“Why doesn’t Judaism promote conversion, whereas other faiths do?”
Today, after a period of serious Jewish learning and study, it is possible for anyone with an open mind and heart to convert to Judaism. Those who convert are welcomed as full and valued members of the Jewish people. However, Judaism does not actively seek to proselytize and promote conversion in the same way other particular religious groups seek converts. There are most likely two reasons Jews do not actively proselytize: one reason is rooted in theology and the other in history and politics.
Some religious groups, such as certain types of Christianity and Islam, base their theological beliefs on the fact that to achieve salvation—to be saved or be accepted into heaven—a person must be Christian or Muslim and believe the same things as other Christians or Muslims. Judaism teaches that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come (Talmud Sanhedrin 105a). Therefore, most Jews believe you do not have to be Jewish to have a relationship with God or “go to heaven.” Thus it is not a Jewish imperative to seek converts in order to ensure they are provided with a pathway to God and the afterlife.
Throughout history, there are multiple examples of how a government or religion in power spread the message of their respective religion or faith to the people under their control. Converting conquered lands to your religion was a way to ensure homogeneity and peace. Historically, Jews did not maintain control over large areas of land or govern large nations; they were instead minorities, and sometimes hated minorities, in the places they lived. For the non-Jew, converting to Judaism would often be unsafe; proselytizing would have endangered the Jewish community’s precarious status with the local government. In some places, the local Christian or Muslim authorities mandated that conversion to Judaism was illegal and punishable. Because of this history, actively seeking converts was simply not a part of Jewish culture or tradition.
In recent years, there is renewed debate about how the Jewish community encourages and engages with the question of conversion. In 2005, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, then president of the Union for Reform Judaism, campaigned widely for a multi-pronged approach to conversion. In particular, he encouraged Reform clergy to connect with the spouses or partners of Jews, many of whom were already living Jewish lives, and invite them to formalize their relationship with Judaism. In his Biennial Address on Nov. 19, 2005, he wrote: “Asking someone you care about to consider conversion is simply an invitation. It is not coercion or pressure. It is an expression of valuing the individual and a desire to share a tradition that you consider precious.”
Today, a meaningful conversion process begins in a variety of ways. Some discover Judaism because they love someone Jewish, others feel a connection with Jewish theology or history, and others happen upon Judaism because a friend or loved one invites them in. All those who discover Judaism have a different story and are on their own unique journey. But ultimately, for anyone who converts, the process is about a passion and desire to join the Jewish people. We can also support our loved ones on this journey! If someone you love is considering conversion or would like to learn more about Jewish life, please help and encourage them by contacting any of the wonderful clergy or synagogues in your area. We will not pressure you to convert, but instead can offer a secure and warm environment to explore Judaism. As a rabbi, I find working with those new to Jewish life to be one of the greatest, most meaningful things I do. We are happy to share the journey with you and your loved ones.
Curious to learn more about conversion? The Jewish Discovery Institute is just one great resource in Boston.
For families where parents maintain more than one religious tradition, InterfaithFamily offers resources and community.