming to proselytes.
The Contemporary Scene
In the 1960s,
conversion became a prominent feature in American Jewish life. At least part of
the impetus for this trend was the decade's embrace of ethnic distinctiveness.
Another factor encouraging conversion to Judaism may have been American Jews'
high degree of comfort in American society following World War II.
by choice" are in large part accepted by American Jewry. Most Jews
consider them a welcome addition to a community struggling to ensure its own
survival in future generations. Yet even as they might fully accept proselytes
as co-religionists, American Jews often feel that Jews-by-choice cannot fully
share the bond of Jewish ethnicity, peoplehood, or history--at least not
immediately. The contemporary situation is especially complex in Israel, where
only conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis are regarded as legitimate.
converts in Jewish history have been anything but consistent or unidimensional.
Throughout the centuries, Jewish professionals and laypeople have heatedly
debated the "right approach" to proselytes.
works were consulted for this article: Lawrence Epstein, Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook (Jason
Aronson, Inc., 1994), The Theory
and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), andReadings on Conversion to Judaism(Jason Aronson, Inc., 1995);
Dana Evan Kaplan, "Conversion to Judaism: A Historical
(1999): 259-74; National Jewish Population Survey, 1990.
Valerie S. Thaler is a Ph.D. student in the
Judaic Studies Program at Yale University, where she concentrates on
20th-century American Jewish history. She is beginning dissertation research on
American Jewish identity in the 1950s. An alumna of the Wexner Graduate
Fellowship, Valerie received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Jewish Education
from Brandeis University, and has a B.A. in American Studies from Yale.