Why Judaism Should Seek Converts
On Shavuot we read the story of Ruth, the Moabite convert, who has the most eloquent speech of the entire Bible: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” Ruth’s refusal to turn her back on her mother-in-law, Noami, and her embracing the Jewish people and faith as her own make her one of the great heroine’s of the Bible. Might it be time to actively pursue more Ruths?
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the world Jewish community is its puny size. The number of Jews in the world has fallen below a critical mass and our paucity suggests unpleasant consequences. Foremost among them is our inability to fully defend the State of Israel. How can diaspora Jewry pressure and influence their respective governments to support the Jewish state when the Jewish population in most countries outside the U.S. is paltry? Will governments choose to side with 14 million Jews over half a billion Arabs?
Until now we have relied on two factors to offset our limited number: Jewish economic power and alliances. Each solution is flawed. Countries like Australia have only 100,000 Jews but their economic influence gives them an outsize voice. But this leads to the oft-repeated charge that Jewish money buys political influence. And it is, at best, a temporary solution since Jewish economic power is being diluted by assimilation, which is highest among the most affluent.
George Soros is a world-renowned philanthropist but he has only the most tenuous connection with the Jewish community and there are many like him. As far as our alliances are concerned, they inevitably involve trade-offs. Christian evangelicals are arguably Israel’s best friends in the Western world. But many of our committed Christian brothers still dream of the day when Jews will embrace Jesus. Our alliance with Catholicism also involves accommodations, like biting our tongue when Pope Francis visits “the State of Palestine” before even the State of Israel, and prays in front of graffiti comparing Bethlehem to the Warsaw Ghetto.
Failure to confront Palestinian terror did not start with Francis but with John Paul II – another sincere friend of the Jews – who repeatedly met with and praised a blood-soaked Yasser Arafat. But security issues aside, we Jews, whose biblical mandate is to be a light unto the nations, are meant to leave a mark on the world. Real influence, to be sure, comes from quality and not quantity, and, even as the smallest of nations, Jews have arguably been the most influential. Yet numbers still matter greatly.
Just look at the United Nations as an example of how Israel is treated with contempt mostly because we are too small in global number to influence a world body. We are fortunate that, due to an oft-exercised American veto, the UN’s regular condemnations of Israel have lost some of their bite. But if the American Jewish community, which is sizable and influential, did not stand up for Israel so passionately, Israel would face insurmountable international pressure.
Kicking up Jewish numbers isn’t going to be easy, and vastly increasing the Jewish birthrate, as well as reversing assimilation, is key. But it is high time we addressed the issue that Jews have traditionally shied away from: actively proselytizing non-Jews to Judaism. The Mormons have grown in just 150 years to roughly 14 million, the same as the number of the world’s Jews, even though we have been around three thousand years longer.
The reason: the Mormons field a global missionary force of 60,000. Why have Jews not proselytized? Our standards for conversion are high and we refuse to water them down to allow people to enter. And we would prefer not having converts to having insincere ones, which is admirable and necessary. We can brook no compromise on Jewish halakhic guidelines.
Then there is this. Unlike every other religion in the world, we Jews don’t claim a copyright on truth. We don’t believe that by becoming a Jew you come closer to God than you would as a Christian or Muslim. We respect the Godly qualities of other faiths that lead to a righteous life. And yet what I have learned from the many public debates I have had with Christian scholars is that there is always a group of participants who feel uncomfortable with what they see as Christianity’s accommodations with paganism. The idea of a man as God leaves them cold. They are likewise put off by the pagan overtones of the Creator conceiving a child with a woman. They are unenthusiastic about the Christian idea of original sin and its emphasis on belief over action.
It is to those people whom we should be offering Judaism as a monotheistic alternative and actively promoting the Torah as the word of God. Should they not wish to become fully Jewish because they are reluctant to embrace Judaism’s exacting standards of ritual observance, we should be creating a Jewish confederation of Noachides, as the Bible calls them -men and women who identify with Jewish spirituality but do not embrace Judaism’s ritual tenets.
In effect, these people would be adopting Jewish values without converting to Judaism. The Jewish community should be spearheading a global movement to have non-Jews join a Jewish spiritual movement. We should be funding billboards with Jewish teachings for non-Jews, offering classes in synagogues where gentiles can discover Jewish spiritual essentials, and engaging in social media outreach to those unaffiliated with a faith. The Oxford University L’Chaim Society, which I founded in 1988, had thousands of non-Jewish members and many of its officers – most notably Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey – were not Jewish.
Their intention was not to convert to Judaism but to lead lives based on universal Jewish values like the oneness of God, the emphasis on deed over creed, the belief in the creation of all mankind in God’s image, and the translation of Messianism into human social progress. There are likewise millions of Christians today who wish to discover the Jewishness of Jesus in order to better understand their own faith.
With Israel’s survival threatened on all sides the time has come to promote a global Jewish spiritual effort that shuns Jewish insularity and promotes the Jewish people as a light unto the nations.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network, the foremost organization influencing politics, media, and the culture with Jewish values. He has just published Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.