Should Jews proselytize? Should anyone?

Proselytizing, seeking converts, sharing the “good news”, or evangelizing. While different communities favor different terms, it’s all pretty much the … Continued

Proselytizing, seeking converts, sharing the “good news”, or evangelizing. While different communities favor different terms, it’s all pretty much the same. Now it’s true that no form of Judaism imagines that one must be Jewish to attain salvation or gain entrance to heaven, and equally true that Jews have not traditionally sought converts. But rabbis serving the nation’s largest Jewish denomination, the Reform movement, stepped away from that tradition recently.

At the 121st meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the group decided that the open spiritual marketplace of America and the reality of increasing intermarriage between Jews and gentiles demanded the change. A press release from the meeting included the following:

“While in the past the Reform rabbis focused discussion on how to prevent intermarriage, the CCAR today affirmed that intermarriage is a given and should be approached with the goal of engaging intermarried families in Jewish life and living. Rabbis can and should work to improve the effectiveness of their efforts to encourage intermarried people to embrace Judaism for themselves and their children.”

The statement goes on to stress “the importance of encouraging in-marriage (marriage between Jews) and conversion of non-Jewish spouses“.

Whatever one thinks about the substance of this statement on intermarriage and the conversion of Christians to Judaism, there are lessons there for all of us – lessons about keeping things in perspective and appreciating that even the most radical things often become entirely normal.
This statement should remind Reform rabbis that when it comes to seeking converts, what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander, that turnabout is fair play, and that we should do unto others as they would do unto us.

Imagine the consternation that would be caused were a Christian group to target Jews, even if “only” those married to Christians, this way. Oh wait, we don’t have to because they sometimes do, and when they do, it is the Reform movement that has traditionally led the cry against such behavior, labeling it theologically ugly and communally inappropriate.

I have no problem with seeking converts to Judaism. The fact that Jews have not done so over the last two millennia is at least as much a function of historical circumstance as theological commitment. But then we should be open to the fact that members of other faiths have the right to do the same thing.

Why is it “poaching” when Christians seek to convert Jews, but appropriate for Jews to seek the conversion of Christians? That we are smaller and more insecure about our own existence does not give us rights we do not grant others.

I am also struck by the fact that the ideas which form the substance of CCAR’s statement were first proposed to the same movement as early as 1978 by Rabbi Alexander Schindler. But when Schindler fist imagined that intermarriage was a door into — and not out of — the Jewish community, he was thought of as kooky at best and reviled at worst. To miss that is to miss the really important lesson in this new move by these rabbis.

Every tradition was once a radical innovation, and virtually every innovation was initially decried as destructive of the very culture it sought to revitalize. I hope that whatever people think about intermarriage, proselytizing by Jews, or virtually any other religiously divisive issue, we can all keep that in mind and treat each other accordingly.

The rabbis of the Mishnah (legal text from about 100 years after the time of the New Testament) ask why we preserve minority and rejected opinions in Jewish law so carefully. The response is that one day another generation will arise and view the rulings rejected now as appropriate conclusions for them.

Imagine if different kinds of Jews looked at each other that way. Imagine if members of different faiths did so as well. If they did, all of our houses of worship would be overflowing and nobody would worry about shrinking numbers, religious competition, or any of the other worries which distract us from the bigger picture – the picture of people using the world’s many wisdoms to make their lives better and empower them to help others do the same.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • FarnazMansouri

    Sorry, Rabbi, you lost me at hello this time.Christians, Catholics, Muslims proseltyze apace, whilst we aver that conversion is a matter of individual conference, embracing those who seek to join us, never attempting, in any way, to persuade those who do not.Reform Judaism is neither your problem nor my problem nor the problem of any other Jew. Rather, it is the bigots, who draw on different faith and on different faith traditions.We are woefully outnumbered and that is what has enabled the bigots to psychologically, culturally, and physically molest us, lo these many years.As you surely should know by now, there are many, many Jews who earnestly believe that we must revisit this nonsensical prohibition on proselytizing. They point to the model set by Muslims of simply talking of the religion whenever one has the opportunity.It’s difference from the creedal sort of business that most are familiar with, its lack of “confessions,” “professions,” and “witness” are often a breath of fresh air to nonJews. The idea of Judaism’s commitment to Justice, its absolute abhorrence of all forms of idolatry, its existence, rather, as a way of life is appealing to Human.While those who favor spreading the “wordS” are still in the minority, they cut across denominational lines. It’s high time older Jews such as you realized that the “adversary” is not from within but from without, unless you choose to add to their number from among your own people.Wake up, Rabbi. Things may well change in your life time, and this one remaining prohibition from the Middle Ages may give way. I hope it does. In the meantime, if you don’t want to join us, don’t fight us. We have no plans to await the next Johanna Justin Jinich, may G-d rest her soul.

  • safiyah111

    I think the real question anyone of faith has to ask himself or herself is does my belief have something to offer more than just me? If it does, why on earth wouldn’t that person want to share it? Allah, the Most Gracious, speaks to each and every human whether he be a Believer, Hypocrite, a Person of the Book, a Polytheist or one who thinks he is self sufficant. The speech is that specific. One of the most beautiful things about Islam is it is for all of mankind. What binds Muslims together is our proclamation that there is only one god-Allah and that Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him is his messenger. We all heard the message and have decided to obey it. Since there will be no more messengers Muslims have to share the message with those who have not heard it. This is why we talk to people about Islam with the best of speech. Islam isn’t about being a member of a specific tribe or race. All are welcome and I thank Allah for this.

  • FarnazMansouri

    Rabbi,From Safiyah111: “Since there will be no more messengers Muslims have to share the message with those who have not heard it.”We should never have stopped doing likewise. All are welcome in the synagogue. WE must take pains to let them know something of this remarkable religion founded upon the notion of justice and truth, not idols.Regardless of what others may ultimately decide to do, it is senseless for OnFaith to have Rabbi panelists who do not explain the faith. I’m not talking about the significance of holidays.

  • FarnazMansouri

    Jews should make it their business to inform nonJews about Judaism.I have made this point before to you, Rabbi, and another rabbi, along with a scholar, have done so once or twice. Not nearly enough.Surely, we owe it to the world and to Tikkun Olam to speak. We cannot do it by ourselves.

  • PSolus

    Brad,Why would you attempt to replace someone else’s superstitious beliefs with your own superstitious beliefs?Do you believe that your superstitious beliefs are somehow better than everyone else’s superstitious beliefs?

  • FarnazMansouri

    mono1:Idolatry is not limited to stones and calves; it includes angels jinn, having Mohammed ask G-d to intervene for you, etc.Idolatry is also trying to live your life modeled after someone else’s, whether it be Mohammed or Jesus doesn’t matter.There is ONE G-d, sans intermediaries. There is Hashem, Baruch Hashem.If there is anything…. The world will be much better as more and more people discover Judaism, and they shall.

  • FarnazMansouri

    instead of pondering upon this miracle that jesus came from marry with no father ,instead ,marry is a fonicator and her son is a bastard! not only that but tryied to crucify jesus son of marry!You have replaced the one true G-d with angels, jinn, and a prophet. Your soul is in terrible danger. You need to ask the forgiveness of Hashem. You have distorted and defiled his words and his will.Your soul is in terrible danger.

  • WmarkW

    Not an expert, but I thought the other branches of Judaism didn’t recognize Reform conversions, because it was too simple.I belong to a Unitarian church with many interfaith couples. Maybe those two religions should just merge.

  • DouginMoz

    Freedom of speech and living in society with normal conversations gives us the right to convince others for whom to vote, what car to buy, who is the best team or player, what to eat tonight, etc. I don’t mind others trying to change my mind about my faith, as long as I’m allowed to do the same. After all, what are websites like this for, if not to do exactly that?

  • Grandblvd03

    I think people should discover faith by the process of attraction, not promotion.

  • ruairc1

    I find this article a diversionary tactic. I have yet to meet a Jew that proselytizes. Call it an olive branch then? Are you trying to join the fray and accept that we are all flawed and in need of learning? Forgive me if your feelings are genuine but this seems like feeling guilt and accepting a lesser crime. One you aren’t even guilty of.Every supporter of settlements is directly responsible for the deaths of 3000 people on 911. If you want guilt, there it is.For the record, I am an indoctrinated catholic turned atheist.

  • adrienne_najjar

    All religion is bull$h!t. Throughout all human history, religion is at the center of all of man’s ills. There is no god. There is no afterlife. The sooner you get real, the better off we’ll all be.

  • bob2davis

    Rather than discussing proselytizing, it is time for the three “great” religions to apologize. First, the Jews need to apologize for creating the whole one-god theory and perpetuating it for thousands of years. Certainly, one-god (versus many gods) has only served to harm people, particularly the Jews. Secondly, Christians (especially Catholics) need to apologize for endless crimes against humanity. Christians caused the crusades, the inquisition, witch hunts, gay-bashing, the holocaust, the troubles in Ireland, the subjugation of native peoples, and on and on and on. Lastly, the Muslims must apologize for their jihads and terrorism, subjugation of women, murder of gay people, and for ignoring the ideals of their own prophet. Religious belief are completely unprovable; they only serve to deny rational thought. Faith is only a belief in made-up concepts that have only served to divide and harm people. Proselytizing must only be for a conversion to reason rather than support for superstition.

  • ZZim

    “I have no problem with seeking converts to Judaism. The fact that Jews have not done so over the last two millennia is at least as much a function of historical circumstance as theological commitment. But then we should be open to the fact that members of other faiths have the right to do the same thing.”=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=Good article (as always) Rabbi. There’s nothing wrong with seeking to share one’s religion with others, just like any other philosophy or ideology. It’s a necessary component of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion.Also, it is my understanding is that Judaism spread rapidly through what is now the Ukraine and southern Russia during the AD 200-700 timeframe via mass conversions of local Slavic tribes. That’s why Russian Jews are only about 2-3% ethnically Middle Eastern and almost entirely Slavic in origin.

  • mokey2

    Please tell me you’re not serious, Rabbi.Jews have had other book believers forcing their religions on others for so long we’re going to turn around and start proselytizing?I used to be at least proud of my Jewish upbringing- but if the tradition that I was brought up in is going to start actively seeking converts- than that’s why I am very happy to consider myself Pagan… this is appalling. Talking to someone who *asks* about your faith, is one thing, but trying to force Jews to marry other Jews or force interreligious spouses to convert is a non-starter. First it’s talking about your faith, then what? Shunning those who make a different choice? Calling someone ‘not Jewish enough?’ Convert or die? where does it stop??Honestly, I would have expected this from a conservative or more orthodox group.. not the reform.Let me just say that to me it is a form of extreme spiritual immaturity to think that one’s faith needs to be bolstered in such a way as to try to make others convert.

  • fishcrow

    The point of Judaism (or any of the Abramic faiths) is not to use wisdom to make our lives better, though that is a nice bonus. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are about the recognition of our obligations to God, and the living out of those obligations. The question to be asked when following a religion is not “does it make my life better?” That’s a question for a fitness regimen or a diet. The only question that counts is, “is it the Truth?”

  • dataflunky

    Never once in my 60+ years of life has a total stranger come to my door, gotten in my face, and asked me if I have found Moses. I would like to keep it that way.

  • justme22

    None of you are getting this. The CCAR is not talking about forcing anyone to do anything. They are trying to ENCOURAGE interfaith couples to choose a Jewish lifestyle, which is much easier to do if the non-Jewish partner converts. There are many Reform congregations which fully welcome non-Jewish partners, and allow them to participate in most areas of synagogue life. So it becomes encumbent on pulpit rabbis to give people a reason to WANT to be Jewish. But trust me, most Reform rabbis aren’t twisting anyone’s arm. Besides, many stands that the CCAR takes are nothing more than a recommendation, because they do not require their members to follow their pronouncements blindly (see interfaith marriage and same-sex couples). Ideally, Reform Judaism is a matter of “informed choice.” So let’s inform some people, and perhaps they will choose to become Jewish.

  • rudedog46

    Should you proselytize?Sure, go ahead. . .. . .but be prepared to hear what others think of silly bronze-age superstition.

  • sonofliberty09

    Genesis 12:1 “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”The descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the one who descended from David will sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem the Lord Messiah Jesus is the One that the Jewish people should proclaim.

  • sonofliberty09

    YEAL9,Science and naturalistic evolution are incompatible.

  • young11

    Historically ,the Hebrews were always seeking to convert, particularly in the Hellenistic world 100 years B.C. Those converted were targets for Paul and his group. So this is nothing new.

  • jckdoors

    No one should. Keep your magical-thinking to yourself. If you believe it, fine. Keep me and others out of it.

  • lacarids

    Why not proselytize? These days, the largest proselytizers are aetheists.

  • cassie123

    I agree with the post below. Funny how so many athiests like to say not to proselytize. But they don’t hesitate to tell me I how wrong I am for not believing like them…that is proselytizing. Or is it not proselytizing when you get to say how you believe? Hypocritical.People have every right to tell me how they believe whether they are Muslim, Christian, Athiest, or Hindu etc. I may not agree with them, but I am not scared to hear it. I am confident in my choices. If I do change my mind, so be it. But, bottom line, I am not so sensitive that I can’t hear what other people have to say. So many who post here are the first to say that Christians are closed minded. At least I am willing to listen to other people’s points of view and consider them. Who is closed minded now?

  • lxp19

    One of the things I have really appreciated about Judaism: people can convert to it if they want, but Jews are not out trying to sell their religion (not even to non-Jewish spouses). Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease keep it that way. It’s a great, inestimable mark of respect for others.

  • Emmetrope

    Proselytizing is a synonym for annoying.

  • JWTX

    To the Athiest, God puts Athiest, Egnostics to the test. You never know when it will come. It will come like a thief in the night. He will bring these two groups to death an back again to test your following.

  • bs2004

    Should Repugnants proselytize? Should they even procreate?

  • Roberto_Old_European

    Does it REALLY matter?

  • dnjake

    I hate to give you the news. But Christianity is largely the result of Jews who chose to proselytize. Clearly Jews are torn on the issue of whether Judaism is a religion or a people. Israel will not welcome these converted Jews unless the female line is Jewish. Of course, the genetic evidence suggests pretty strongly that the four dominant mothers of Ashkenazi Jews were likely converts themselves. But consistency is never a priority with these emotions. I suspect my mother would have converted in a heartbeat if my father had encouraged it. My father was certainly a partisan of Israel and liked to attend High Holiday services at a Conserative Synagogue. Towards the end of his life, my mother actually convinced him to become a member there. But, on his deathbed, he decided to be cremated. That left my mother with the task of making explanations when the secretary called from the Conservative Synagogue because the Rabbi was concerned that he had not been notified of my father’s death. The other outlet for my parents religion was the Unitarian Church. It may have been a better choice.

  • cmarshdtihqcom

    Every supporter of settlements is directly responsible for the deaths of 3000 people on 911. If you want guilt, there it is.Actually Trash Bin Laden had two more gripes with America: the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia (holy to Muslims), and the deliberate blockade of many items from Saddam’s Iraq, causing many, especially children, to die from lack of sanitation.

  • Henry5

    The Jews are the most xenophobic ethnic group in human history. Now that demographic trends in Israel will eventually make Jews a Minority oppressor, as opposed to their current status as Majority oppressor, it’s no wonder that they favor increasing their ranks by any means possible.

  • heatherczerniak

    NO!!! We Jews have never had a need to proselytize. Becoming Jewish is not something people should do without first exploring what Jewish is all about. This is a long learning process and there are four distinct Jewish movements that disagree with each other, sometimes on even the most fundamental aspects of Judaism.

  • csintala79

    No religion should proslytyze. Firstly, it is insulting to the object of the conversion efforts intelligence and, more basically, rude. Secondly, it is insulting to the religion, or lack thereof, of the hoped for convert. Finally, especailly when done in another country, it is insulting to the culture of the nation, ethnic group. etc. of the prey. Easily the most adamant foes of proslytinzing would be members of a church engaged in such a practice in regard to attempts by others to convert their flock. Bring up Mormon or Muslim conversion efforts in a fundamentalist Christian church and stand by.

  • cmarshdtihqcom

    Prosletyzing is the great commandment of Jesus Christ. To spread the message of salvation is exactly what He died for. We would be judged if we said nothing.

  • ZZim

    No religion should proslytyze. Firstly, it is insulting to the object of the conversion efforts intelligence and, more basically, rude. Secondly, it is insulting to the religion, or lack thereof, of the hoped for convert. Posted by: csintala79=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-I disagree. I think that EVERY religion is OBLIGATED to proselytize. If you refuse to do so, you are doing so on the grounds that:A – Your religion is false and should not be spread, or B – You are better than everyone else and they simply aren’t worthy of joining your religion.So get on out to that street corner and start frothing at the mouth and waving your holy book around, you’re doing the right thing. When I see those guys I think “God bless America,” then I tune them out because I don’t really care about their whacky religion (unless it comes with free beer and free love). I’m just glad that we live in a free society where people can act that way with impunity.

  • ZZim

    NO!!! We Jews have never had a need to proselytize. Becoming Jewish is not something people should do without first exploring what Jewish is all about. This is a long learning process and there are four distinct Jewish movements that disagree with each other, sometimes on even the most fundamental aspects of Judaism.Posted by: heatherczerniak=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-See? Here’s someone who takes Choice B – “We’re better than you and you’re not worthy of joining us.”I spit on you Heather. Your arrogance in not trying to convert me makes me obstreperous.

  • coloradodog

    One of the things I like about Jews is that they don’t try to jam their religion down my throat. Their belief that they are “special” and other people need to come to them instead is more amusing than annoying.

  • coloradodog

    I spit on you Heather. Your arrogance in not trying to convert me makes me obstreperous.Posted by: ZZim Real Catholic of you, ZZim

  • ZZim

    Real Catholic of you, ZZim=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=–Real Zoroastrian of you, Colorado.What is your point?

  • coloradodog

    Although I’m not Zoroastrian either, I did use to drive a Mazda.

  • ZZim

    Although I’m not Zoroastrian either, I did use to drive a Mazda.Posted by: coloradodog=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=K, so what’s your point then? Do you have one, besides thinking Jews are “amusing” because they don’t want you?

  • FarnazMansouri

    Besides, is gazing at your naval 28 out of every 24 hours a good thing?Posted by: whistling | March 17, 2010 7:52 PMSurprised they let you out of your altar boy duties for the day. Sore, I suspect.

  • FarnazMansouri

    One of the things I like about Jews is that they don’t try to jam their religion down my throat.Their belief that they are “special” and other people need to come to them instead is more amusing than annoying.Posted by: coloradodog | March 18, 2010 10:49 AMYou see, Dog, Jews only consider themselves superior to the likes of you. But, then, Dog, so do Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Atheists, Agnostics, Baha’i, Pagans, Sikhs..(Figured I’d finish it off as a concession to your limited negative IQ.)

  • barferio

    FARNAZMANSOURI, tell me why coloradodog’s statement is offensive?I find it amusing. You have heard about this “chosen people” business haven’t you?You’d think for somebody who’s been chosen you’d have a thicker skin. Just ask all the other chosen people, born in the right country or the right religion or the right political system. Nationalism, jingoism, various chauvinisms of all kinds boil down to the adherents believing they’ve been chosen above all other humans who haven’t been.The modern muslims believe it’s ok to kill those who haven’t been chosen. Lots of them do anyway, enough that we have to be concerned about them. modern christians have lost the power to kill the unchosen, but they did once have it. There simply aren’t enough jews in the world to cause the rest of us any real problems in this area.That they believe just as pompously as the others they are the chosen … well, that’s amusing.

  • coloradodog

    Jews don’t consider themselves “special”?Another vicious and insulting attack from Farnaz over nothing. Why is this offensive? meshugenah is your name Farnaz, meshugenah

  • coloradodog

    Deuteronomy 7:7-8 states “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you – indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the Lord favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers…”.Deuteronomy 14:2 “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people”.