Converts: reverting, becoming, and being welcomed

“More than 5,000 people in Britain convert to Islam on average each year, most of them women. Academic studies in the United Kingdom have shown that, contrary to popular belief, these conversions are not driven mostly by marriage”

This is how Lauren Booth, a British broadcaster and journalist, begins an article about a journey that two years ago led her into Islam.

In the United States, a similar number on of non-Jews convert to Judaism each year, most of them also women; but unlike the Muslim experience, most conversions to Judaism do occur in connection with an impending marriage or childbirth.

The reason for the big difference in motivation for conversion between Islam and Judaism is that unlike Buddhism, Christianity and Islam; Judaism, (like Zoroastrianism) does not have much of a missionary impulse.

That is why there are so few Jews and Zoroastrians in the world. Mormons, who very actively seek converts, already outnumber Jews and Zoroastrians combined, even though Mormons have been in existence for less than 200 years, compared to more than 3,000 years for Jews and Zoroastrians

Judaism lacks a strong missionary impulse because Judaism is a pluralistic religion. Judaism teaches that the Jewish way is right for Jews and those non-Jews who want to join the Jewish Community.

But Judaism also teaches that good and kind people in other religions, who follow the teachings of their own religion, also have a place in the world to come. As the Qur’an says, “ To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race [compete] to [be] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ. (5:48)

According to Jewish teachings, correct behavior in society is more important for all human beings than correct beliefs about God, although for Jews correct beliefs about God are also vital. Thus, while Jews welcome non-Jews to join our community, 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 many varied ways, ranging from wariness to encouragement.

Many Orthodox, and almost all ultraOrthodox Jews, would agree with Rabbi Helbo who said that converts to Judaism 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 Rabbi Helbo 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 Church was vociferously attacking pagans who choose to become Jews rather than Christians. Most likely, these rabbis feared Christian anti-Semitism if Jews were seen to be openly encouraging and welcoming converts. So we can understand the warning that a rabbi is required to give to each potential convert.

“Our Rabbis taught: One who comes to convert at this time, they say to him: ‘Why did you come to convert? Do you know that Israel at this time is afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, and rejected; and that tribulations are visited upon them?” (Yebamot 47a).

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. 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.

Indeed, Rabbi Johanan goes even further. He 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 Israel. 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. So 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.

All these are practical and not theological reasons to either actively seek converts; or at least not to push away those who might be interested.

Almost all Rabbis; Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, test the sincerity of potential converts by making great demands of time and effort from them prior to their conversion.

People who state openly that they believe in Jesus as the son of God; can become baptized Christians right away. People who sincerely state openly that there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet are accepted into the Muslim community without delay. But even a willing and eager non-Jew must study from 5-10 months or more before being accepted for conversion.

I am not opposed to this, but I also think that all rabbis should always be guided by Jeremiah’s description of the God of Israel: “Behold, I am a God who brings near’ says the Lord, “and not a God who pushes away”.(Jeremiah 23:23)

Several years ago I read in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles [1/17/14] about a Jamaican woman who converted to Judaism. She is now on the board of directors of a Reform congregation in west Los Angeles. This is how it should be.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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