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The Conversion Debate
Reform Thinker Debates Orthodox Chief Rabbi
By Rabbi William Berkowitz
Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits (1921-1999).

The theme we are to discuss today is a current question in American Jewish life: Shall we have Jewish missionaries, shall we encourage conversion to Judaism? To give you two disparate aspects of the subject of Jewish missionary activity, I want to share with you a dialogue I had years ago with two prominent spiritual leaders who have had close relationships with the questions involved. One was the Reform Rabbi David Max Eichhorn (1906-1986). Dr. Eichhorn was the director of field operations of the Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy, National Jewish Welfare Board (J.W.B.). Before taking this post he was a pulpit rabbi, and immediately before coming to the J.W.B., he served as a Jewish Army chaplain in Europe during World War II. He was a theologian and philosopher, deeply versed in the subject of proselytism; he was a noted lecturer, and the author of several books.

The other authority has had a rich and colorful rabbinic career both here and abroad, having served as Rabbi of the Great Synagogue of London and as the Chief Rabbi of Ireland. He was a prolific writer on Jewish law and has lectured extensively throughout the United States. He was the Rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York City, and finally the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth – Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits (1921-1999).

What follows are fragments of our discussion.

Dr. Eichhorn, can you tell us the history of the development of missionary work in Judaism? Has Judaism traditionally been a proselytizing religion?

The answer to that direct question, Rabbi Berkowitz, is an unqualified yes. The average Jewish person has a completely mixed-up picture of the attitude of Judaism toward proselytism, of the attitude of Judaism toward the convert, and of the historical picture in this whole field. Part of the difficulty is the fact that in Hebrew there is no word for convert. The word convert is a completely Christian term. It derives from the Latin conversus, which means to change. The Christian concept is that a person who becomes a Christian changes over from something else. He has a certain religious point of view one day; then he has a great vision, or sees a great dream, or hears a great sermon, or he goes down on his knees and hits the sawdust trail. Yesterday, as the old story goes, he was a fish, and today he is a chicken; yesterday he was an unbeliever, and now he is a Christian. This miracle, this phenomenon that converts an individual from one religion to another, is completely absent in Judaism.

The Hebrew word that we use for convert–because we have to go along with the language of the country in which we reside–is gair. The Hebrew word gair comes from the root goor, which means to live with, and when a non-Jew becomes a Jew, he does not change over from one religious point of view to another. He approaches, he becomes part of, he comes to live with a group of people and becomes a member of a religious fellowship with whose point of view he has agreed for a long time, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. He has found a group of people whom he considers very worthwhile. Here is a theology and philosophy he wants to espouse, and so he comes into the group.

In the Bible this is very clear; the word for sojourner, the word for stranger, the word for convert are all in this word gair. In the Bible, there are a number of types of gairim depicted. There is the type of gair who simply comes to live with the group; there is another type of gair who comes not only to live with the group but also to become completely part of it. When, in the Book of Esther, the expression “to Judaize”–to become part of the Jewish people–is first used in the Bible, we have in this one verse in which this word is used something akin to the process of complete proselytism.

With the single exception of the Book of Ezra and Nehemiah (for these are really one book), the consistent attitude of the Bible is that we welcome those who wish to affiliate with us. Outside of this book, in which Jews who have married non-Jewish women were forced to divorce their wives and to put aside the children of these wives, the Bible maintains that we welcome others not only as fellow members of our group, but as partners in a job that God has given to us. God has chosen us from among all peoples to teach His Law to the nations, to become, as the Bible says, very specifically, “a light unto the nations and unto all the peoples.” So we are a people who wish to have additional adherents. We are a people that has a message to give the world. This is stated hundreds of times in the Bible and in the Talmud.

Dr. Eichhorn, I would like to interrupt. Now that we have established the premise, may I point out that this theme of missionary activity is appropriate to the Sidra that speaks of Abraham and Sarah, who went out to win new souls. My basic question to you is this: what has been our history from Abraham until, let us say, the present time? Has Judaism been a proselyting religion?

In the sense of sending out professional missionaries, in the sense of giving people food, clothing, medical help, and bribes in order to persuade them to adopt our religion, we have never been a missionary religion, and, please God, we never will be. We do not hold out any sort of inducement to anybody to enter our religious fold except that of finding a way of life that for him is better than the way of life that he has. I would categorically say that in Jewish history, professional people have never been employed for this purpose, but I would say categorically that in Jewish history, from time immemorial, every Jew was destined and every Jew was bidden to be a missionary. The Bible tells us we are a kingdom of priests and a holy people. What is the Bible trying to tell us but that as individuals and as a people, we should be setting an example to the rest of the world, an example that we should be seeking to have the world follow.

What sort of people would we be and what sort of individuals would we be if we said to those who followed our example, so far, no further. You can only come up to the door, but you cannot come in. This would be absolutely unthinkable. As I said before, there was no parallel in Biblical times to what we today call a convert. The early Talmud period and the pre-Christian centuries contained synagogues that were filled with non-Jews who were interested in hearing sermons and attending services. There are numerous references in the Talmud to these people, especially women, because one of our problems was that we were very insistent on circumcision. This was a very dangerous and painful operation for a male to go through, especially in those early days of which we are speaking. So actual converts seem to have been much more prevalent among females than among males.

The Christian Testament states that the Pharisees would cross land and sea to make one convert. This is somewhat of an exaggeration of course, but among the Pharisees, among the Essenes, certainly among the Rabbis of the Talmud, we find again and again many evidences that there were people who did everything within their power to try to persuade non-Jews to become Jews. We have a famous story that has been authenticated by many historical proofs, that a whole kingdom, the Kingdom of Adiabene, lying between the Roman and Parthian Empires, converted to Judaism. A Jewish traveling merchant from Palestine had come to the court of the King of Adiabene and, while selling silks to the King’s daughter interested her in Judaism so that she, her father, and her mother eventually converted. When the war broke out between the Romans and the Jews in the year 66, a whole regiment, a whole troop, Adiabene fought alongside the Jews against the Romans. They perished to the last man, including two or three princes of the royal household. This country remained Jewish until it was overrun by the Parthians in about the year 100. This is just one among many instances.

So we would say that up to a point in Jewish history, the answer–for want of a better term–was that there was a more or less aggressive mission to non-Jews. Now in which period of Jewish history did the attitude change to a “no” attitude?

When the Christians entered the picture, the attitude became “no.” When Constantine the Great made Christianity the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, and when the Code of Justinian was instituted, one of the features of that code of law was that any Jew that tried to convert a Christian to Judaism would be put to death, and that any Christian who became converted to Judaism would likewise be put to death. This put a rather sharp and quick end to Jewish proselytizing efforts. Later on, when the Moslems came into that part of the world and instituted the Code of Omar, this code had exactly the same provision.

By about the seventh century it was practically impossible for a Jew to try to convert either a Christian or a Moslem, and it was almost impossible for a Christian or a Moslem to become a Jew.

As this situation continued on into the Middle Ages, the Jews began to adopt what we might call a sour grapes attitude, or what is sometimes referred to as a religious inferiority complex. They thought, if we cannot have them, then we do not want them. Later on, certain Jews became converts to Christianity and Islam in order to feather their own nests, and some of these not -so-nice people turned on their fellow Jews and became even more bitter oppressors than the Christians or Moslems. The Jewish attitude, if we cannot have them then we do not want them, developed into suspicion and then into hatred.

Because of the medieval experience with Jews who converted to other religions in order to benefit themselves, we turned that same suspicion, and sometimes even that same hatred, on those who tried to become Jews. A typical reaction of many Jews today toward people who want to adopt Judaism is, what is in it for him; what does he expect to gain by it. Or, she is looking for a rich husband, or she knows that Jews make better husbands than non-Jews. This is the typical, unfair, reaction.

As far as the Reform rabbinate is concerned, I am glad to say there is a whole change of heart. I also have first-hand indications that some members of the Conservative and Orthodox rabbinates are rethinking this whole matter. We are going back to first principles. We are sweeping out some of the cobwebs that grew in the minds of some of us during our dark days in the ghettos during the Middle Ages.

May I ask this question? When you mention putting signs in depots or inviting non-Jews to lectures and activities of this kind, would you not call this an aggressive mission to the Christian community? If not, how do you term this?

No, I do not call this an aggressive mission to the Christian community. The texts, the missions, the radio and television programs will do one thing, and one thing only: they will set forth positively and without apology exactly what Jews believe.

What is an aggressive mission to the Christians?

An aggressive mission to the Christians would be, as far as I am concerned, saying on that television program we’ve got the true religion. All other religions are false. Come to us and be saved. This is what the Christians say when they preach their religion, and we have no intention of doing this.

What will you say when you get on television?

We will say that for us, Judaism is the religion that best meets our needs and best fits our desires. Those who share this feeling with us may, if they wish, come and join us. We will be very happy to have them. I hope that neither I nor anyone else will ever be guilty of saying that we have the only true religion, or that our religion is better than anybody else’s religion. Nobody knows who has the true religion, and nobody knows who has the best religion.

Now we turn to our second guest, Rabbi Jakobovits. Naturally, Rabbi Jakobovits’s point of view might be different from Rabbi Eichhorn’s. We will try to determine the difference. The first question, Rabbi Jakobovits, is: What is the attitude, not only of Jewish history but of Jewish law, toward proselytizing?

I agree in principle with a great deal of what has been said. I also say that we welcome proselytes with open arms, and that we make them feel not only at home, but as equals in our midst. Where I differ is on the conditions under which we are to accept proselytes. While I will proceed to show that our conditions are extremely rigid, and therefore will allow for the admission of only a tiny percentage of those who apply, the Reform attitude as presented here by Rabbi Eichhorn is that the net ought to be cast considerably wider. There is one difference.

Second, I want to make it quite clear that I do not propose to give here what may appear to be my personal attitude on the matter. I will try as well as I can, and as objectively as I can, to give the attitude of Jewish law, as I find it, toward this question.

Now concerning the specific question as to the Jewish attitude, I can put it quite simply: If the would-be convert is agreeable to the conditions that Jewish law lays down for his conversion, then we place no obstacle whatever in his way. In fact, we give every assistance to him and then, upon conversion, welcome him with open arms. I think that would sum up the answer.

Now the question is the “if.” What does “if they meet the requirements” mean? Can you define what the requirements are? And how would you determine sincerity?

Well here we come to the heart of the problem. As far as Dr. Eichhorn’s historic presentation is concerned, I must take issue with one item, and that is allegation that the present-day lukewarm or hesitant attitude toward the acceptance of proselytes is the result of the sour-grapes attitude developed in the Middle Ages, when the hostile attitude of the Church toward allowing the Jew to convert others colored our own attitude. I think that this is an extremely arbitrary reading of history. All I know is that the Jewish law that governs today’s attitude to conversion was laid down in the Talmud very expressly 2,000 years ago, long before there were any Middle Ages. This attitude has, by and large, remained constant in all authentic rabbinic writings on the subject. If at one time we did have larger proselytizing movements than at another, it was due simply to the exigencies of the times; at certain times people felt more attached by the rigid conditions that Judaism placed before them, and at other times, less so. So much about the historical element. As a matter of fact you could cite the conversion in the Middle Ages of the whole Khazar Kingdom in Russia as evidence of the fact that when the ground was fertile for such proselytizing, it could be done on a massive scale even in the Middle Ages.

Our attitude on this matter is governed by two principle considerations, which I want to spell out as well as I possibly can. First, we do not believe that God meant all humans to be Jewish and to perform the duties that Judaism imposes on us in order for find favor in His eyes. In this respect we differ radically from the Christians. We do not say that a non-Jew in order to be perfect in God’s eyes, in order to be saintly or in order to fulfill his destiny as a human being, must eventually be a Jew and conform to Jewish law. We believe, on the contrary, that so long as non-Jews observe the fundamental laws of Noah, as we call them, the certain basic cardinal laws of humanity, which include the basic moral law, then they are just as virtuous and just as meritorious in the eyes of God as the Jew who fulfills the entire rigid discipline of Jewish life.

Therefore it was not anticipated by our Prophets that the distinctions between religions will be obliterated even in the perfect days, when there will be universal peace, and when “the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” We do not believe that there will come a time will everyone will have to embrace the Jewish faith, as the Christians believe that in order to be saved, one must be baptized, and must embrace the Christian faith. This basic promise of Judaism, incidentally, means that Judaism is bound to be far more tolerant of other faiths than probably any other religion, certainly any other monotheistic religion.

Following from this premise comes my second one. Why, then, were we chosen to have our own religion–you might almost call it our own national religion–identified with our people, and to retain this limitation? We believe that we were chosen to be pioneers in this world. We were chosen to accept a mission in this world that only a few can carry out. The demands, the sacrifices, the privations, the discipline that are required of the advance guard of an army are far greater than those of the ordinary soldier. We were placed into this world so that we might make the initial breaches in the walls of paganism or immorality, as they existed in the past. Once we have broken through, as a small advance guard, the area can be broadened, and the masses–the infantry, as it were–can follow and mop up.

Does that mean, if we follow this to its logical conclusion, that the Jewish people, therefore, are a superior people?

No. It does not mean anything of the sort. It depends on how you measure inferiority and superiority. We believe that every nation is sent into this world to fulfill a specific role. We believe that the Romans were here to teach us, possibly, the arts of government and warfare. The Greeks were here for art and science, and for philosophy. We believe the Jews are in this world to be the pioneers of monotheism, the pioneers of religion and social justice, the pioneers of a people that will live on a higher level, so that ultimately the time will come when God will be sovereign of the whole world, yet without Judaism ruling the whole world.

The Bible itself is very specific on this matter. The Bible tells us, the Torah tells us, that we Jews are chosen people because we were the smallest of all peoples. With a small group you can achieve more, you can demand more, than with a big mass. Had we, in the days of the rise of Christianity competed with the Church at that time, the chances are that today, we would be a mass religion, counting hundreds of millions of people all over the world. We did not go in for this. We did not compete with the missionaries of the Church at that time, because we felt that we would then lose the ability to remain what we were and do what we were meant to do–that is, to live on a supreme level of self-discipline and self-sacrifice, which cannot be asked of the masses. Since it is in the smallness of our numbers that our strength lies, the overall attitude has been one of the greatest caution in admitting those who were not convinced would carry the historic responsibility that we believe destiny and Providence has placed upon us.

These are the two basic considerations that, to my mind, govern the Jewish religious attitude toward conversation.

Now, to complete the answer to the question that has been posed: what does Jewish law demand? Under what conditions do we accept converts? Let me give you some statistics. In this country we have no overall statistics of applicants and admissions. In England, where virtually all would-be converts apply to the London Beit Din, the central religious agency to which the majority of English Jewry owes allegiance, there are something like 400 to 500 applicants for conversion each year. Out of these, hardly more than one percent are admitted. One percent of all the applicants! And we ask, why is this. I think Dr. Eichhorn has given the answer. He said that [in the US] fourteen out of fifteen people are admitted not because they fall in love with Judaism, but because they fall in love with a Jewish person. And this is precisely where I take issue. We say that if the motive for joining Judaism is not an appreciation of what Judaism as such stands for, if a person is unwilling to impose upon himself or herself all the rigors of Jewish law without exception, if the motive is the convenience of a marriage that might otherwise not be successful, or the bringing up of chidden who might otherwise have to grow up in a spiritual or religious no-man’s-land, rejected by Jews and by Christians alike, if a party has fallen in love with a Jew, instead of with Judaism–if all this is so–then we believe that such a person will not be able to join our ranks to the extent required by our law. 

There is a Talmudic statement, which I have quoted frequently, but which comes to mind again: M’toch shelo l’shmuh buh l’shmuh, that is, When something does not come for its own sake, he, nevertheless, will end up doing it l’shmuh, for its own sake. Statistics tell of women who convert because of marriage and who then go on to lead full and fruitful Jewish lives. In the face of these statements, and in terms of experience, why would your position still be as it is?

The whole question here is what, in fact, constitutes l’shmuh, “for itos own sake.” On this, of course, we may differ. Let us say that a person tells us that he or she will adopt the entire range of Jewish law, will keep a kosher home, will observe the moral and ethical requirements of Judaism, the business relations, the Sabbath; but that he or she cannot subscribe to, takes exception to, and cannot fulfill one law. We will reject this applicant. You may say, very logically, that such a person will be a far better Jew than most of those who were born Jewish; therefore, why should we turn down a person who, out of all the 613 laws, rejects one? Let me give you the answer: if you have a child of your own, then good, bad or indifferent he remains your child and you cannot disown him. If that child turns out to be bad, he is still your own child, because you have given birth to that child, and you share, as it were, in the fortunes and misfortunes of this child. But if you adopt a child, take a child in and make it your own by adoption, the matter is different. There you can choose. You can say, the child who is going to prove an asset I am going to adopt. One, whom I know has had a bad history, or comes from a family with a proclivity or ill health you will say, I do not want to adopt. After all, you are making an open, free choice.

That is our attitude here. If Jews are born as Jews and they ignore Jewish law, reject Jewish law, may not even remember that they are Jews, we still recognize them as Jews. We say, Yisrael af al pi shechata Yisrael hu. A Jew, even though he sins, even though he is a renegade, even though he may be baptized, is still looked upon as a Jew. He is our child. He is born into our people. You cannot escape from Judaism. If, however, we are to adopt a Jew, if we are to invite one who is not born Jewish to assume these responsibilities and make him into one of ourselves, we can ask to be assured that he will be an asset to us. If he will be a liability, if he becomes a law breaker, why should we impose the burden on him?  

If I apply for American citizenship, I will appear before a judge, and asked to take an oath of loyalty to this country, and I will be told that I will have to swear that I will abide by the Constitution of this country and by all its laws and regulations. Now, imagine that I tell this judge that I am quite ready to fulfill all the clauses of your Constitution except one, which I do not like. I am not going to abide by one clause in your Constitution or one law that your Congress has passed because I have a conscientious objection against it. He will say, go home and retain the passport that you had before.

I will then ask the judge, why are you stricter with me than with your own Americans? You have many Americans who are traitors and who are law breakers and who are in prisons, and they are still Americans. You have not taken away their nationality. I come to you, I want to fulfill 99.9 percent of all your laws, I make a little exception, and you reject me. He will answer, quite rightly, that I am being naturalized. I am being accepted as an American citizen and he will not allow me to make exceptions, although he may have to allow people who were born Americans to be exceptions.

If we naturalize a non-Jew to become a Jew we adopt precisely the same perfectly logical attitude. I would not argue with that judge, any more than I would like a would-be convert to argue with me were I to give him the same answer.

There is another aspect to this problem on which I want to lay great emphasis. It is often suggested. And this is part of my answer to your question, that Orthodox rabbis who see these would-be converts and who reject them, or who, at least, do not make it very easy for them, are callous and perhaps ignore the human duties that they owe their fellow human beings when they come for help. It is this aspect that I would like to put in its proper perspective. If I had a part as a rabbi in converting a non-Jewish woman to Judaism, then, first of all, I must realize that I do not convert only her; I automatically convert her children and her children’s children for all future generations. My act is converting them as well. Therefore the decision I have to make is a crushing responsibility, purely from this point of view. Next, if this woman, before she was converted, worked on the Sabbath she did nothing wrong in the eyes of God. She was perfectly honest, law-abiding, religious and devout in the eyes of God. The Sabbath was not given to her in our sense. If after I convert her, she works on the Sabbath, thereby desecrating it, I am aiding and abetting her in the desecration of Jewish law.

I would like to bring some of these things into perspective. You state that if you were to convert this woman, you realize that this is a crushing responsibility because you also convert her children and children’s chidden. On the other hand, if you do not convert this woman, and she marries a Jew and has a home that is non-Jewish, what about that crushing responsibility?

It is the same crushing responsibility. If I reject the woman who, potentially, could have fulfilled the conditions of Jewish law and become converted, then I face at least the same responsibility by this withholding of what we call the Wings of the Divine Presence from the person who should rightfully enjoy the protection of Jewish law. Therefore, the responsibility works both ways; the crushing responsibility to say yes as well as no. But I want to explain that it is not callous of a rabbi if he conscientiously feels, after having explored the case, that he must come to a negative decision in the matter.

Let me just develop this idea of responsibility. I was saying that I will have a share in every religious offense that she commits because through my conversion of her she becomes a law-breaker. Through my converting, through my act, laws will be broken that will be on my shoulders to an extent that I could have foreseen. We are all only human. We are only expected to be human. But we should be at least human, and we should genuinely explore and examine the case, possibly through years of trial, in the same way that American keeps me waiting for five years until I can apply for naturalization.

We believe that a change of religion is rather a more serious matter than a change of national allegiance. It is not just a change of passport; it is a change of heart. I always tell people who apply to me that I do not convert them; they convert themselves. If the change has occurred in their hearts, they feel as a Jew feels. When Jews are suffering anywhere in the world, their hearts will bleed as Jewish hearts. If they see Jewish triumphs, their hearts will rejoice as Jews. If they see Jewish laws being broken, they will grieve, and in them there will be a pain at the violation of Jewish law. If it came to the point that the supreme sacrifice were demanded of them, a supreme act of heroism, martyrdom, these people would say, I will lay down my life for my faith. If this is their attitude, then we will adopt them.

Ruth, the most famous convert of all times, said to her mother-in-law, “El asher telchi elech,” “Where you go, I will go.” But she want on , “uva’ asher tolini olin.”And where you spend the night, I will spend the night.” Even in the darkness, when there is persecution, I will share that darkness with you. I will feel as a Jew in whatever circumstances may come to me.

I cannot help fearing what is happening today, when large-scale conversions are being performed wit shallow commitment.

Who am I to sit in judgment and say to Miss X, who comes for conversion because of marriage, that it will never work out? Who are you, with all due deference and respect, to say that if Miss X comes for conversion because of marriage, or Miss Y comes for some other reason, it will work out or it will not?

I do not think the problem actually exists. This is quite simple. You say I am operating on the assumption that I am right. I presume that you do the same. If you thought you were wrong you would act differently. Again, I did not suggest that if someone comes who is married to a Jewish party and therefore wants to be converted, that I necessarily reject him. But I have to find out the primary motive, the innermost motive. Does this person want to live a Jewish life? Is that person fascinated and enamored with Judaism, or is it merely a matter of using Judaism as a cloak for an easier marriage relationship?

Dr. Eichhorn mentioned the celebrity conversions that have taken place. One is getting married; another is getting a divorce, and the third is very sick. I can only say that this is precisely why we want to be strict. We do not Judaism to be used for the glamour of Hollywood. We do not want our religion to be dragged down to a point at which a woman is going to have as many religions in her life as she is going to have husbands. To me, this is sickening. I believe in drawing the line somewhere by laying down the basic conditions that we want these people to accept, not this, that and the other law in detail, but the totality of Jewish law, just as I am expected to accept the totality of the Constitution of the United States. If I say that I will not accept that totality, that I will make an exception, I will be rejected as an American citizen. If anyone comes to me and says that he cannot accept the totality of the Jewish law–the Jewish constitution of life–then I must say, for precisely the same reason, that I cannot assume the responsibility for converting him.

Posted on March 15, 2007
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