Jewish Journal

Seek the Convert

by Dennis Prager

Posted on May. 20, 2004 at 8:00 pm

Illustrations by Tamar Messer

Illustrations by Tamar Messer

Shavuot is the holiday when we read The Book of Ruth, a story of a Moabite woman who left her people to join her mother-in-law, Naomi, and the Jewish people. Ruth was the ancestor of David, King of Israel. On this holiday, we celebrate the converts, as Ruth said, "Your people shall be my people, your god, my God."

What is Judaism supposed to say, if anything, to non-Jews? We have not devoted a moment to rethinking our old answer -- that we have nothing Jewish to say to non-Jews, and that all we want is that they be good people. Yet, this answer is as intellectually vapid as it is un-Jewish and, as we shall see, self-destructive. There is nothing more important for the Jewish future than rethinking it.

If Jews do no seek converts, they must make peace with the fact that the rest of mankind will either remain where it is, adopt other religions, or invent new ones.

Given these alternatives -- and how much Jews have suffered because of many of them -- it boggles the mind that Jews do not offer Judasim to non-Jews. Or to put it bluntly, any Jew who does not fear the steady increase in Muslim fundamentalism, both in the Muslim and Western worlds, the erosion in the West of the Judeo-Christian ethic and a corresponding steady march toward neo-paganism, and increased anti-Semitism in many places, is a fool.

But it is not enough merely to recognize negative trends. Jews ought to do something about them. Yes, do something about them. While many individuals who were born Jewish have deeply influenced the world, for 2,000 years the Jewish people and Judaism have been reacting to the world, not acting upon it -- at a cost of terrible suffering to the Jews and non-Jews.

In order to influence the world, Jews can and must do two things: teach ethical monotheism and offer Judaism. Or the world will go its own unmerry way, and the Jews once again will be victims of a world they did nothing to influence.

The More Jews the Better

We lost one out of every three Jews during the Holocaust. Today we continue to lose about the same percentage to assimilation. Obviously, we are in terrible need of more Jews. With more Jews every Jewish problem comes closer to solution.

More Jews means far more Jewish resources -- more Jewish schools, more Jewish institutions of all types, more resources to resettle Jews, to help poor Jews, to fight anti-Semitism and to build Israel. Conversely, the fewer Jews there are, the more impotent and irrelevant to the world Jews become. With small numbers, Jews will become little more than a religious sect -- much better known, but not much more influential -- than the Amish. While large numbers do not ensure great influence, nations surely do not increase their influence while their already small numbers dwindle.

And, of course, more Jews means more Jewish security. Small groups invite big bullies. If Jewish numbers are great enough, anti-Semites will think twice before attacking Jews. That is why Arab countries that want to see Israel disappear fear Jewish immigration to Israel more than they fear any weapons given to Israel.

There are only two ways of increasing our numbers -- through a very high birthrate and by gaining converts.

The first method, however, is not working. Many of the Orthodox (especially the ultra-Orthodox) are reproducing in very high numbers, but that will not even make a dent on the overall demographic problem. Given the low birthrate among other Jews, and given the high rate of Jewish assimilation, the surging Orthodox birthrate will only mean that the ultra-Orthodox will constitute a significantly higher percentage of Jews.

The only method of increasing the number of Jews is by gaining New Jews.

Seeking converts to Judaism will also dramatically decrease anti-Semitism. The most obvious reason is that greater Jewish numbers reduce the likelihood of anti-Semitic violence. But there are two additional reasons.

It will force Jews to relate to non-Jews

First, Jews should never forget what the great German rabbi and hero of German Jewry, Leo Baeck said: "If all Germans had had a Jewish relative," the Holocaust could not have happened. People do not generally slaughter members of their family, or that person's friends and relatives. Furthermore people are simply more disposed to liking those whom they trust, and they are more likely to trust whose whom they know well.

To put it in understated terms, Jewish seclusion does nothing to diminish anti-Semitism.

It does not take an advanced degree in social psychology in order to appreciate that the more and better that identifying Jews related to non-Jews, the more positive non-Jews' reaction to Jews will be.

And nothing will induce Jews to relate more and better to non-Jews than a sense of mission to them. We are not living in the Middle Ages when Jews were unable to relate to non-Jews as equals or were forcibly confined to ghettos. Historical circumstances under both Christian and Muslim rule rarely enabled Jews to think about relating normally with non-Jews, let alone about advocating Judaism. For nearly 2,000 years, Jews have had to turn inward. Today Jews have a choice, but many religious Jews continue to live as if the ghetto is the Jewish ideal. Freedom means opportunity, and for Jews opportunity means the chance to finally re-embark on their mission to humanity.

That mission is first and foremost to teach the world ethical monotheism, which is the affirmation of the one God whose primary demand is that people treat each other justly. There is much more to ethical monotheism, especially in our age of resurgent paganism (for example, the growing worship of nature). That is not the Jews' only calling. Part of the Jews' mission is also to offer Judaism to those who do not already affirm a religious tradition consonant with Judaism's ethical monotheist values. Even though most Jews think otherwise, seeking converts is very Jewish.

Not seeking converts causes resentment

Outreach efforts to non-Jews will also reduce anti-Semitism because not seeking converts actually causes resentment among many non-Jews. This is something of which very few Jews are aware. It is the very opposite of what they believe, which is that not seeking converts makes us admirable and lovable to non-Jews. That belief is wrong.

Many non-Jews see in the lack of Jewish proselytizing a disregard for them. They see it not as an affirmation of non-Jews' religious values, but as an affirmation of Jewish purity of blood. They see our ignoring them as a desire not to have non-Jews join us, lest our clan be polluted by non-Jewish blood.

Are they wrong? Not very. There is a clannishness that pervades much of Jewish life. How could it be otherwise? Secular Jews have no religion to share, so their entire Jewish identity is ethnic. And, sadly, even many religious Jews feel similarly.

By seeking New Jews, Jews can undo this perception of a clan that doesn't care about outsiders. We would be announcing that our values -- not our bloodlines -- are sacrosanct, that we seek anyone of any racial or ethnic background to become one of us.

Judaism will attract some of the finest people in the world. People do not become Jews in order to attain salvation (they can attain it, according to Judaism, without converting). People certainly do not become Jews in order to become popular. Jews are hardly the most popular people on earth. Anyone who moves from a majority culture to Judaism is usually doing so for idealistic reasons, even if marrying a Jew is the original impetus.

A better world

Even if seeking converts did not lessen anti-Semitism by one iota, Jews should be passionately pro-conversion. Could any committed Jew argue that if there were millions more people living Judaism, the world would not be a better place?

Imagine a world in which 100 million Jews were trying to lead lives in accordance with Jewish values. Imagine a world that set aside its preoccupation with money one day each week. Imagine a society in which tens of millions of its members really believed that gossiping was wrong, where a sex ethic lying between hedonism and sexual repression became the norm, where people consulted Jewish laws before entering business deals. Imagine a world that read the Torah weekly; that studied biblical and other Jewish texts a few hours each week during office hours.

A committed Jew who is not moved by such a dream is not committed to Judaism's dream.

And if such a dream seems too romantic, I will pose the question in a more down-to-earth manner: Would the world be better or not if many of its inhabitants took up Judaism? Would Jews prefer that non-Jews searching for religious or spiritual meaning read Maimonides or Shirley Maclaine?

It will be good for Judaism

A major reason to seek converts is the positive effect of many New Jews on Judaism. Go to almost any Jewish community in America today, and you will find that a disproportionate number of that community's most dynamic Jews are New Jews. Having spoken in virtually every Jewish community in North America, I no longer even react upon being told that the women's division is headed by a Jew-by-choice, or that the chairman of the day school's board became a Jew 10 years ago, or that the leading voice on behalf of Israel is a convert. I simply respond, "So what else is new?"

Jews-by-choice bring something else into Jewish life -- freshness. We have become too inbred, too much like each other (even when we thoroughly dislike each other). New Jews bring healthy attitudes toward Judaism, toward the world. True, they don't come with childhood memories of Shabbat, but neither do the vast majority of Born Jews anymore, and they also don't come with unhealthy Jewish emotional baggage from childhood. They bring an attitude of joy at being Jewish, not just the "Shver zu sien a Yi" ("It's tough to be a Jew") attitude that many Jews have.

In fact, this joy at being a Jew often confuses Born Jews. "We were stuck with it, but they chose it," many incredulous Jews exclaim in response to the enthusiasm of New Jews.

New Jews challenge us -- and we certainly need to be challenged. They keep asking why. And telling them that this is the way it was done in our parents' home doesn't quite answer their questions. Nor should it. Jews are supposed to live according to authentic Judaism, not according to the patterns of behavior, speech, dress and cuisine of Eastern European Jews. To cite a simple example, it is Eastern European tradition, not Judaism, which calls for eating chicken on Friday nights.

Being around New Jews forces Born Jews to think about their religion and identity, not just assume it.

Between the Holocaust and the never-ending need to fight for Israel's survival, as well as combat the new anti-Semitism, we are a somewhat weary people. New Jews invigorate us; give us hope. In fact, they may be our best hope.

Moreover, nothing will persuade Born Jews to take Judaism seriously better than converts to Judaism. Assimilated Jews tend to assume the values of the non-Jewish majority among whom they live. What, then, could possibly be as Jewishly influential on these Jews as the sight of non-Jews choosing to become Jews?

We need them

The very best way to attract Jews is to have them see Judaism touching the world, and the world responding positively. One of the reasons that so many Jews ignore Judaism is because of their perception that it is insular and provincial -- that it only relates to Jews. When we demonstrate that Judaism relates to anyone, unaffiliated Jews will begin to look seriously at it.

Unlike many Born Jews, untold numbers of non-Jews would love to be part of the Jewish people and to live a Jewish life. They would love a religion that stresses right behavior as much as right faith, that teaches one how to incorporate the holy into everyday life, that stresses a life of the intellect, that makes one a member of a people as well as religion, that is the oldest ongoing civilization in the world, that gave the world God and the Ten Commandments, and that, through involvement with the Jewish people, keeps one passionately involved in the great moral issues of the day -- from the Middle East to Eastern Europe to relations with Christians and Muslims.

Untold numbers of non-Jews need Judaism. And Judaism needs them.

Dennis Prager hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show based in Los Angeles. He is the author of four books, including "Why the Jews? The Reason for Anti-Semitism" with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (Simon & Schuster). To find out more about Dennis Prager, visit www.dennisprager.com. or the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. This essay is adopted from a longer version written in 1990.

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