Is It OK for Jews to Proselytize?

Is it OK for Jews to proselytize?

A terrific new article in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles tackles the question by looking at the Reform movement’s “Taste of Judaism” program. “Taste” is a three-part class that teaches the basics of Judaism to anyone who is interested–Jewish, non-Jewish, interfaith partner, whatever. Since its launch in 1994, more than 75,000 people have taken the class at 450 synagogues around the country. “Taste” is typically marketed through ads in secular newspapers.

While Orthodox Judaism still discourages converts, the Reform movement has been in favor of seeking converts for decades. In 1949, Leo Baeck established a “missionary center” to train Reform leaders to teach Judaism. In 1978, Rabbi Alex Schindler called on Reform Jews to offer Judaism to those unaffiliated with a particular Christian church.

The article also points out that Judaism has not always been against proselytizing. There are even mentions of forcible conversion in the Book of Joshua. In any case, in the early centuries of the first millenium C.E., Jews were active proselytizers–up to 10 percent of the Roman Empire converted to Judaism. Only when Jews went into the Diaspora and Christianity rose did the zeal for proselytizing die.

In modern America, an increasing number of Jews understand that Judaism needs to market itself. With geographic mobility, assimilation, intermarriage and the weakening of communal and family ties, Jews can no longer expect people to stay with Judaism simply because their parents were Jewish. Judaism must compete in the free market of ideas, like every other religion and philosophy. In today’s world, every Jew is a Jew-by-choice. Understood in that lens, “Taste of Judaism” is just a form of marketing.

Steve Arnold, a reporter with the Hamilton (Ont.) Spectator, converted to Judaism although his attraction went far beyond seeing an ad for “Taste for Judaism.” In a fascinating first-person piece, Arnold details his 40-year journey to Judaism, beginning with his high school reporting assignment where the baptized Christian attended services at a synagogue. He writes eloquently about all the joys and hardships of being a convert, from the inchoate longing for Judaism he felt for years to the bonding with fellow Jews-to-be to the sense of loss over some cherished Christian rituals. Here’s his poignant explanation of how he finally got to the place where he had to make a decision about what faith to adopt:

Like so many baby boomers, I’ve come late to the search for religious answers, spending the first 53 years of my life searching for “meaning” in possessions and position. During those years, getting ready for “the world to come” was always less important than reaching the next rung on a career ladder that was supposed to lead to success and security.

With time, those priorities have changed. I’m in the last quarter of my career now and there are no more rungs on the ladder. With my parents in frail health, and no children to ensure my own future, I know the family that has been such a support for so long will soon drift apart.

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