Why Don't Jew Proselytize?...Can They? - Episode 68
R. Avi: Welcome to Responsa Radio, where we answer questions of Jewish law in modern times! I'm Rabbi Avi Killip, and I'm here with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, a center for higher Jewish learning based in New York City. Good morning!
R. Eitan: Good morning, Rav Avi, how are you doing?
R. Avi: I'm doing well. It’s been a busy summer here at Hadar — we have our summer program, we have the Executive Seminar.
R. Eitan: Yeah, a lot of great stuff, amazing we fit in the time to do this, but halakhah and Torah calls.
R. Avi: It’s a jam-packed beit midrash, but I'm excited to make time to answer this question. We have a really interesting question to break down today. I think the specific question may be something that some people find themselves in this particular situation, but I imagine that probably most of our listeners have encountered some aspect of this dilemma at some point over the course of their lives. So I'm really curious to hear your thoughts on it.
R. Eitan: Great, let’s hear it!
R. Avi: Here’s the question: “I know that we as Jews do not proselytize gentiles to convert to our faith the way some Christians do. I also know that those interested in converting are traditionally turned away three times before being accepted on the fourth time, or something similar." And they ask, “Through social media I have befriended a number of people who have expressed interest in converting to Judaism. We’ve had a few conversations in which I've answered their questions about Jewish beliefs and practices as I've experienced them. To what extent should I be encouraging these friends of mine to pursue conversion? Based on our conversations, I believe that these people would be valuable editions to am yisrael. Since I am not a clergyperson, I cannot be the one to turn them away or accept them. What can and should I do just as a normal Jew?"
R. Eitan: This is a great question, and I have to say, it’s a question I've been thinking about more and more of late, given the ways in which it feels like, almost more than ever before, particularly — let’s just talk about North America — it feels like there’s a kind of free interchange and flux around religious identity and practice, and it feels like Judaism is sort of in this larger market of faith exploration and faith-shopping.
R. Avi: It’s on the table?
R. Eitan: It’s on the table. We actually have to confront this question in a way we haven’t had to for a long time. So I guess, actually, I want to maybe start before we get to some of the aspects of the halakhah around this, this is a great question where I feel like there’s a philosophy behind the halakhah, that you have to get at first. I might almost put that as simply as, if I ask you the question: in an ideal world, is everyone Jewish — what’s your answer to that question?
R. Avi: Yeah, I have a teacher at rabbinical school, one of my professors who just was very open about saying that yeah, we should be getting everyone to convert, because Judaism is awesome. And why are we worried about numbers, we should be taking out billboards, inviting people into judaism! You know, like, what we have here is good stuff, and we should be sharing it with the world. And that, sort of, anything less than actively trying to recruit people into the Jewish people is a crazy missed opportunity. And almost foolish, was his take.
R. Eitan: Yeah, I think — maybe to just lay out, you know, we try a lot of times on this show to kind of give people sort of, almost, archetypes or poles of a debate that can kind of hold different positions. I maybe just want to start there and say, yeah, there are kind of two fundamentally different ways of thinking about that question. Let’s start with the way you just articulated it, in the form of one of your teachers. Let’s just go to a verse that’s pretty familiar, I'm sure, to a lot of our listeners from the book of Zecharia, and it comes at the end of the Aleinu that’s said several times a day, v’haya hashem lamelekh al kol ha’aretz, vayom hahu hashem yihyeh hashem echad ushmo echad. G-d will, someday, in the glorious future, be the ruler over all the earth; on that day, G-d’s name will be One. And there is a notion there of, at least the way you can read that verse, of, yeah, the goal is that the sort of distinctive relationship that the Jewish people have had with G-d and through the Torah will eventually become the lot and destiny of all of humanity. And the simplest way you translate that is, ideally everyone becomes Jewish, and then of course, somewhere along the way, even if you don’t get everyone, there’s a push to bring as many people in as possible, and conversion in that sense should really be a positive obligation, certainly, at least, a strategy.
R. Avi: Yeah, it makes me think of — I've been studying early midrashim of Avraham, you know, he’s obviously gotta recruit some people to the project, because you can’t just rely on the Jews that there already are, because there aren’t any. And those midrashim seem to really give framework and language for how would you go about actively recruiting to the project, and even negating other faith options, you know, in particular, that’s usually about monotheism versus idolatry, which is maybe not exactly the framework. I don’t know what the previous religious backgrounds are of the people that this person is talking about. But that certainly seems like one extreme, right? Is to say, not only should these people be Jewish, everybody should be Jewish.
R. Eitan: Yeah, and our long-term vision is, we want to get there as much as we can, as effectively as we can. That is completely different from a different kind of attitude and approach that I think you can find in other places. I think you see it, actually, pretty starkly, in sefer Devarim, in the book of Deuteronomy, where G-d says things like — or Moshe, really, says things, right, in G-d’s name — like, yeah, I don’t love you because you’re so big; atem am meat mikol haamim! You’re the smallest of all the nations on the earth! And it’s not your size that makes our relationship, and you can almost read that as a normative statement, of, actually, if you think this is about getting as many people in this group as possible, you’ve misunderstood what it is. It’s basically one family, one clan, that expands over time, that, sure, some people marry into, some people join, but it’s basically defined by the descendants of that group. It’s not a mission meant to be brought to the whole world. It’s about a particular family and nation, that is meant to thrive and live in some kind of special relationship with G-d. And then it’s not that you’re closed to conversion, but it’s just in no way part of your strategic vision of where you are aiming to go.
R. Avi: Yeah, that feels more in line with, you know, the questioner started with by saying oh, I have an assumption that Jews don’t try to convert gentiles to Judaism. That’s the starting place. And this idea, maybe you can tell us a little bit about what’s behind this, this idea that you turn away people three times before you even let them convert.
R. Eitan: Great, so let’s jump into that, and actually just sort of survey a little bit. What I would say — maybe we could come up with more — but what I would say is at least three reasons that Jews have historically pushed converts away. And I'll kind of lay them out and maybe we can look at some texts that play out of them. One is a concern that they really be consenting to what they’re doing, and really understand what’s happening. Two is fear that they bring some ulterior motive to the table, other than actually wanting to join the covenant between G-d and Israel. And three is fear of non-Jewish — and in particular, Christian and Muslim — governments that would not have allowed or wanted Jews to be poaching peopple from their faith community and bringing them into the opposite team, as it were.
R. Avi: Ah, so the last one is a little bit live-and-let-live, we’ll just mind our own business, keep our own mitzvot, and we won’t bother anybody else.
R. Eitan: Yeah, in that perspective from the other side, it’s more like, we’re in charge. And don’t you come and messing with Christendom or with Islam as a dominant religion. But let’s go through these one by one, because I think we need to understand them if we want to entertain the question that perhaps our contemporary moment is different, and maybe we can talk about what we think about that. So let’s start with consent. When we go back to the classic articulation of the conversion process in the Babylonian Talmud, so it’s a really interesting scene: it starts with ger shebalehitgaer, when a prospective convert comes and wants to convert, there’s already a narrative element there that’s interesting, right? We didn’t go and find that person, we weren’t out there with our mission traveling all over the world. They came to us, and when they do come, bazman hazeh, in this time, we’ll come back to that in a second — what you’re supposed to say to them, or what you do say to them, is “ma raita she ba ata lehitgaer?" “Why are you converting?" What are you seeing, literally, but on some level, there’s a kind of almost astonishment here, of, why in G-d’s name would you want to do this? And the text goes on and says “don’t you know that Israel at this moment in history are kind of pathetic, oppressed, tempest-tossed by history and economic circumstances, and they suffer a lot? Do you get what you’re getting into here?" And only if the convert says yeah, I totally know that and I feel like nonetheless I'm not sure I'm fully worthy to join this project, then, mikablim otomia, then you accept them immediately.
R. Avi: Yeah. So I'm curious. Who do you think is actually behind that? Do you read that as a genuine concern for other people, of saying it’s tough to be a Jew, why do you — we should — save yourself, you know? You don’t have to do this. Does that feel genuine, or is there something else behind that?
R. Eitan: So, it’s a great question whether there’s something else behind that, and I want to come back to that later. For now, if I just go with the surface-level meaning here, I think this is one room in a larger house of the concern of cosent. Meaning, one of the core requirements of conversion is that it be done with the free will of the convert. You cannot grab someone off the street, circumcise them against their will, throw them in a pool of water, and say 'youre now Jewish.' Right? There needs to be buy-in internally. And there is a sense here in this text that sometimes people actually think they’re consenting to things that they are not consenting to, because they have not really gotten the full picture. And I think this is in fact genuinely part of a real concern that this person, like, encountered some synagogue service, or they saw a mitzvah that they thought was beautiful, but they have no full comprehension of what it’s gonna be like to be subject to antisemitism, what the political limitations may be on them. And you want to make sure before they go through this process that they know what they’re getting into. In that sense, this dissuasion of converts is for the benefit of the convert.
R. Avi: Yeah, right. And I think, you know, if we pull back with our question, the questioner said, I'm interacting with people who have expressed interest in converting to Judaism, just noting that it’s already such a far cry — this person who is feeling this anxiety of, am I doing something wrong by talking to these people about conversion, they’re already definitely in the camp of talking to people who have reached out to them. It’s so different than saying, oh, what I do on Twitter in my free time is I tweet at people asking them if they’d like to join the Jewish people. Which could be a different model — we’re already so far away from that.
R. Eitan: Yeah, that’s right. So, we’ll talk about, sort of, where we are today, but I'd say this is one element. Like, do you know what you’re getting into? And the text goes on to engage that on religious terms as well, like, that’s great, you went to a Friday night dinner, you thought it was beautiful — do you understand that there are, like, restrictions around Shabbat? Do you understand there’s actually a heavy rhetoric of expectation and even consequence around, you know, if you violate Shabbat from the perspective of the tradition, it’s not like oh, too bad, you didn’t get to do it that week, but actually you’ve done something wrong. You’ve sort of breached a norm — do you get that? Do you wanna sign up for that? There’s almost an interesting thing of the anonymous questioner here almost saying I don’t know if I'd sign up for that if I hadn’t already been born into it! So that’s reason one that traditionally there’s been a hesitance to accept converts — making sure they have fully read the document and clicked 'I agree.'
R. Avi: They know what they’re getting into.
R. Eitan: Right. Now, a very different kind of thing, if that’s a concern about the convert themselves. Something that’s much more concerned about the community accepting them, is the alterior motive concern. We did an earlier episode around questions around marriage and conversion —
R. Avi: Right, can I convert for love, I think.
R. Eitan: Yeah. So we touched a little on this, but this was very specific on that. But more broadly, there’s a concern — maybe the person wants to be Jewish because there are benefits that flow from it. There are things that actually, they want access to, which they feel they can only get access to by being Jewish, but they’re not in it for the spiritual transformation. The term that’s sometimes thrown out for this is 'shulhan melachim’"someone that converts in order to eat at the king’s table. But which becomes a kind of metaphor for, are there real, kind of, material benefits that perhaps are involved in the desire to convert. And the most striking statement I know of this is kind of two back-to-back statements in the Talmud: one which says, 'ein mikablin geirim temot hamashiach,' when the messiah comes you don’t accept converts,
R. Avi: It’s too late to sign up for the winning team.
R. Eitan: Too late, yeah.
R. Avi: Bandwagon fan.
R. Eitan: Yeah. And when juxtaposed with the next statement, which says 'in the days of David and Solomon they did not accept converts,' you realize that these two statements seem to be making some claim of, oh, those are the periods in Jewish history, in the past and in the future, where the Jews have it good. And the Jews are powerful. And you want their passport. And you want to be a part of their humming economy, et cetera, et cetera. At that point, it’s not clear, at least according to these texts, is there a way for someone to have a general spiritual journey into that space. That’s a very different kind of resistance to conquer, right? That’s about, I'm worried you’re coming in for the wrong reasons.
R. Avi: And what would be so bad about that?
R. Eitan: Yeah, great question. I think there’s some notion that perhaps it will undermine or erode a sense of shared mission and purpose that the Jewish people has. This — I think we can also engage with the questioner today, what do you do if you feel like, well, among the Jewish people there’s erasure, something that’s eroding or uneven. But yeah, I think it’s the concern — I don’t know, it’s like when immigration authorities are sort of trying to figure out does this person want a green card because they’re actually interested in becoming a citizen and contributing member, et cetera, or are they finding their way in for some other reason? I don’t know that it’s so clear, cut, and dried. It’s a text, though, that’s expressing anxiety in that matter.
R. Avi: Yeah, I think I see something different in it. There’s a way in which this second reason feels completely opposite to the first, like they can’t possibly happen at the same time. And there’s another way to read it, which I think is what I hear in it, where they are actually exactly the same concern. Their concern of, when the going gets tough will you not want to be Jewish anymore? And the first is, do you know the going is tough? And the second is, it seems good now so you want in now, but you should realize it might not always be this way for your descendants, even if it stays this way for your whole lifetime. And you have to really be willing to sign up for the bad times if you want to sign up for the good times.
R. Eitan: Yeah, it’s an interesting reading. I think the question you’d have to answer with that reading is, but at least in the second set of texts, there’s no prescribed dialogue where as long as they know what’s going on, then they sign up. It sounds more like just a blanket exclusion, even though I will say that it’s always hard with texts like this. Like when it says they didn’t accept converts in the time of David and Shlomo, does that mean it’s forbidden to do so? Or it’s just describing, well, that was the reality of what happened, maybe we can learn something from that. That part is maybe a little vaguer.
R. Avi: Yeah. So then we will be left with a more complicated question of, do we think we’re i the time of David and Shlomo?
R. Eitan: Yeah, that’s what I think is going to be one of our many questions of this. Let’s just get to the third one.
R. Avi: Okay, great.
R. Eitan: The third point of resistance is the notion that, yeah, the governments under which we lived did not allow us to convert people. Or if we did, there was a real risk that you would be perceived in a way as a traitor to the state. That is to say, we’re so used to in contemporary, liberal democracies, of, oh, well okay, Jews are citizens like any others, and so they have the right to be in the same religious marketplace as any others. But for most of, certainly, medieval Jewish history, Jews were tolerated minorities, but who were meant to remain as such. So you have the most amazing manifestation of this that I know is in the aruch hashulhan, Rav Yechiel Michael Epstein’s great code of Jewish law. He gets to the part in the shulhan aruch that deals with the laws of geirim, of converts, which usually has a title that is something simple like 'dinei geirim,' the laws of people converting to Judaism. Listen to how he titles it: 'dinei geirim b’yamim hakadmonim’ — rules of conversion in the ancient times, 'ubemedinateinu, ein lanu reshut l’kabel geirim m’dinei d’malchuta’ — but in our land today, and he’s writing in late 19th century Lithuania — in our lands today, we are not permitted to accept converts by the law of the government. So you first of all —
R. Avi: That’s the title?
R. Eitan: That’s the title of that section, right?
R. Avi: Catchy.
R. Eitan: It’s a catchy and sort of odd, dead-letter title, right, to put on a codification of Jewish law, but also reminding us, actually, that conversion in many times and places was a dead letter for Jewish communities, because it was simply illegal in many Christian and Muslim jurisdictions, for people to convert to Judaism.
R. Avi: I'm assuming that the person who wrote this question is in America, if not America maybe Israel. If we assume that they’re in America and we assume that here today it is not illegal to encourage someone to convert to Judaism, do you think it’s like a misplaced, leftover resistance in that case?
R. Eitan: So let’s talk about that now, sort of, how these factors play out. I think descriptively, you can imagine a community feels that it’s illegal to do something for a long time, sort of, that muscle atrophies. Right? Descriptively.
R. Avi: It’s hard to get over that.
R. Eitan: Yeah, it just becomes something you stop thinking about, something you naturally do. I mean, right, imagine what it would look like, I don’t know, if it had been like, illegal for some reason to, like, ever have two challahs on your table, and communities just got by for years and years, you know, with only having one. And then at a later point in time that drops and you come back, is it so easy to go back? Or lines are censored out of the siddur, maybe in a forcible way, but you then get used to saying Aleinu without the added line of shehen mishtachavim l’hevel varik, oh, they bow down to nothingness and vanity, at a certain point you’re like, oh, this is now my Aleinu, this is my prayer. There’s an aspect of that that just, descriptively, I think, gets to the explanation of why Jews have been out of practice of converting. But should they still be, right? That’s what I think our questioner is really asking.
R. Avi: Yeah.
R. Eitan: So let’s play it out, maybe, I don’t know, I'm interested your thoughts, maybe, and then I have a couple angles that I think may be lurking beneath the surface. I think you could make a case for none of those conditions applying. That is to say, the consent piece seems fully grounded in, oh, it’s terrible to be a Jew right now, and as long as that’s not the case and/or as long as you’re above board on explaining what it entails, seems like you could get over that hurdle.
R. Avi: Or you could read that hurdle as, that’s why I told them to sign up for the conversion class. You don’t just convert people when they don’t know what they’re getting into, we actually have a process that we take people through, at the end of which we feel like they actually know what they’re talking about.
R. Eitan: That’s right. That’s right, that seems the easiest one to get past. The third one is also pretty easy to get past, I think, which is to say, well, it’s not illegal anymore, so okay, you’re a little rusty, but, you know, there’s always been this procedure, there are laws that are codified about it, so great, go ahead and go with that procedure. I think the question of the alterior motive one is probably the one that is a little tricky and might not look the same in all contemporary Jewish contexts. That is to say, I can imagine someone in the context of the State of Israel converting for some very technical bureaucratic reasons that have to do with this kind of health benefit or this kind of job or this kind of visa.
R. Avi: Which is sort of a side effect of having a country where Jews have different rights.
R. Eitan: That’s correct. So to the extent there are realities where there is an actual gap on that front, I don’t think that’s insurmountable, but I don’t think it’s crazy to be concerned about that. As you say, it might also be holding up a mirror of, why do I have some of these bureaucratic differences and distinctions in the first place? But I think there’s a reasonable claim to be made that however prosperous and integrated the, you know, American Jewish community may be, it’s hard to imagine that someone is really on the open market of religion in America, converting to Judaism for some kind of specific economic interest. That doesn’t mean case-by-case you couldn’t identify that, but as a broader picture, not sure that’s really covered by that concern.
R. Avi: Right. We spoke in an earlier episode about a question of non-Jews performing mitzvot, and there’s something in this that it makes me think, there’s a difference between saying oh, I'm deeply moved by Judaism and I would like to be a part of it, versus, like, oh, Judaism, that’s trendy these days! I don’t know that I feel that that’s actually true in the world, that I think it’s not actually, but I could see, you know, that there are ways in which you would say, oh, yoga has become very trendy in America, yoga as we practice it is, like, is sometimes a spiritual practice and it sometimes a health class, right? It’s something offered at your gym, sometimes it’s something offered at your shul, or in a religious community. But there sort of has become a trendy version of it, and then also a serious spiritual practice which is more rooted in Eastern religion and where it actually grows out of. Is there a parallel of that with Judaism, and that’s maybe what we’re trying to avoid here, is to say, don’t try to be Jewish because, you know, your favorite movie star is Jewish.
R. Eitan: Right, and there I'd probably go back to what you said earlier, which is it seems like that could be remedied by actually just taking ourselves seriously and having classes and having a pathway, it really emphasizes this is not a sporadic attendance at a class at your local kabbalah center, this is something that is actually, like, a way of life, a set of commitments, a broader community. But you might want to be on guard for the reasons that you said, make sure you’re doing that, and people understand, hey, this is actually, like, an invitation to the extent that it is to join a covenantal community, not just, you know, to taste some samples that occasionally bring some meaning into your life.
R. Avi: So I want to bring this back to the role of the person who’s writing this question. Because a lot of the conversation we’ve had, I think, could fall into two categories: either it’s something to be considered by the person considering conversion, or issues to be considered by the clergyperson who’s determining whether or not to accept a convert. And the questioner is actually in a different position. They are asking on behalf of, they say, just a normal Jew. I'm just a member of the community, and trying to figure out what’s my role in encouraging and/or discouraging people from conversion to Judaism. I'm not sure I exactly see the parallel between those three resistances and the role of the “normal Jew."
R. Eitan: So here’s the hard thing, and I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I think it’s pretty hard to answer the question of the individual without there being some larger shaking out of the larger communal priority question. Because at the end of the day, it sounds so simple to acknowledge this, but conversion is a source-intensive process. In all kinds of ways, to the extent that there’s gonna be any kind of education, even if it’s not go study for 10 years until you’ve mastered anything, you know, even if it’s something that’s done in a more targeted way over a couple months — well, who’s gonna teach that? Who’s gonna share that wisdom? When it comes time to have circumcision, immersion, who’s going to do that? Right? Who’s going to pay for that, who’s going to be the rabbinic presence that’s involved somewhere in that position? And this is where I think the individual piece is tricky. Because on the one hand I would say, well, let’s imagine this individual person seems to have an inclination of, yeah, I'd really like to see Judaism proselytizing more.
R. Avi: Yeah, well they give us great language of, I believe these people would be valued additions to the people of yisrael.
R. Eitan: Yeah, great. And I want to do my part. So I wanna invite them over for Friday night dinners, I want to build relationships, sort of share some of my religious life with them, and make a pitch that, hey, you should be a part of this, it’s fantastic. I think not only will it add meaning to your life, but it’s something that you have a lot to contribute, right, to am yisrael, to the people that I was privileged to be born into. But at the end of the day, without some larger structure to do that, unless this person’s really gonna function as a para-rabbi, I think you can get in a difficult situation of you almost start to lead someone to a process that you don’t have the resources to actually complete. And here’s where, I don’t know what the answer is, because these resistances run very deep in all kinds of ways, I think, psychologically, but also in terms of the structure of how the entire community is set up. For instance, in North America, right, we still have a community that is organized, largely around synagogues, federations, et cetera. There may be more and more Jews that are not associated with that, but when you talk about organized Judaism, so, are converts constituents? Potential converts constituents of those organizations? If you look by contrast at the Church, right, which is referenced here by the questioner, their real resource that the Church puts into missionizing pastors, leaders, educators.
R. Avi: Right, people take a year off of their life.
R. Eitan: Yeah. Who are actually supported to invest their time — this is your job, this is what you’re supposed to be doing. Often, unless converts are marrying, you know, someone in an existing institution, or finding their way into an institution of study that happens to be connected to them in some way, it can be very hard for there to be a path that is really supported all the way to completion.
R. Avi: Yeah, I don’t know. In some ways I hear what you’re saying, and in some ways I think, you know, there are many communities that have under-enrolled Intro to Judaism classes that welcome conversion students, that, you know, what are the odds that if this person writes back, you should totally consider conversion, you know — I happen to know that there’s a JCC class on the Upper West Side that would be a great first course for you. My guess is there probably are slots in that course, and I think certainly the Reform movement actually, maybe moreso than the other movements, is investing money and resources into being extremely open about that. So I don’t know, I don’t know that that necessarily is — that it’s wrong to assume that somebody would want to take them on as a conversion student.
R. Eitan: No, I don’t think someone wouldn’t, I'm making more a comment on the reality of the resources — I don’t want to get too deep into the economics and, you know, professional time piece of this. But I don’t know that the Upper West Side is the biggest-growing edge of where missionary Judaism in America would go, and sometimes that’s the point — there are institutions in the wrong places, potentially, for actually making a dent in this. I think where I might push is, back to the philosophical question we started with, and then it’s almost like, well, what’s the role of the individual in pushing us in one particular direction? I think if you look at the historical context today, I actually think there’s a reasonable argument to be made, not only that the restrictions, the resistances that we talked about don’t necessarily apply, let’s say, in a context like North America when you’re thinking about it from like, a classic halakhic perspective, you can probably make a market claim that it’s not clear that Judaism will do so great a hundred years from now in North America if it does not develop some kind of missionary instinct. But that actually requires a community to shift its mentality in a certain way as to whether that’s going to be a priority or not. In a way I might almost say to you, maybe this sounds almost too political, the individual who wants to find those people, who they think are gonna be great additions to am yisrael, maybe has to be a voice for really helping sell the case to the community with other allies, that we should be reorienting around this question.
R. Avi: So that sounds like the answer here might be, in terms of what can and should you do as a normal Jew, that if you find yourself on the side of this issue that you think, yeah, we should be inviting more people to be Jews, you need to be making that case not only to non-Jewish people who you think should be Jews, but also to the Jewish community that we need to prioritize welcoming of Jews.
R. Eitan: Yeah, and it’s almost a kind of political lobbying, I would say, of how are resources meant to be allocated and why and to whom.
R. Avi: It makes me think a little about, I was in rabbinical school in Boston, where there is an institution called Mayyim Hayyim, that is a community mikveh. And some of the impetus behind founding that mikvah came from a place of saying, if you want to welcome people into the Jewish community, you should have a beautiful, welcoming space to do that. And the community should put some money behind that.
R. Eitan: That’s right. But someone has to decide, oh, that’s worthwhile. And here is the tricky thing that I suspect is a fourth kind of resistance that you asked before, you know, is this really about pushing people away, because of historical consequence, or is this about something else lurking beneath the surface? Always hard to speculate, you know, what does the text really mean. But I do want to say this: a Judaism that engages proselytizing on a broad scale and really, actually, in a meaningful way, you know — a Judaism in which converting people who are marrying Jews is like a rounding error on the number of people you are actually trying to bring into Judaism — inevitably changes, and is different. That is to say, there is not just the question of, do we want everyone to be Jewish? There is also the question of, well, how critical is it in terms of the character of the Jewish community, that most people be descended from Jews? As opposed to having their fundamental narrative be no, I didn’t come from this at all, I electively decided to take this on. Our tradition is full of statements that are both kind of skeptical of what it is to take this on mid-life, and incredibly laudatory of that person is on a much higher level than someone who never chose it. But actually, both of those statements recognize that it’s a different thing, right? It’s a different ethos to be part of something that fundamentally feels like, oh, I do this because my great-great-grandparents did it, as opposed to, I do this because I'm a member of this society that I have joined.
R. Avi: Is that question also rooted in the textual tradition? Does that question come up, of, does there need to be some critical mass of people who were born Jewish? I don’t think I've heard of that framework, ever.
R. Eitan: Right, so classical Jewish texts don’t really directly take it on. The closest I think I could invoke is, there’s a midrash in VaYikra Rabbah, where R. Abahu is playing off of a verse in Hoshea. And the verse in the prophet Hoshea talks about, may those who sit in G-d’s shade kind of come to sit down and be vital like the grain and flower like the vine. Okay? You have this sort of image of people coming to sit somewhere, and somehow being part of some plant. And Rebbi Abahu —
R. Avi: Something nice about that — it’s, you actually put down roots in the family tree.
R. Eitan: So this is exactly what R. Abahu says. R. Abahu says, yeshivu yoshvei be-tzilo, the people who are coming and dwelling in G-d’s shade, eilu ha-geirim, these are converts, this verse is referring to converts who come and sit in the shade, right, of G-d, under the divine canopy, as it were. And what does it mean, yechayu dagan, that they will become basically like a grain stalk? They become rooted like Israel. Okay? The sense there, and actually it’s an image that Paul uses when he’s talking about gentiles using Christianity, so we have a sense of the broader context here — we have a sense there seems to be, gentiles kind of get grafted onto the tree of Israel. Which is to say, the converts come in, they dwell in the shade, and they become, as you said, a part of the tree. That image, though, may also hint at a notion of, it’s not as if you could have a group of people — you could sort of send a single missionary to China and just locate 100,00 people, convert them all at once, and have them have no kind of connection back into a Jewish community and a family. Now it’s not clear that text means that, but some later thinkers, a later philosopher — it’s a very philosophical episode, I don’t know what’s happening — a later philosopher, a twentieth-century German American, Michael Wyschogrod, he talks about this. He talks about, conversion is something he feels like he can accept and assimilate into his theory of the Jewish people, but he goes so far as to say, but it has to be rare. Because it must be something that ultimately is kind of assimilable into the larger kind of descended-from-Jews family. Now, I'm not sure I sign onto that as that’s the only way to kind of think about this. But I cite that Wyschogrod because when you ask me, are there texts that talk about the anxiety of the proportions, it’s there. And I think that is something that does have to be asked. Meaning, it’s one thing when you talk about, if you have a base population, of, you know, six million people, and you’re talking about, hey, should I, in my relationship with people who I think would be great, be involve in trying to bring a few thousand people, you know, into this project, that’s a different kind of question than, are there maybe like another two or three million people who we could bring into this project, you know, in the next 30, 40 years? I don’t know exactly what the questioner has in mind.
R. Avi: Right. Which is also different than saying 10 million people, and it’ll outnumber the six million.
R. Eitan: That’s right, that’s even more dramatic. I think that’s an interesting question — sometimes we throw questions back at the questioner — that if we were sitting together I would also love to hear, of, is this just about, hey, this is like, the odd convert who comes into the Jewish picture as has always happened, and I just want to know what my role is? So there I would say yeah, it’s pretty simple, like, great, you have solid grounding for inviting that person, encouraging them in, having them find sort of the resources that exist in the community. But if this is the leading edge of a question of, does the North American Jewish community need to pivot to a more aggressive stance, of saying, hey, we have this covenant —
R. Avi: The billboards, should we take out the billboards…
R. Eitan: — the billboards, then I don’t think it’s a question that ultimately plays out on one individual Friday night table. It’s actually reorienting of priorities. And this is one where I'll say, to be honest, I feel a little internally conflicted. Because when I just put on my sort of, like, sociological analysis hat, it seems to me North American Judaism to thrive is going to have to have a more aggressive footing in the open market. And yet I'll also tell you, I don’t really have a proselytizing bone in my body by disposition. Which is to say, it’s very hard for me, and I think in this sense I'm kind of an heir of a lot of these resistances — having nothing to do with the desire to have converts in or out of the picture, but the notion that I would go around and tell everyone else my way of doing it is so much better than your way of doing it — it’s not my instinct to look at humanity and want everyone to be the same in that way, even though I hear Zecharia, and I hear these sort of visions, and I certainly believe and hopefully it comes across in this podcast, that halakhah and mitzvot are not just a meaningful way of living, but something that, you know, I think we think has a destiny in the world, to actually bring something to humanity. So I feel like I'm still working it through.
R. Avi: Yeah. There’s something in that text about not taking converts at the time of the messiah that actually says, the messiah will come even if everybody hasn’t converted to Judaism. That’s not a prerequisite, actually, for messiah. Which maybe from the Zecharia text, you might have thought it was. But you don’t need that from everybody in order to get there.
R. Eitan: That’s nice, that’s a great reading.
R. Avi: So it sounds like this person who’s writing to us saying, I engage in this practice and I'm doing it with some trepidation — it sounds like we’re saying, you’re fine. People are reaching out to you, they’re excited about Judaism — you’re certainly in the right place to be helping them along, answering their questions, maybe even encouraging people on a one-on-one basis to seek conversion or to explore conversion. And we got to explore the roots of this question in terms of the bigger, are there bigger-picture changes the Jewish community might want to take seriously in order to move in a direction it would be much more welcoming, try to let go of some of these resistances in a more wholesale way. Or, are we pretty much doing it right, one-on-one social media conversion is working for us? By way of closing, I just want to sort of acknowledge that I'm certain that we have many listeners who have converted, and I just want to thank you for listening and say we’re happy to have you in the Jewish people. And I hope that, should the people who this questioner is engaging with on social media end up converting, I look forward to having them in the Jewish people as well.
R. Eitan: Yeah, and just also to quote the tradition from Reish Lakish, who says, can you imagine anyone more astoundingly amazing than someone who, despite not having heard the thunder and seeing the lightning at the foot of the mountain of Sinai, nonetheless saying, this is how I wanna live my life, and I choose it just completely out of love — that is something that is always amazing, I think, in any individual conversion story. And incredibly moving for those of us who have not gone through that process, to not take for granted what it is to be a part of the covenant.
R. Avi: Responsa Radio is a project of the Hadar Institute and Jewish Public Media. Thanks to Anna Leah Bernstein Simpson for producing this podcast, and to Noa Gendler for editing this episode. Have a halakhic question you’d like answered on the show? Email us at [email protected] You can also leave us a message at (215) 297-4254.