May 17, 2007
Is a new Reform program proselytizing -- and is that a bad thing?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"Let people know about this incredible identity that we call Judaism," he said. "I'm a rabbi because I absolutely believe that the world needs Jews, and the Jews need Judaism. And if it's something that's wonderful, as I believe it is, why shouldn't the world know more about it? It's marketing."
One of the things that Christians do well is convert people, he said: "We're not going to stand at the airports and give out flyers like Hari Krishnas, but how we get them in the door to experience Judaism is an important question."
Stern called the fear against marketing and proselytizing "ghetto Judaism."
"In a world where we're fearful for the lack of Jews, why shouldn't we be doing anything possible to get people into Judaism? It's about promoting Judaism to people don't have a religious identity."
Some observers don't see such classes as proselytizing, but rather as "outreach," says Weinberg. His AJU classes, whose breakdown he said includes intermarried couples, children of intermarried couples and some looking to reconnect with their Jewish heritage.
"There are many non-Jews who no longer follow the religion they were brought up in. They may be curious and interested in exploring Judaism," he said. "This is a good entryway for them to begin."
Besides, some of the most committed Jews -- like the biblical Ruth -- are Jews-by-choice. "I have found that people who choose to become Jewish as adults really do so; they're enthusiastic participants," Stern says. "There's very little downside to bringing them in."
Not so said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, taking the Orthodox position. His argument is not historical but a spiritual/halachic reading of Jewish law.
"You're not doing a favor to anyone by broadcasting Judaism as if it's the panacea to spiritual woes, by offering this open invitation, when you take seriously the notion that Jews are responsible for 613 commandments and there are consequences for non-compliance," he said.
Non-Jews, according to the Torah, are only responsible for the seven Noahide laws (No idolatry, incest or adultery, murder, theft, cursing God or eating the flesh of a live animal; establishing courts of justice). A non-Jew following these laws would get a place in heaven, Adlerstein said.
"When you start off with this better expectation of the non-Jewish soul and where it was going, there was much less need to proselytize, and you were doing non-Jews a disservice when they were the wrong candidates for it," Adlerstein said.
Because once a person converts to Judaism, he or she must follow all the mitzvot as someone born Jewish.
"Once you convert them, you give them the opportunity to have a different spiritual level, but the life of a committed Jew is difficult," he said. "It's a big risk."
It's not that Orthodoxy is against converts, he says. (Although the Orthodox are the only denomination that still turns converts away three times, as proscribed in the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch.) They just don't go looking for them.
"We're looking for the special neshama," Adlerstein said, the one or two souls who really need Judaism. "We're looking for the needle in the haystack, not the whole haystack."
"Judaism is the greatest thing in the world for Jews," he continued. "It was never meant to be a universal religion. Even in the Messianic age we believe that not everybody is going to be Jewish. They will recognize and take seriously the oneness of God and know what it is to serve him," Adlerstein said. But "anyone who believes that 5 million Chinese people will be eating cholent on Shabbos is making a big mistake."
Aside from the halachic problems with proselytizing and difficulty of converting so strictly, the Orthodox have no need to go out and seek converts," Adlerstein said.
"The Reform Jews are proselytizing to offset the outflow of Jews from their community. Orthodoxy is growing by leaps and bounds and that happens to not be a concern at the moment."
But it is a concern for other denominations, particularly the Reform movement. In 1949, Reform leader Leo Baeck made a call for the movement to promote conversion, establishing a "missionary center" in America to train Reform leaders to spread the faith. In 1978, longtime president of the movement, the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, head of the Reform movement from 1973 to 1996, urged Reform Jews to begin offering Judaism to the "unchurched" -- non-Jews not affiliated with a particular Christian church. He renewed that call in 1993.
A year later, "Taste of Judaism" was born. Again, slightly more than 10 years later, in 2005, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Schindler's successor as president of what is now known as the Union for Reform Judaism, renewed the call to push for conversion -- although the focus became more on interfaith members of the community than "unchurched" Christians.
Today, Stern said, "We're concerned about the Jewish future and the diminution of the population. One of the ways [to resolve the problem] is to bring in non-Jews. It's just logical. The other notion is that Judaism is a genetic identity, but you can learn to become a Jew and not have Jewish parents and be an incredible addition to the Jewish community, so why shouldn't we make that available to the Jewish people?" Stern said.
That's what Stern is trying to teach in the "Taste" class, where he uses a PowerPoint presentation.
"Judaism is the product of the Jewish people," Stern animatedly told his class of a dozen people in a small auditorium at Stephen S. Wise on the first of three Tuesday night classes recently. "The traditional view is that God came to Mount Sinai and made us Jews. I'm taking a cultural/historical perspective and saying that through that connection grew a religious identity and search for God and a religion that we came to identify with Judaism. Torah became a product of the Jewish people. Torah records what Jewish people did. The Israelites produced the Torah. That's a quick way of understanding that Judaism is much more than a faith, that people identify with it beyond a religious expression."