Interesting Times: Judaism is not a race

Some responses to my critics on conversion.

October 25, 2007 15:40
saul singer 88

saul singer 88. (photo credit: )


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My last column ("A 'big idea' for Bronfman") on how anti-conversion attitudes adopted as an exilic survival tactic now threaten Jewish survival in the modern world, sparked a substantial response, most of it positive. The negative reactions, however, may represent an even larger group, so I will take a crack at responding to a sampling. Reader 1: What's wrong with saying we have this great club, which has its problems, wants to keep its members, do good things for others... all without seeking new members? Who said, just because we have something good going that means we need converts? Reader 2: Judaism is the only religion in the world that does not proselytize, and it should stay that way. Jews will always be a minority, it says so in the Torah. Jews have nothing to fear from being a small population. There are many versions of this "small is beautiful" argument. The Torah indeed, says "it is not because you are numerous that God chose you, indeed you are the smallest of peoples." Ever since, we have decided that smallness is a virtue. The questions are, however: How small do we need to be? How small can we afford to be? And when does being small conflict with accomplishing our purpose in the world? There are now about 13 million Jews on earth. This is less than half the population of Tokyo, Japan, and about the same as that of Lagos, Nigeria. To some, this is just more proof that size doesn't matter. Look how much we have been able to accomplish while being so small, they say. But "small is fine" is not the same as "small is better." And this small is not fine. It is hard to believe, for example, that Hitler would have even contemplated his Final Solution had there been 100 million Jews in the world in 1939 (there were less than 17 million). Jews have never constituted even 10 percent of the population of the US or any European country. What if they had? Would advocates of smallness still consider this "too big"? IN TODAY'S terms, 100 million Jews might be considered an astronomical number. But there are over 2 billion Christians and over 1 billion Muslims. What may seem large to Jews is still tiny in the realm of world religions. It is one thing, moreover, to be tiny; quite another to be tiny and shrinking. Even if, by statistical acrobatics, it is possible to claim that the Jewish population is stable in absolute terms, it cannot be denied that we are shrinking in proportion to the global population and to the countries where Jews live. This shrinkage is even more pronounced with respect to the developed, educated world, which is growing much faster than the total world population. There is a limit to how much the numbers can be cooked. The combination of low birthrates, high assimilation and negligible conversion cannot add up to sustainability. We are not a species, but if we were, we would have to place ourselves on the "endangered" list. In this context, it is mind-boggling that so many Jews seem to fear growth more than they fear becoming a historic anecdote, or worse. Even if attitudes toward conversion changed, is there really a danger of there being too many Jews? Where exactly is the flood of potential adherents that justifies barricading the floodgates? How can Jews simultaneously fear being overwhelmed with newcomers while wondering who would want to be Jewish? More Reader 2: To be Jewish means you're a member of an exclusive club. God chose to reveal himself to the Jews. God doesn't talk to goyim. Jews don't look for converts because it is God's decision, not man's. Reader 3: I don't like the idea of seeking an expansion of the Jewish population through conversion because... I'm very skeptical of what most converts really FEEL about being Jewish... I don't believe in "Jews by Choice." I only believe in Jews that have no option but to be Jewish... developing a Jewish identity that may not even be explainable in rational terms. I HESITATE to even reprint these reactions because I find them so offensive. Get this straight: Judaism is not a race. How can Jews so blithely spout Hitler's line? Indeed, it is the possibility of conversion (aside from opening one's eyes on any Israeli street) that proves Judaism is not a race. This is not to say that this attitude does not have Jewish antecedents. It is true that Judaism, as opposed to Christianity or Islam, is not just a creed, but a family and a people. Jews are descendants of Abraham, as opposed to followers of Jesus or Muhammad. The beauty of conversion, however, is that the convert becomes a descendant of Abraham. A convert's Hebrew name ends with ben Avraham avinu (son of Abraham our father) or bat Sarah imeinu daughter of Sarah our mother). If the Jewish people is a family, then conversion involves an adoption, in the fullest meaning of that word. But what about the idea that there is something about being Jewish that can't be taught? Or that converts would, in effect, "dilute" the Jewishness of the Jewish people? I did not convert, but I am an immigrant - to Israel. I grant that at some level I may never feel fully "Israeli." Such is life. Converts, like immigrants, cannot undo their experience. But, like with immigrants, this experience can also make them stronger and more valuable members of their adopted community. Who appreciates most being an American, an Israeli, or a Jew - those born to these groups, or those who joined them through an act of will? There is nothing sacred about the birth connection. Just as born Jews migrate away from their birth religion toward nothing or another religion, there is at least some small proportion of non-Jews for whom Judaism is a much better fit. Many converts feel they have come home to something that was always inside them. Others develop this feeling of belonging over time. Just because Jewishness may not always be "explainable in rational terms" does not mean that the only people with "Jewish souls" are born Jews. THIS BRINGS US to the fear of "dilution." Sure, converts will, like born Jews, be spread out on the spectrum of observance and Jewish identity. But why are Jews so quick to assume that the supposed non-Jewishness of converts will affect Jewish culture, rather than vice versa? The convert desires to assimilate into Jewish culture - that's the point of conversion. Those who do not will be peripheral to Jewish life, just like born Jews who reject their heritage. The overwhelming direction of influence is from the weight of Jewish experience and society on the convert, not in the other direction. If Jewishness is not strong enough to shape converts, it is not strong enough to attract them, or to keep born Jews in the first place. Those who focus on "quality" over "quantity" miss the point. "Quality" should be defined by the "thickness" of Jewish identity and practice, not by birth or observance. How many observant Jews have almost no appreciation of what they are doing? Converts often represent "quality" more than born Jews. Some converts will not be observant - so what? What is lost by this? What matters is not the size of the Jewish people, but the size and strength of the core. Converts may add to the periphery, but they also add to the core, and that's what matters. Let's welcome those who want to join our family, and let them help with the challenge of thickening Jewish life in the modern world, regardless of stream and origin.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11

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