LOS ANGELES (Nov. 7)
A leading Conservative rabbi has challenged American Jews to embark on a mission to convert unaffiliated Christians to Judaism.
The time has come, says Rabbi Harold Schulweis, for Jews to emulate the missionary practice of their ancient forebearers through “a national or international Jewish movement to educate, invite and embrace non-Jews into the fold.”
The message is not new. Alexander Schindler, president emeritus of the Reform movement, advocated three years ago to offer Judaism to unchurched Christians.
But the stature of the new messenger has engendered renewed debate among Jewish and Christian theologians.
It also comes amid controversy over a Southern Baptist Convention resolution encouraging evangelizing of Jews.
In a sermon to his Valley Beth Shalom congregation in Encino, Calif., Schulweis highlighted some of his key arguments for conversionary outreach to unaffiliated gentiles.
Schulweis cited the attraction of Judaism as a world religion, its ancient tradition of proselytizing and the argument that conversion of non-Jewish spouses in mixed marriages is the surest guarantor of producing children and grandchildren with strong Jewish identities.
Many non-Jews “hunger for an authentic, moving and relevant faith,” Schulweis said. “One would expect that a community that is so concerned with its own perpetuity would reach out actively to embrace these people, who quite seriously enjoy and are sustained by Jewish wisdom and faith.”
Orthodox and Conservative rabbis took issue with Schulweis, saying that the Jews must first focus on the indifferent and unaffiliated in their own ranks before trying to attract non-Jews.
“Millions of Jews would respond to an aggressive outreach campaign, while proselytizing non-Jews would be seen as a sign of weakness,” said Rabbi Raphael Butler, national executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. “Why should anyone want to join a group that can’t hold on to its own members?”
Noting that Ruth, the Moabitess, is often cited as one of the Bible’s most famous converts, Butler responded dryly that Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, “didn’t conduct a marketing campaign.”
Rabbi Nachum Sauer, head of graduate Judaic studies at the Yeshiva of Los Angeles, said Jewish law requires that would-be converts be discouraged and “pushed away,” rather than courted.
Sauer said Conservative and Reform leaders sought converts mainly to make up for former congregants lost to secularism.
Conservative Rabbi William Lebeau, dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, termed an active conversion outreach a complicated issue, widely discussed in Conservative circles.
“We have to decide whether to use our limited resources and energy on reaching non-Jews, or within the Jewish community,” including the intermarried, Lebeau said.
Lebeau said most Conservative leaders would favor meeting the religious and spiritual needs within the Jewish community first.
Schulweis says the concept of Judaism as a missionary faith is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and theology.
The prophet Isaiah declared that God had “created and appointed you a covenant people, a light for the nations,” and the Talmud states that “God exiled the Jews from their homeland for one reason: to increase the number of converts,” he said.
Jews were extremely active and successful proselytizers throughout the Roman Empire, until such activities were made a capital crime and forcibly suppressed when Christianity became the state religion.
Among those supporting Schulweis is Rabbi David Wolpe, assistant to the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“As the originators of monotheism, we have a lot to say to the world,” said Wolpe, whose latest book appropriately bears the title, “Why Be Jewish?”
“People increasingly see [conversionary outreach] as a worthy mission, especially when you see how much thoughtfulness and devotion has been brought to Judaism by those who have converted,” he added.
Addressing the “lack of resources” argument, Wolpe said, “The more you expand the Jewish base, the more you expand the resources.”
Conversions may have the biggest impact in mixed marriages. When a non-Jewish spouse does not convert, the couple’s children are almost sure to marry non- Jews, assuring assimilation in a couple of generations, according to surveys.
In contrast, when the gentile spouse converts, those marriages score higher in almost every aspect of Jewish identity and religious practice than couples made up of two people who were born Jews, says Schulweis.
But Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jewish communal affairs department, says he doubts that conversionary outreach will have any effect on communal demographics.
Only one of every 14 non-Jews in mixed marriages becomes a convert, said Bayme.
One reason for this phenomenon, he said, may be that mixed marriages, with both spouses retaining their original religions, are now so common and accepted that there is no pressure on either side to convert.
Schulweis warns against seeking converts for the sake of replacing demographic losses.
“Those who come to us must not be seen as surrogates of our Holocaustal losses or as replacements for those who have left us. They must not be used as means to ends, but as ends in themselves,” Schulweis says.
He is not too sanguine that this advice will be heeded.
“The conversionary movement will be successful, but for the wrong reasons,” he says.
Ideally, he says, “Jewish mission means to act out our belief that we are not a parochial, sectarian, ethnic clan, but a people whose faith and wisdom have endured for four millennia.”
Schulweis’ proposal was welcomed by at least one Catholic leader.
If unaffiliated Christians can be reached by a Jewish outreach mission, “step right up and bring these people to God,” says Eugene Fisher, the U.S. Catholic Church’s point man for ecumenical affairs,
“There are 60 million Roman Catholics in the United States and 1 billion in the world,” says Fisher. “So the effect of losing some adherents is different for us than for the Jews. The story would be different, say, if in Israel they tried to convert Catholics, where they are a small minority.”