The history of Judaism and proselytism is more complicated than most people know. In fact, the very word "proselyte" comes from a Greek word that means "a convert to Judaism." Converting to Judaism was so popular in the eastern half of the Roman Empire that, in the first century CE, nearly 20% of the population was Jewish, mostly by way of conversion.
Why was Judaism so popular in the Roman Empire? Certainly, many people were attracted to Judaism as a religion that taught that God was moral and demanded morality. In that respect, Judaism differed greatly from the amorality of Roman culture and the Roman gods who were believed to act out of whim and petty jealousies. Also, many people who had been oppressed by the Roman Empire because of the circumstances of their birth were attracted to Judaism – a religion that teaches that converts should be treated with the same respect and privileges as those born into the religion.
Judaism's period of explosive growth by conversion ended in the year 66 CE after the Jewish Revolt against the Romans. The Empire outlawed conversion to Judaism and imposed the death penalty both on new converts and on the rabbis who converted them. In response, the rabbis put severe limits on conversion – they did not want to be responsible for the deaths of future converts. Jewish tradition developed a strong bias against conversion and instructed rabbis to warn prospective converts that they were joining a "despised and persecuted people." That bias lasted for centuries.
In the 1970s, the Reform Movement initiated an outreach program that began to change Jewish attitudes toward conversion. Under the leadership of UAHC (now URJ) President Rabbi Alexander Schindler, ז׳׳ל, the Reform Movement established programs to make Judaism accessible to the "unchurched" and to encourage non-Jewish spouses of Jews to convert to Judaism.
Today, many Jewish communities offer "Introduction to Judaism" courses and other programs to help people who are curious about Judaism start on the path toward conversion. It has become common for American Jewish congregations to include large numbers of people who were not born Jewish, but who chose as adults to become Jews.
As the number of converts to Judaism has grown, the Jewish community has learned to be more welcoming toward those who have chosen to join the Jewish people. We are more careful not to assume that every Jew grew up as a Jew. Even the term "convert" largely has been replaced with the more complimentary term, "Jew by Choice."
It can be argued, though, that in current American culture, all self-identifying Jews are, in some way, "Jews by Choice." In our society, not even those born to two Jewish parents are forced to accept a Jewish identity as adults. The act of identifying as a Jew and living as a Jew in America today requires a conscious choice. There is no "automatic Jew" anymore. Today, more than ever before in Jewish history, there is little difference between Jews who were born Jewish and those who have chosen as adults to identify as Jews.
This coming Shabbat, the congregation I serve will celebrate an entire family – two parents and their three children – who became the world's newest Jews last December when they emerged from the waters of the mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim. The parents, Kimberly and Jayson, will talk about their journeys toward Jewish identity. Their stories, like the stories of all converts to Judaism, are unique. But, then again, each person who was born Jewish also has his or her own unique way of being Jewish. In a society that cherishes choice and individuality, there is no way to be a Jew but by choosing to do so.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Chayei Sarah: Loving the Stranger
Demystifying Conversion to Judaism