To Proselytize, or Not To Proselytize

By Michelle Albert

The CCAR, a group that represents over 2000 Reform rabbis, decided to turn the trend of interfaith marriage to their advantage by promoting conversion of non-Jewish spouses, reports the Washington Post. Though this seems a step in a favorable direction for intermarried couples, other rabbis and Jews are questioning whether they have the have the right to call people into the tribe, so to speak.

Jews do not have a history of proselytization. Unlike Christianity or Islam, which stress that a person can be saved from eternal damnation by converting, Judaism does not believe a person is doomed if they are not Jewish. And conversion to Judaism is a difficult process – potential converts are refused three times before they can begin the process. Sincerity is carefully gauged, and the learning process doesn’t stop after conversion is finalized. Given this level of difficulty, Jews seem happy to remain a small community.

What is interesting, however, as the Washington Post observes, is that the idea of Jewish proselytization is legitimized by the desire to avoid intermarriage, while Jews frown on Christian or Islam proselytization. If Jews can proselytize, then why can’t Christians and Muslims? It is hypocritical to judge others for something we might do. Perhaps it’s a numbers question. The Jewish population is smaller, therefore we should be able to bolster our numbers to be able to compete with the other major religions. But if we become swept up in competition, then the educational aspect of religion, the Jewish love of learning, will be forgotten.

There is no doubt that this is a question of survival. Jewish numbers have thinned over the years, and we should try to maintain our history and tradition. But forcing conversion on unwilling spouses will ultimately backfire, and might lead to children with no interest in religion. Proselytizing is not a bad idea, but it should be approached carefully. Sincerity and a willingness to learn, the main requirements for conversion, must be stressed. Better that the Jews gain a smaller crop of enthusiastic converts than a larger, indifferent group.

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