Norma Shearer, a Canadian-American actress who converted to Judaism in 1927, and married MGM mogul Irving Thalberg, was not only the first Jewish woman to win an Oscar, but the first of many Jewish performers to win an Oscar. (Jewish writers Benjamin Glazer, Ben Hecht, and Joseph W. Farnham, were the first Jewish male winners in the first Oscars ceremony in 1928.)
At the third Academy Awards in 1930, Norma Shearer won Best Actress for the role of Jerry Martin in Robert Z. Leonard’s “The Divorcee,”. The film, was about a woman who cheats on her husband with his best friend after she learns he cheated on her.
Elisabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe are two other famous Hollywood Actresses who converted to Judaism. A menorah owned by the iconic actress Marilyn Monroe was sold at auction on November 7, 2019 in New York.
Marilyn Monroe came to own the menorah when Arther Miller’s parents bought it for Monroe when she converted to Judaism, and married their son, the well known playwright Arthur Miller.
Of course, most converts to Judaism are not beautiful actresses; but all converts to Judaism should be beautiful in the eyes of the Jewish People and the Jewish religion. Unfortunately, this is frequently not the case.
Unlike Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, Judaism does not have much of a missionary impulse. That is why there are so few Jews in the world. Mormons, who very actively seek converts, already outnumber Jews even though they have been around only 200 years compared to more than 3,500 years for Jews.
Judaism lacks a strong missionary impulse because Judaism is a pluralistic religion. Judaism teaches that the Jewish way is right for us, but good people in other religions also have a place in the world to come. Correct behavior in society is more important than correct beliefs about God. Thus, while Jews welcome non-Jews to join us, we do not have a urgent motive to ‘enlighten’ or ‘save’ them.
Lacking the missionary impulse of more universalistic religions, Jews react to potential converts in varied ways, ranging from wariness to encouragement. Practical community concerns guided many of out Sages. Some like Rabbi Helbo said that converts are an irritation like an itch, a sore or a scab. Perhaps Rabbi Helbo felt that the enthusiasm and idealistic expectations of converts irritated too many born Jews, who take their Jewishness much more casually.
Or maybe he agreed with Rabbi Isaac who said “Evil after evil comes upon those who receive converts”. Both these Rabbis lived in the early 4th century when the Catholic Church was vociferously attacking pagans who choose to become Jews rather than Christians. Perhaps they feared Christian anti-anti-Semitism if Jews were openly receiving converts.
On the other hand, Rabbi Simon ben Lakish proclaimed that a convert is more beloved to God than all the Jews who stood at Sinai. This seems rather extreme. Perhaps he was reacting to those who claimed Jewishness was in their noble genes.
Equally amazing were Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat and Rabbi Johanan who both taught that the forced exile of the Jewish people among the Gentiles, was really a God given opportunity to influence Gentiles to become Jewish.
Some Rabbis tried to test the sincerity of potential converts by making great demands of time and effort from them. Opposing this Rabbi Johanan advises that you should push potential converts away with your left hand and draw them close with your right hand. Since most people are right handed; if you actually push away more than a small percentage you are being much too negative.
Rashi, the greatest of our Bible commentators, taught that Jews started seeking converts from the very beginning, when he interpreted a verse that states that Abraham made souls in Haran, to mean that Abraham and Sarah made converts. And the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) condemns those who push potential converts away by relating that Isaac and Jacob pushed away Timna the sister of Lotan who wanted to become Jewish.
She then married a son of Esau. One of her descendants was Amalek who attacked Israel shortly after they escaped from Egypt. If, instead of being pushed away, Timna had become Jewish, Amalek would have been on our side, and not one of our enemies. A more practical view is hard to imagine.
Indeed, Rabbi Johanan says the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because Abraham didn’t try to influence some captives that he rescued to become Jewish. Even failing to encourage potential converts is wrong according to Rabbi Johanan.
And several of our Rabbis felt that discouraging converts in the past had brought troubles upon us. These are practical, not theological, reasons to seek converts and not to push away those who might be interested. Rabbis today should welcome potential converts and not discourage them.
We may not be saving souls, but we should not be making future enemies by rejecting people who want to be Jewish. The treatment of Russian Jews by some Israeli Rabbis and Orthodox courts is an example of what not to do!