When Jews Were Proselytizers
A quiet controversy continues. While there is not much noise it moves with staccato fury as rabbis confront one another over the question, ‘Should Jews seek converts from among gentiles?” One leading proponent of proselytizing said,
This is my central thesis: that Judaism from its very beginnings was a missionary religion; that our Tenach 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
Judaism. A missionizing religion???
Everyone knows that Judaism doesn’t seek converts. On the contrary, gentiles who want to become Jewish are discouraged with warnings of a demanding life and of being part of a despised people. According to the rabbinical formula, they must be turned away three times to guard against an impulsive decision to convert. If they continue, then they are instructed in Torah, and if they persist still, they are “baptized” in a mikveh. The conversion requires them to renounce their former religion, regard themselves as being of the lineage of Abraham, view their birth family as aliens or “strangers” and, for male converts, undergo circumcision. It is only those gentiles who insist and persist that are allowed to become Jews. At least, that was the way it was earlier in this century. Yet, Israel had a mandate to missionize gentiles in times past.
In Bible Times
The Book of Genesis describes the intention of the Almighty: that Israel bring the message of the One True and Only God to the nations. In God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the LORD told the patriarch, “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”2 Not only did the Bible portray Abraham as a missionary, but his descendants also received a missionary mandate.
The rabbinic writers agree. 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.3
The commentary goes on to demonstrate that Isaac was a missionary as well. This theme of seeking converts and impressing the gentiles runs through the whole of the Hebrew Scripture.
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests.…”
Being a treasured possession is not a passive role. God has a mission for his special people. He assigns the Jewish people to fill the role of priests. In other words, the Jewish people are to serve as intercessors for the nations, mediating at the altar 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 LORD will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the LORD your God and walk in his ways.
The prophetic writings amplify this missionary task. In the book of Isaiah, God promises to make Israel “a light for the Gentiles.”4 This is also seen in passages of Joel, Micah, Jeremiah and the Psalms.
Have we always been eager to perform the task? The call of Jonah to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh is a case of a reluctant Jewish missionary. Nevertheless, Jonah was reminded by besetting circumstances that God had commissioned him. Even though he took a circuitous route to obedience, he still preached repentance to the Assyrians and subsequently saw gentiles come to faith in the God of Israel.
Noted historians and scholars tell us that missionary policies extended well past the biblical era. They trace strong missionary activity on the part of the Jewish community throughout the Second Temple period and beyond, and the Latin and Greek literature substantiate it. The Idumeans, Moabites and Itureans converted in 140 B.C.E. In the later Second Temple period, Josephus cite numerous Jewish converts in Antioch. According to twentieth-century Jewish historian, Salo Baron, as much as 10 percent of the population of ancient Rome was composed of Jews, many of whom were converts.
Missionizing in Judaism
Proselytizing wasn’t merely an occasional event in Jewish history. It was the standard way that Jews related to the gentile community, and the efforts were intense and organized.
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.5
Missionizing that began in Torah times 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 Caucuses (eighth century) and the Aksunite Kingdom of Ethiopia from whom 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…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.”6
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.7
Why Did Missionary Activity Stop?
There were many impediments and obstacles to Jews seeking proselytes, including external pressures. At best, Jews lived in gentile communities at the suffrage of the people and rulers. The Jewish way of life was one of anxiously watching 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 identity 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.…”8
Roman intolerance took two forms, the first of which was simply to expel Jewish people from certain provinces. However the Romans rethought that strategy, inasmuch as they did not necessarily wish to lose the benefits that Jewish people normally bring to society. Rather than expulsion, a more workable strategy was to prohibit Jews from making converts.
The first specific ban on proselytizing was by the Emperor Septimius Severus in 198/199 C.E. Severus gave no reason for the edict, and the ban was not effective. Jewish missionary endeavors were specifically banned when Rome adopted Christianity as the official state religion. In 329, a law was passed that Christians who joined the “nefarious sect” were to suffer the same “deserved” punishment as those responsible for the conversion. The punishment was not spelled out, but apparently left to the discretion of individual judges.
Constantius II was more specific in meting out punishment. In edicts beginning in 339, Jewish men were prohibited from marrying non-Jewish women. In 353 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 converts to Judaism. In 388 it became a crime punishable by death for Christian men to marry Jewish women.
Several of the early church leaders seemed determined to prevent the spread of Judaism. Though they could not pass laws, their anti-Jewish propaganda was used to justify ill treatment of Jews and presumably of Jewish proselytes. The vitriolic anti-Jewish diatribes of some of the early church fathers might well have been, in part, a reaction to the success that Judaism enjoyed in making converts of people who formerly professed to be Christians.
The rise of Islam in the seventh century added other obstacles to the missionizing efforts of Jews. In 624 Mohammed began his persecution of the Arabian Jews. By 628, the death sentence was decreed for those Jews who accepted a Moslem convert to Judaism. Moslems 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. Proselytizing was “dangerous.” It was not something done by a Jew who wanted to survive. And the Jewish people are survivors.
Once our leadership saw the high cost of proselytizing, we began to acquire a nonproselytizing stance. We started boasting that we do not proselytize and it became part of our identity. Today we see the internalization of the once external prohibitions in a comment like this:
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.9
Is it really a matter of religious etiquette or concern for Christians who might abandon their roots? The underlying supposition is that if we don’t missionize gentiles, they won’t missionize us. The converse of that supposition is that if we invite gentiles to become Jews, we will be inviting either (1) their anger and a backlash of anti-Semitism or (2) their enthusiasm as we enter a playing field of proselytizing on which they have the bigger team.
Either way, there is the idea that if Jews do not proselytize, others won’t either. And if they try, they can be shamed by a cry of “Unfair! You are doing something we would never do to you!”
But why would anyone think that non-Jews would follow the example of Jews in not proselytizing? More likely they would conclude that Jews simply didn’t have anything to offer. Rabbi Schindler advocates that after centuries of barely missionizing and persuading ourselves that it is un-Jewish to seek converts, we need to focus once again on reaching out.
Schindler rightly asserts that the external pressures of persecution doesn’t exist in our pluralistic society. Yet those who oppose this view seem unwilling to invest in outreach. Why?
Perhaps some of us stopped caring about what God wants for others, reducing religion to a matter of human preference.
Have we accepted a “to each his own” mentality? Could it be that the real reason Jewish people resist being proselytizers is that we stopped thinking about what God wants for us and for others?
The original Jewish missionaries were prophets who knew they were sent by God and that their fate was in God’s hands. Whether or not their message brought earthly retribution, keeping silent was not a real option; it was a rebellion. They feared (in the biblical sense), trusted and loved God. They simply cared far too much to be silent.
Some, like the prophet Jonah, might have preferred to be insulated from the outer world. He had no reason, humanly speaking, to care what the people of Nineveh knew or believed about God. But apparently, God cared. And if Jonah had cared a little bit more about God, he would 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. He, too, was a lapsed prophet who needed a nudge from God.
Is it possible that we have become a nation of lapsed prophets who need to get reacquainted with God in order to get back on track?
If we could 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?
Jewish Proselytizing Isn’t PC
We live in a society in which 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. One’s rightness must be viewed as purely subjective. “Certain things are right for me, and other things are right for you.”
The above is a tentative view of what is right, good and real, and it doesn’t allow for any strong conviction or belief. Any assertion that there is one right, one good, one truth or one way offends public sensibilities. Hence any form of proselytizing is deemed unacceptable. Yet Christians who say that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, the only life maintain that they are not arrogant because this true faith did not originate with them but with God who is the God of the Jews.
It is a definite belief in God as revealed in the Scriptures and the conviction that he has certain expectations for us that compels Christians and others to missionize. Unless a Jew believes that the words of Scripture are true and relevant, attempts to missionize would be nothing more than an exercise in ethnocentricity.
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 Jews. Why do we need the nation Israel? Why do we fear intermarriage and assimilation? And why do we allow ourselves to be so persecuted by persevering in our Jewishness?
The God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekkah, Jacob, Rachel and Joseph is! There are Jews who believe with perfect faith that God’s plan for our people continues to be in effect. These Jews see the biblical promises not as being limited to us but as applicable for the whole world.
If our portion in life is to be a holy people set apart for God’s use, a royal priesthood, 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 Jews, 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 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.
- Schindler, Alexander, “Rabbi Schindler Defends His Plan for Proselytizing,” Northern California Jewish Bulletin, 5 November 1993
- Genesis 12:1-3
- Midrash Rabbah, Genesis, Ch. XXXIV, 4. p.771.
- Isaiah 42:6
- Perelmutter, Hayim Goren, “Judaism’s Missionary Tradition.” Sh’ma, January 1994, p. 6.
- Feldman, Louis H., Jews and Gentiles in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). Louis H. Feldman, p.413.
- Ibid., p. 385.
- Editorial. Baltimore Jewish Times, 29 October 1993.
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Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.