Here’s a radical idea: Conversion can save us

I have a radical idea. The Jewish people is small, and shrinking. The best antidote to shrinking is growth. Therefore, our goal should be to grow.

I have another radical idea. There are only three ways to stop shrinking and start growing: reduce assimilation, increase birthrates and increase conversion. While much can be done to affect the first two factors, the first can only become less negative and the second would take Herculean efforts to bring up to neutral ‹ that is, replacement level. The only real untapped potential for growth, therefore, lies in conversion.

I have a third radical idea. Conversion. This is one of our best-kept secrets, even from ourselves. When I described all this to a learned professor attending this month’s Conference on the Jewish Future, he reacted, “But Jews have no history of conversion.” His view could not be more wrong.

The history of Jewish demography can be divided into three periods: rapid growth in Roman times when Jews were divided between a large Diaspora and a sovereign Jewish state; near-decimation after the destruction of that state and during centuries of exile; and another spike in the modern period preceding the Holocaust.

The modern period, from about 7.8 million Jews worldwide in 1882 to 16.7 million in 1939, roughly tracks the general European population increase due to rising life expectancies.

The most interesting period is between about 200 BCE and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., when the Jewish world population jumped from about half a million to 4-8 million, according to various estimates.

In a history of this period, Lawrence Epstein describes the context for such dramatic growth:

“[Jewish philosopher] Philo Š believed that the proselytes he saw should be ‘accorded every favor.’ Roman writers disliked the widespread proselytism. Horace unflatteringly noted how peculiar Jews were in wanting gentiles to become Jews. Tacitus, Cicero, Juvenal and Dio Cassino are among those who, in disparaging proselytism, acknowledged both its presence and influence. …

“So successful were all these efforts that, by the beginning of the Christian era, 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire Š were Jewish.”

Current negative attitudes toward conversion were born in exile, when attempting to convert non-Jews became punishable by death in many countries. Yet pro-conversionary attitudes persisted. Norman Golb estimates that 15,000 people converted to Judaism and fled Europe between 1000 and 1200. Jewish responsa and memorial books mention converts in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Maimonides, Epstein notes, criticized those who would humiliate converts, and reminded Obadiah that “God Š loves proselytes.” Rashi said the day of redemption would be preceded by proselytes joining the Jewish people. Ben Zion Wacholder writes of the Tosafists, “The Franco-German rabbis made the commandment to proselyte their basic premise.”

None of this is to say that active proselytizing, or missionary activity, was universally encouraged either in ancient times or subsequently. It also does not deny the existence of negative attitudes toward conversion going back as far as the debate between Hillel and Shammai. Further, it is true that in the modern period, these negative attitudes became dominant and are today thought of as mainstream, to the extent that many Jews seem proud that “Jews do not proselytize.”

Yet, in historic terms, these modern anti-conversionary attitudes should be seen not only as deviating from the more authentic Jewish norm, but as grossly, even suicidally, anachronistic.

The working group at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute conference in which I participated recommended actions “to encourage Jewish population growth,” including encouraging conversion. What is missing, though, is a concrete goal. We should, as a people, set a goal of sustained 2 percent growth which, if achieved soon, could result in about 30 million Jews worldwide by the year 2050.

All we need to do is change the presumption from negative to positive, train rabbis to develop and promote introductory courses in Judaism, and encourage those who in any case wish to join us and are now receiving the cold shoulder.

At the JPPPI conference, speaker after speaker noted that in the modern world, every Jew is a “Jew by choice.” What we must do to attract non-Jews is essentially the same as what we must do to retain young Jews for whom Jewish survival is not sufficient reason to shape life decisions, such as whom to marry.

If we do not welcome others, we will lose ourselves.

Saul Singer is The Jerusalem Post’s editorial page editor.

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