Interesting Times: Conversion is Jewish

Current negative attitudes toward conversion were born in exile, when attempting to convert non-Jews became punishable by death in many countries.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
I have a radical idea. The Jewish people is small, and shrinking. The best antidote to shrinking is growth. Therefore our goal should be to grow. I have another radical idea. There are only three ways to stop shrinking and start growing: reduce assimilation, increase birthrates and increase conversion. While much can be done to affect the first two factors, the first can only become less negative and the second would take Herculean efforts to bring up to neutral - that is, replacement level. The only real untapped potential for growth, therefore, lies in conversion. I have a third radical idea. Conversion is Jewish. This is one of our best-kept secrets, even from ourselves. When I described all this to a learned professor attending the Conference on the Jewish Future last week, he reacted, "But Jews have no history of conversion." However common, his view could not be more wrong. THE HISTORY of Jewish demography can be divided into three periods: a spike of rapid growth in Roman times when Jews were divided between a large Diaspora and a sovereign Jewish state; near-decimation after the destruction of that state and over centuries of exile; and another spike of growth in the modern period preceding the Holocaust. The modern period of growth, from about 7.8 million Jews worldwide in 1882 to 16.7 million in 1939, roughly tracks the general European population increase due to rising life expectancies. The previous centuries also contain no surprises, except that the Jewish people did not disappear entirely, but was able to to hang on with a population hovering around one million for almost two millennia. The most interesting period is between about 200 BCE and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. During this period, the Jewish world population jumped from about half a million to anywhere between four and eight million, according to various estimates. There is a lively academic debate as to the numbers, how many were Jews rather than "godfearers" or some other interim status, and to what extent Jews actively or passively encouraged non-Jews to join the Jewish people. What is not really in question is that the Jewish population expanded greatly, that this expansion cannot be explained by natural increase, and therefore that the Jews strongly encouraged what we would now call conversion. In a history of this period, Lawrence J. Epstein describes the context for such dramatic growth: "[Jewish philosopher] Philo... believed that the proselytes he saw should be 'accorded every favor.' Roman writers disliked the widespread proselytism. Horace unflatteringly noted how peculiar Jews were in wanting gentiles to become Jews. Tacitus, Cicero, Juvenal and Dio Cassino are among those who, in disparaging proselytism, acknowledged both its presence and influence. There were many famous Roman converts, such as Flavius Clemens, a relative of the Emperor Domitian and a key member of the Senate. "So successful were all these efforts that, by the beginning of the Christian era, 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire... were Jewish." Current negative attitudes toward conversion were born in exile, when attempting to convert non-Jews became punishable by death in many countries. Yet what is striking is how persistent pro-conversionary attitudes were. Norman Golb estimates that 15,000 people converted to Judaism and fled Europe between 1000 and 1200. Jewish responsa and memorial books mention converts in the 13th and 14th centuries. Maimonides, Epstein notes, criticized those who would humiliate converts, and reminded Obadiah that "God... loves proselytes." Rashi said the day of redemption would be preceded by proselytes joining the Jewish people. Ben Zion Wacholder writes of the Tosafists, "The Franco-German rabbis made the commandment to proselyte their basic premise." NONE OF THIS is to say that active proselytizing, or missionary activity, was universally encouraged either in ancient times or subsequently. It also does not deny the existence of negative attitudes toward conversion going back as far as the debate between Hillel and Shammai over this issue. Further, it is true that in the modern period, these negative attitudes became dominant and are today thought of as mainstream, to the extent that many Jews seem proud that "Jews do not proselytize." Yet in historic terms, these modern anti-conversionary attitudes should be seen not only as deviating from the more authentic Jewish norm, but as grossly, even suicidally, anachronistic. The working group at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute conference that I participated in last week recommended actions "to encourage Jewish population growth," including encouraging conversion. What is missing, though, is a concrete goal. We should, as a people, set a goal of sustained 2-percent growth which, if achieved soon, could result in about 30 million Jews worldwide by the year 2050. Such a modest level of growth should not engender bizarre fears of a flood of converts changing the culture of the Jewish people, since it would entail only two to five newcomers being absorbed per year per 100 Jews, taking into account losses due to assimilation and low birthrates. Nor is there any need for Jewish missionizing, in the sense of knocking on doors and handing out leaflets in airports. All we need to do is change the presumption from negative to positive, train rabbis to develop and promote introductory courses in Judaism, and encourage those who in any case wish to join us and are now receiving the cold shoulder. At the JPPPI conference, speaker after speaker noted that in the modern world, every Jew is a "Jew by choice." What we must do to attract non-Jews is essentially the same as what we must do to retain young Jews for whom Jewish survival is not sufficient reason to shape life decisions, such as whom to marry. Opposition to conversion says we have nothing to offer the outside world and no wider purpose. If we do not welcome others, we will lose ourselves.