Virtual Talmud

Should Judaism proselytize? No. Should it be more welcoming? Yes.

For years most rabbis instinctly followed the Talmudic norm that one should push away converts warning them about the difficulties of becoming Jewish. God knows how many conversions stopped with a rabbi explaining to a potential convert, “Do you know how hard this is going to be?” For 2,000 years, this approach was adopted by Jews across the spectrum.

Of course, there were some at the margins of Jewish life who said otherwise, but for the most part that was the general approach adopted by leaders in the Jewish world. Then came the realization that the Jewish community was doing such a good job at pushing people away from converting (while at the same time being super-welcoming) that many congregations had more non-Jews in their pews on Shabbat morning than Jews. So recently, Rabbi Eric Yoffie (Reform) and Rabbi Jerome Epstein (Conservative) each independently called on his respective movement to stop being so welcoming and start doing more converting. Talk about making a theological 360!!

Epstein’s and Yoffie’s words have generated a great deal of discussion and have highlighted the shifting boundaries of identity politics in Jewish life. Many, including my teacher Dr. Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee and of the Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, and Dr. Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, have hailed the initiative as “constructive” and “courageous.”

On the other hand, there have been those on the left and on the right who have criticized the shift toward conversion. Blogger Steven I. Weiss has pointed out some of the seeming contradictions and problems with Yoffie’s approach, including the irony of those who lambaste Christian evangelicals promoting conversion for non-Jews. Likewise, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of NYU Hillel has expressed fear that such proselytizing will trickle down to the college campus, making pluralisitic Hillel houses into conversion centers.

For Orthodox Jews, the issue is of a different nature but one no less pressing. Sadly, those who are being converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis will one day come in front of an Orthodox Jew who will question their conversion.

With an intermarriage rate hovering around 50 percent, such situations will only become more common and create more of a divide between the different denominations. Nonetheless, it would seem that Yoffie and Epstein are correct: As Bayme has documented, in the long run those who take “the plunge” into Judaism breed stronger and more vibrant Jewish families. And isn’t that what’s most important?

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