Posted on: August 5, 2013
I posted a blog from my friend and fellow black, gay Jewish woman (and Rabbi-to-be) Sandra Lawson this weekend. In it, Sandra shared not only her rabbinic journey, but her Jewish journey. In her blog she wrote about the need for Jews to not necessarily proselytize, but to be more open to sharing Judaism with those who are not Jews. I love Sandra and as I’ve said before I do believe that the Jewish community will be better off having people like her as rabbis, but I’m going to have to disagree with my rabbi friend. How very Jewish of me, eh? I do think that Jews need to do a better job of sharing Judaism with the world-not just Jews.
Having grown up in a Baptist/Methodist/Catholic family and school structure I don’t mean proselytize in the preaching on the subway about the goodness of Torah way. I also don’t know if the mikvah tanks that circle NYCs boroughs is the right idea either. I’ve never been stopped by Chabad on Sukkot asking if I’m Jewish and if I want to say the prayers. Clearly, I’m not the kind of Jewish they’re looking for.
What I’m saying is that our communities should be more open to people who are curious about Judaism. Perhaps not as extreme as the Jew in the Box exhibit in Europe, but somewhere in between. Like Goldie Locks I’m looking for proselytism that’s juuust right. Maybe that’s why I invite non-Jews into our home for Shabbat meals on Pesach and for the holiday, maybe the preacher in my mother’s church had a lasting impression, after all. If we’re to remember to stranger and ask them to our table symbolically at Pesach, why don’t we actually do this in practice? Would it be so wrong, say, for synagogues to open their doors once or twice a year to non-Jews curious about Judaism? What would the Jewish community look like if we did that? How rich would we be as a people learning and gleaning from the experiences of others?
Not to mention that we have a history of proselytizing.
I found this on Reform Judaism.com
Yes. According to the Jewish historian Salo Baron, in great part because of proselytizing, the number of Jews grew from 150,000 in 586 B.C.E. to eight million in the first century C.E.—at which time they constituted 10% of the Roman Empire! Jews were working very hard then to convert pagans; the Gospel of Matthew reports that Jewish proselytizers traveled over sea and land to make a single proselyte (23:15).
Why, then, did Jews stop proselytizing gentiles?
The cessation was imposed by Roman edicts, not rabbinic rulings. In the fourth century C.E., after the empire adopted Christianity as the state religion, Roman emperors made conversion to Judaism a criminal offense, punishable by death of both the proselytizing Jews and the convert. The code of the Roman Emperor Theodosius declared: Any person who “betakes himself to the nefarious sect of Judaism shall sustain with them the deserved punishment of death…” (Theodosius Code 116.8.1, August 13, 339). The Holy Roman Empire hoped to dismantle the Jewish mission to be “a light to the nations” and thus drive a universal faith into a parochial tribalism.
Then there’s this little snippet from Mi Yodeya and the fun commentary in the comments that follow.
It is often asserted that up until the time of Constantine or so, Judaism was an actively proselytizing religion. This can be contrasted with the common practice today of rejecting potential converts until their utmost sincerity can be determined.
Some groups seek to restart what they see as the lost tradition of proselytizing to non-Jews.
Do traditional Jewish sources address this concept? Is it understood by Chazal that we did in fact seek out converts at one point in time?
Perhaps the word proselytizing is scary, foreign and smells of evangelical preachers on street corners, maybe we need to really just embrace our own lingo and truly open up our tents. And it would seem, at least to me, that we did indeed seek to find new converts, either by the sword or because we were obligated to and I, for one, think the practice should be reconsidered. I suppose I do my little part by talking to people who email me about their desire to be come Jews. I, of course, encourage them to follow their hearts, but I also want them to become Jews.
I received the following letter from a woman interested in Judaism. If you have any suggestions for her, please be kind and leave them in the comments.
I have been on somewhat of a spiritual journey since high school and recently remembered your blog and wondered if I could come to you for a bit of advice and perspective. I apologize in advance for the lengthy message!
I was born and raised Roman Catholic and first started having doubts about Christianity when I left my Catholic school and entered my secular high school as a teenager. Shortly thereafter I met one of my best friends and became close to her family, all of whom were Jewish. I became quickly enamored with the beauty and tradition of Judaism, as well as the generosity and kindness I experienced in her family. I began thinking very seriously about eventually converting to Judaism.
After I graduated from high school, however, I started feeling more distance and fear of conversion because of my race. I was actually really pleased to find your blog because I’m also black and gay, and am eternally curious about how you are able to confidently integrate your race into your Jewish life. I do not believe that blackness and Judaism are mutually exclusive at all, but it is so discouraging to see constant representation of Jewish people and Jewishness as white. Although my love and respect of Judaism remains, I find it almost impossible to see myself as Jewish or find a non-white Jewish community. My religious curiosity and fear of not belonging due to my race also led me to Islam—which I have a very profound love for—but now I fear that I might not be able to live as a Muslim because of some conflicting beliefs. So, while I was unable to reconcile my personal convictions with Islamic theology, I still do find such comfort in its diverse representation.
Something else that has given me a lot of grief is my stance on Israel and Palestine. While I do support the idea of a safe homeland for Jewish people, I do not consider myself a Zionist and have lots of issues with the Israeli government. It’s a complicated situation for me because I fear that if I were to convert to Judaism—after which there would be certain people critical of my Jewishness due to my race and the fact that I converted—would I be even further excluded because of my non-Zionist position?
Gosh, I realize I’ve just unloaded an awful lot of problems onto you, and please know that I do not expect you to answer all of them or give me a super detailed response. I just feel like I’ve been swimming around in my own thoughts for a long time now and any other perspective would be extremely helpful to me—especially that of a black Jewish woman.
Thank you so much for any help you can give!
(she has a very Jewish name)