by Susan Perlman | March 01 1995
Judaism from its very beginnings was a missionary religion; that our Tanakh and subsequent rabbinic literature underscored the compelling need for such conversionary activity—indeed, the prophets made Israel’s mission a clarion call; and that it was only when our enemies instituted severe and often lethal restrictions against us that our conversionary zeal waned. But such restrictions no longer inhibit us. Why not resume our traditional vocation of being champions of Judaism?1
Everyone knows that Judaism doesn’t seek converts. On the contrary, Gentiles are usually discouraged from converting to Judaism by warnings of a demanding life as part of a despised people:
This is one reason why we push away converts. We set obstacles in their way so they can taste what it’s really like to be Jewish. So that it should be clear from the outset that a Jewish life is not an easy one. There will always be obstacles. The only difference is, before conversion the obstacles are from without—stubborn rabbis who tell you, “Don’t bother with Judaism.” After converting, those same rabbis will welcome you with open arms, and there will still be a voice telling you not to bother—but then it will be a voice from within you. If you can overcome the resistance set up by the rabbis, then you have a good chance of being able to overcome the inner resistance that is the struggle of every Jew.2
In some cases, hopeful converts have been turned away as many as three times in the conversion process to guard against any impulsive decision to convert.3 If they continue, then they are instructed in the Torah and have a mikvah. The conversion requires them to renounce their former religion, regard themselves as being of the lineage of Abraham, view their birth family as strangers, and, for male converts, undergo circumcision. It is only those who insist and persist that are allowed to become Jewish people.
Yet, Israel has had mandates to missionize Gentiles in times past. So, what does this mean about Judaism’s view of Gentiles?
The book of Genesis describes God’s intentions for Israel to bring the message of the one and only true God to the nations. In God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the Lord told the patriarch, “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”4 Abraham and his descendants received a mandate from God to tell the nations who He was.
R. Hunia in the midrash on Genesis 12:5 comments,
Abraham converted the men and Sarah the women. Jacob too made converts: Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, “Put away the strange gods that are among you” . . . And they gave unto Jacob all the foreign gods.5
The commentary goes on to demonstrate that Isaac sought to bring other people to the God of Israel. The theme of seeking people from the nations to follow God runs through the whole of Hebrew Scripture:
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:5–6).
Being a treasured possession is not a passive role. God has a mission for His special people. He assigns the Jewish people to serve as intercessors for the nations, mediating on their behalf.
To serve in this way requires Israel to be a holy people. To be holy means to be set apart and dedicated to the service of God. The book of Deuteronomy promises that God will establish His people as a holy nation if they keep the commands of God and walk in His ways (28:9). The prophetic writings amplify this task of conversion—God promises Isaiah that He will make Israel “a light for the nations.”6 This theme runs through the books of Joel, Micah, Jeremiah, and Psalms.
But have we always been eager to perform the task? Jonah’s reluctance to preach the message of repentance to the people of Nineveh, despite their subsequent faith, is an example of belligerence against God’s calling for the Jewish people to seek repenters—to seek out those who would make teshubah and return to God in repentance.
Noted historians and scholars trace Jewish conversion activities throughout the Second Temple period and beyond, and Latin and Greek literature substantiate it. The Idumeans, Moabites, and Itureans converted in 140 BCE in the later Second Temple period; Josephus cites numerous Jewish converts in Antioch.
Proselytizing wasn’t merely an occasional event in Jewish history—it was the standard way that Jewish people related to the Gentile community:
As the Jewish center of learning and population shifted to Babylonia, the evidence of intense proselytization continues. The Geonim actually set quotas. We note that Rabbis Judah and Joseph . . . and Rav Ashi . . . chided the people for not bringing in sufficient converts.7
Jewish people telling the nations about the God of Israel did not end with the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Even in those pockets of paganism surrounded by Christian or Islamic nations, there was unencumbered proselytization. Among the pagan converts were the Khazars in the Caucasus (in the eighth century) and the Aksumite Empire of Ethiopia, from which emerged the Falashas.
Proselytizing continued throughout the Crusades almost up to the Reformation:
The six centuries following the conversion of Constantine saw some dramatic evidences of the spread of Judaism . . . [including] the mass conversion of Arabs to Judaism in southern Arabia under Dhu Nowas . . . from the Christian side . . . the efforts to ban relations between Jews and Christians as finally formulated by the Fourth Lateran Council , and the constant concerns of the Church about Judaizing point in this direction.8
There is additional documentation that Jewish proselytism continued well into the Middle Ages. The response of the German Tosafists, which was written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, include the mention of about twenty proselytes to Judaism.9
There were many impediments, including external pressures, to Jews seeking converts. At best, Jewish people lived in Gentile communities, where they anxiously watched events in the dominant culture, ready to leave as soon as the tenuous welcome was withdrawn.
The Roman Empire seemed to favor the Jewish people over other conquered people; however, that tolerance was always precarious. The Roman leaders realized that Jewish people had a loyalty to their own identities that was far stronger than any allegiance to Rome. They also realized that a convert to Judaism was not merely voicing a change in his or her religious opinion:
The Romans knew that conversion to Judaism meant adherence not merely to a religion but also to a political state; hence, once Judaea was annexed, conversion had dangerous political overtones the Romans could hardly tolerate.10
Roman intolerance manifested itself in the expulsion of Jewish people from certain provinces, which meant Rome would lose the benefits that Jewish people brought. Rather than expelling the Jews, therefore, the Romans prohibited Jewish people from seeking converts.
The first specific ban on proselytizing was given by Emperor Septimius Severus in 198 or 199 CE. Severus gave no reason for the edict, and the ban was not effective. But Jewish conversion endeavors were specifically banned when Rome adopted Christianity as the official state religion. In 329 CE, a law was passed stating that Christians who joined Judaism were to suffer the same punishment as those responsible for the conversion. The punishment was left to the discretion of individual judges.
Constantius II was more specific in meting out punishment. In 339 CE, Jewish men were prohibited from marrying non-Jewish women. In 353 CE, Constantius specified that all Christians who converted to Judaism would have all their property confiscated. Thirty years later, Gratian made it illegal to bequeath anything to Jewish converts. In 388 CE, it became a crime punishable by death for Christian men to marry Jewish women.
Several early church leaders were determined to prevent the spread of Judaism. Though they could not pass laws, their anti-Jewish propaganda was used to justify ill treatment of Jewish people and Jewish converts. The anti-Jewish diatribes of some of the early church fathers might well have been a reaction to the success that Judaism had in converting former Christians.
The rise of Islam in the seventh century added other obstacles to the missionizing efforts of Jewish people. In 624 CE, Muhammad began his persecution of the Arabian Jews. By 628 CE, a death sentence was decreed for Jewish people who accepted a Muslim convert to Judaism. Muslims who converted on their own would have their earthly possessions confiscated.
The Jewish religion did not respond immediately to these measures; however, centuries of suffering and persecution took their toll. Seeking converts was now considered dangerous. It was not something done by a Jewish person who wanted to survive—and the Jewish people are survivors.
Once the high cost of proselytizing was known, the Jewish people moved away from it. Today we see the internalization of prohibitions that were once external:
But just because Jews actively proselytized long ago does not mean it is correct to do so now. The times are obviously different, and—hopefully—religious “etiquette” also is different.11
Is it really a matter of religious etiquette or concern? The underlying supposition is that if we don’t missionize Gentiles, they won’t missionize us. The reverse of that supposition is that if we invite Gentiles to become Jewish, we will be inviting anger and a backlash of antisemitism—or, conversely, their enthusiasm as we enter a playing field on which they have the bigger team.
Rabbi Schindler advocates that after centuries of barely missionizing and persuading ourselves that it is not Jewish to seek converts, we need to focus once again on reaching out. Yet, there are still many who are unwilling to invest in outreach. Perhaps the Jewish people reduced religion to a matter of human preference, accepting the “to each his own” mentality.
But the original Jewish missionaries were prophets who knew they were sent by God. Whether or not their message brought earthly retribution, keeping silent was not an option. They kept at the forefront of their minds what God wanted for them and for others. The prophets cared far too much to be silent.
Jonah might have preferred to be insulated from the outer world. He had no reason to care what the people of Nineveh knew or believed about God. But God cared. And if Jonah had cared a little bit more about God, he would have been motivated by God’s concern for Nineveh. Jonah, the lapsed prophet, needed a nudge to get back on track.
Elijah, one of the greatest prophets, also had moments of uncertainty when he felt that all he had to show for his efforts was persecution.
As Jewish people, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: have we lost our connection to God, and do we need to be reacquainted with him?
If we know that God truly cares for all people and has a very specific plan for world reconciliation in which we have a key role, how could we possibly advocate that everyone mind their own spiritual business? Wouldn’t it be logical for us to want to reach out?
We live in a society where it is politically correct to embrace the notion that there are many right paths to truth, including the truth about God. It is politically incorrect to believe in the uniqueness of one path over the others, for that is not only considered disrespectful but also harmful to the unity we all strive to attain. Any assertion that there is one right, one good, one truth, or one way offends public sensibilities, so any form of seeking converts is deemed unacceptable.
Yet those who say that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life maintain that this faith did not originate with them but with God, who is the God of the Jewish people. This faith is a definite belief in God as revealed in the Scriptures, and their conviction compels followers of the Jewish Messiah to share the gospel.
If the biblical mandate to be God’s treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy people is not true, we have no reason to maintain our identity as Jewish people. Why do we need the state of Israel? Why do we fear intermarriage and assimilation? And why do we allow ourselves to be so persecuted by persevering in our Jewishness?
If our portion in life is to be a holy people set apart for God’s use, a royal priesthood, and a light to the nations, how dare we insulate ourselves? If we were created to be a candle in the hand of the Holy One, then our destiny is to pierce the darkness with the flame of his everlasting light. To turn from that destiny is not merely a matter of disobedience—it is a denial of who we are.
As Jewish people, we can be the most cause-oriented people in the world. We can fight harder for human rights, dig in deeper to try to end world hunger, concern ourselves with our exploited environment, and work more passionately for world peace. But unless we see that there is a God who cares even more than we do about these things, we have little more to offer the world than our good intentions and efforts, which simply will never be enough.
Only when we perceive that God’s plan of reconciliation for the planet begins with our reconciliation to him do we understand that we have a mission. By cleaving to him and serving him, we have a real hope of accomplishing that mission.
Editor’s note: Moishe Rosen and Ruth Rosen contributed to this article.
1. Alexander Schindler, “Rabbi Schindler Defends His Plan for Proselytizing,” Northern California Jewish Bulletin, 5 November 1993.
4. Gen. 12:1–3 (English Standard Version)
5. Midrash Rabbah, Genesis, Ch. XXXIV, 4. p.771.
6. Isa. 42:6 (ESV)
7. Hayim Goren Perelmuter, “Judaism’s Missionary Tradition,” Sh’ma, January 1994, 6.
9. Louis H. Feldman, Jews and Gentiles in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 413.
10. Ibid., 385.
11. Editorial. Baltimore Jewish Times, 29 October 1993.