May 17, 2007
Is a new Reform program proselytizing -- and is that a bad thing?
Sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism, the ad offered three free weekly sessions "exploring the modern Reform Jewish perspective on living in today's world," and in boldfaced letters it stated, "For beginners, Jewish or not."
"Or not" being the operative word.
In the past decade, as Jewish leaders grapple with how assimilation and intermarriage have affected the numbers of Jews, many Jewish organizations, temples and synagogues are increasing efforts to reach out to teach Judaism -- both to secular and unaffiliated Jews, as well as to interfaith families.
"In-reach" and "Outreach" these efforts are called.
But this program, called "Taste of Judaism," which has already reached more than 75,000 people in 450 synagogues around the country, is taking outreach further than the usual embrace of people who are born Jewish, or who are married to Jews. It deliberately and forcefully moves into the mainstream world, extending an open door to anyone who might just like to get to know more about becoming a Jew.
Some would argue this is an overlooked opportunity, while others see it as one more step away from halacha: Proselytizing traditionally has been seen as taboo.
"There are so many people who are interested in Judaism," said Arlene Chernow, Los Angeles regional director of outreach and membership for the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ). "Somehow it's an urban legend that you're supposed to turn them away. It is halacha, but it also says that you turn them away with one hand and welcome with another hand."
Chernow has been with the URJ for 22 years and helped implement the pilot "taste" program 11 years ago.
"I think it really opens the Jewish community to people," she said. "It gives people a sample for how Judaism can have a positive impact on their life"
In three two-hour sessions taught by a rabbi, the class attempts to provide an overview of the three major aspects of Judaism: God, Torah, Israel -- or as it's called here, "Spirituality, Ethics and Community." Before teaching the class, each rabbi attends a training course, and then tailors it individually, using text study, discussion and handouts.
The program is not targeted solely at non-Jews. Unaffiliated Jews, Jews with no religious education, intermarried Jews and friends of Jews all have enrolled in the class.
"Our goal is large, meaningful, vibrant communities that are open to people who are born Jewish and open to people who aren't born Jewish," Chernow said.
And yet the new, very public push to promote the program in mainstream media around the country to all spiritual seekers, appears to turn on its head an age-old prohibition in the Jewish community. Which raises the questions: In modern-day America, where many ancient Jewish traditions no longer hold, should this one also be relegated to ancient times? In short, can Jews seek out converts? Can Jews proselytize?
These questions become particularly poignant this week, as we celebrate Shavuot, the commemoration of when Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai. This is the holiday that celebrates Jews-by-choice, and for it we read the Book of Ruth, the story of Judaism's most celebrated convert of them all, from whom King David is a descendent.
Ruth's story is seen by many as evidence that historically, Judaism, in fact, is meant to encourage conversion and early on even actively sought out people to join the faith.
"It is important to remember that Judaism began as a proselytizing religion," said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, a Conservative rabbi and the head of the popular Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the American Jewish University (AJU) (formerly the University of Judaism). "The Book of Ruth is very pro-conversion. By the first century, according to Salo Baron, 10 percent of the Roman Empire had converted to Judaism. Proselytizing ceased when the church [in the fourth century] prohibited Jews from converting. Christians and later Islam [seventh century] prohibited Jews as well," he said.
Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, concurs with Weinberg's account.
"Historically, we certainly know that Jews in very early times converted people -- sometimes even forcibly converted people as recounted in the Bible in the book of Joshua," Sarna said.
He points out that the Talmud includes people who have converted -- and cites the major argument between Hillel and Shamai, where Hillel tells a potential convert that all of the Torah can be reduced to: "Do onto others as you would do onto yourself." He says in the early Christian era, the early post-Temple era, there was a certain amount to conversion to Judaism.
"But what happens in the Diaspora is -- especially as Jews become a minority -- the Jewish community could get into great trouble when they were seen as proselytizing," he said. "Once Christianity takes hold, whole Jewish community could be attacked because they were accused of Judaicizing."
Jews made a "virtue" out of not seeking converts, arguing that the prohibition became a point of pride, a differentiation between Judaism and Christianity. In modern times, in countries where Jews feared for their rights, like in England and Germany, the fear was that proselytizing "would undo the bargain where they were allowed to remain."
But this logic never really applied in America, which is founded on freedom of religious practice.
"American religion developed as a free market," he said. "Naturally, when you have a free market in religion, there are plenty of Jews who say, 'If they can convert me, I can convert them.' From a logical point of view how can you be in a market and refuse to compete?" he asked. "Hillel didn't seem to be worried when the proselyte came to him, so why should we?"
That's exactly how Rabbi Ron Stern feels. Stern, the charismatic teacher of the "Taste of Judaism" class at Stephen S. Wise (where Vanderhope is participating) thinks the world should know how great Judaism is.