Choosing Judaism: Judaism's Proselytizing Tradition
a conversation with Harold Schulweis

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, CA, is author of Judaism: Embracing the Seeker (2010, KTAV Publishing House).

RJ: You have described Abraham as the first Jew-by-choice.

Yes. Because Abraham was not born Jewish, his Jewish identity was not formed by genealogical descent but by moral assent, not stamped by the pedigree of his birth but by the purpose of his becoming a blessing to his people, as well as “to all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).

What does it mean “to be a blessing to all the families of the earth”?

It is the universal character of Judaism, evident from Abraham’s response when God announces His intention to punish the iniquity of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah by destroying them: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25).

This concern with conscience, the fair treatment of all peoples, including heathens, prepares the ground for the Jewish regard for the ger, the proselyte to Judaism.

How does concern for heathens lead to regard for proselytes?

Remember, the Israelites who wandered during the Exodus were once a group of enslaved heathen worshipers. The imaginative reliving of biting lashes, lacerating shackles, and denigration of these formerly disenfranchised outsiders forms the Jewish ethical rationale for protecting and caring for the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the alien. That is why so many of our prayers conclude with the refrain: “For you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”

How was the biblical “stranger” transfigured into the “proselyte”?

In the Bible, the Hebrew term ger refers to a “resident alien,” but ger later took on the meaning of “a proselyte” (from the Greek proselytos ). The talmudic sages (third century C.E.) stressed the equality of the native-born and the proselyte, citing Exodus 12:49, “One law shall be to him that is home born and to the ger, the sojourner among you,” as well as the teaching (from Mechilta Piska 15) that the proselyte was equal to the native-born Jew with respect to “all the commandments of the Torah.” Once the stranger has, by choice, become a member of the family, he/she is entitled to all its privileges (and burdens).

The rabbis also observed that the precept to love, protect, and not oppress the ger or stranger appears 36 times in the Torah, more often than any other biblical precept. The 12th-century philosopher and talmudist Moses Maimonides thus said: “Our parents are to be honored and obeyed; our prophets are to be heeded; but the proselyte we are bidden to love with a full force of our heart’s affection” (Mishneh Torah, Book I).

This suggests that Jews must have been actively proselytizing at the time.

Yes. According to the Jewish historian Salo Baron, in great part because of proselytizing, the number of Jews grew from 150,000 in 586 B.C.E. to eight million in the first century C.E.—at which time they constituted 10% of the Roman Empire! Jews were working very hard then to convert pagans; the Gospel of Matthew reports that Jewish proselytizers traveled over sea and land to make a single proselyte (23:15).

Why, then, did Jews stop proselytizing gentiles?

The cessation was imposed by Roman edicts, not rabbinic rulings. In the fourth century C.E., after the empire adopted Christianity as the state religion, Roman emperors made conversion to Judaism a criminal offense, punishable by death of both the proselytizing Jews and the convert. The code of the Roman Emperor Theodosius declared: Any person who “betakes himself to the nefarious sect of Judaism shall sustain with them the deserved punishment of death...” (Theodosius Code 116.8.1, August 13, 339). The Holy Roman Empire hoped to dismantle the Jewish mission to be “a light to the nations” and thus drive a universal faith into a parochial tribalism.

Yet now, when such edicts don’t exist and some Jews make outreach a call to action, other Jews still oppose such efforts to welcome gentiles to Judaism.

That is true. While many modern Jews, especially those from liberal Jewish movements, have embraced the outsider, most ultra-Orthodox Jews regard welcoming “the other” as akin to inviting the Trojan horse into closed gates of the city.

Ironically, ultra-Orthodox Jews recite three times daily the 13th benediction of the Amidah, in which God is praised and asked to extend Divine mercy to “the righteous and the pious, the leaders of the Jewish people, the scholars, the gerei tzedek [righteous proselytes], and towards us,” but in reality they exclude the proselyte from their blessings, as if the Roman laws still applied.

Those of us who have made outreach a call to action follow in the tradition of Abraham, who opened his tent to welcome three wayfaring strangers. Like him, we invite all spiritual seekers who hunger for community to join us at the table of Judaism. 

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The Politics of Conversion

Who is a Jew has again become one of the most contentious, divisive issues in Jewish life today.

For 2,000 years, Judaism has treated Jews-by-choice (converts) the same as Jews-by-birth, a treatment rooted in the talmudic teaching that “as soon as a convert emerges from the mikveh, she or he is Jewish for all purposes” (Yevamot 47b). Since its founding 62 years ago, Israel has always welcomed all Diaspora Jews as citizens in the world’s only Jewish state. A convert to Judaism under Israel’s Law of Return is eligible for Israeli citizenship like any other Jew who makes aliyah (immigrates to Israel).

That may change, however, if the Israeli Knesset passes the bill which MK David Rotem of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party introduced last summer. For the first time, this bill would consolidate authority de jureover all aspects of Jewish life in Israel into the hands of Israel’s increasingly hard-line chief rabbinate. Its passage could also result in the separation of the Jewish people into two opposing camps based on conversion criteria: the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and all other branches of Judaism (including the modern Orthodox). Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie warned that if this bill passes, it would be the first time that Israeli law would “make a distinction between born Jews and the converted, and that is contrary to the most basic values of Judaism.” It would also certainly imply that the Diaspora religious movements are not legitimate.

Underlying the fierce debate over this conversion bill is Israel’s fundamental purpose as a homeland for all Jews, which is why, last summer, hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide—many of them galvanized by the Reform Movement—sent letters to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imploring his government to block the proposed law. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, traveled to Jerusalem to join with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and many other groups, including the Conservative and Reconstructionist Movements and the Jewish Federations of North America, to lobby Knesset members to oppose the Rotem bill. As a result of this unprecedented collaborative effort, a vote on the bill was postponed until sometime this winter.

If a legislative solution cannot be found that acknowledges all expressions of Judaism as legitimate, world Jewry will again raise our voices to prevent a monumental tragedy for the Jewish people.