Should Judaism Proselytize Gentiles to Judaism?
The greatest challenge facing the world Jewish community is its terribly small size. The number of Jews in the world has fallen below a critical mass, and our paucity suggests tragic consequences.
Foremost among them is our inability to defend ourselves. Does Israel really have a long-term future with so few Jews in the world? Who will influence and exert pressure on their own governments to support Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy, when the Jewish population in most countries outside the United States is small to inconsequential? Will governments really choose the Jews over Arab adversaries when there are hundreds of millions of them and just a handful of us?
Until now we have relied on two factors to offset our limited number: Jewish economic power and alliances. But each solution is flawed and inadequate. In countries like Australia, for example, where there are just 100,000 Jews, their economic influence is such that governments take the Jewish community seriously. But this leads to the oft-repeated charges that Jewish money controls foreign powers. And it is, at best, a temporary solution because that economic power, in an age of rampant assimilation, is becoming more diluted as affluent Jews identify less and less with the Jewish community. George Soros, the world-renowned philanthropist who has only a tenuous connection with his Judaism, illustrates this point.
As far as the Jewish community’s friendships and alliances are concerned, they always involve trade-offs. Christian evangelicals are Israel’s best friends in the world, but they still dream of all of us becoming Christian and often pursue those dreams in multi-million dollar conversion campaigns. With Catholicism, it’s the opposite. After 2,000 years, they have come to greatly respect Judaism. But the Vatican undeniably favors the Palestinians, with no less a holy man than John Paul II treating the childkiller Yasir Arafat as a saint.
But security issues aside, we Jews, whose biblical mandate is to function as a light unto the nations, are meant to leave a mark on the world. Real influence comes from quality and not quantity, and, even as the smallest of nations, Jews have arguably been the most influential nation of all.
To be sure, I have no interest in Jewish hegemony. I just want Jews and Judaism to have a seat at the table. And today, we have to accept that we don’t. Just look at the United Nations as an example of how Jews and Israel are treated with contempt, mostly because we are too small a number to influence a world body. We are fortunate that, due to the American veto, the U.N.’s regular condemnations of Israel usually have no lasting impact. But if the American Jewish community, which is large and economically influential, did not stand up for Israel so vociferously, 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 fighting assimilation) is key. But it is high time we addressed the issue that Jews have traditionally shied away from: converting non-Jews to Judaism.
In the 150 years that they have been around, the Mormons have grown from a few hundred followers to roughly 14 million, the same as the number of the world’s Jews, even though we have been around for 3,500 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 converts, and that is admirable and necessary. We can brook no compromise with the lofty standards that Jewish observance demands.
But the bigger reason we don’t proselytize is even more noble: unlike every other religion in the world, we don’t claim a copyright on truth. We don’t believe that by becoming a Jew you come closer to G-d than you would as a devout Christian or Muslim. We actually respect the G-dly qualities of other faiths that lead to a righteous life. We aren’t closed-minded bigots who tell the world that, unless they are Jewish, they are all going to hell.
And yet, there is something that I have learned from the many debates that I have conducted with leading Christian thinkers around the world. In the debates, there is always a group of people who feel uncomfortable with what they see as Christianity’s compromises and accommodations with paganism. The idea of a man as G-d does not appeal to them. They are likewise put off by the pagan overtones of G-d conceiving a child with a woman, and they are positively cold to the Christian idea of original sin or how we are all born guilty before being innocent. Finally, they believe in personal accountability, so that the idea of a redeemer shedding his blood in order to purge them of sin does not accord with their personal values.
It is to those people whom we should be offering Judaism as a pure monotheistic alternative and actively promoting the Torah as the word of G-d. 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 and Jewish values but do not follow the ritual observances. In effect, these people would be adopting the Torah’s norms without converting to Judaism.
Already there are whole Christian congregations throughout the United States that have removed the cross and steeple, and transformed themselves into Noachide communities. There are also several virtual Noachide communities online, with members signing up from around the world. In these places, parishioners reject the deification of Jesus, observe the Sabbath (on Saturday rather than Sunday) and study the Torah for its prescriptions on spiritual life.
These people do not embrace all the rituals of biblical law, but they do adhere to the Noachide covenant, consisting of seven laws prescribed in the Torah: do not murder; do not steal; do not worship false gods; do not be sexually immoral; do not practice cruelty to animals; do not blaspheme against God; establish courts and maintain justice.
The Jewish community should be spearheading this movement and should fund a global campaign to have non-Jews join a Jewish confederation, if not adopt Judaism in its entirety. The Federation system should also be funding classes throughout the country where non-Jews can learn more about Hebrew spirituality, and synagogues can begin offering classes as well. The organization I ran at Oxford University for 11 years, where I served as Rabbi, had thousands of non- Jewish members, and many of its officers were not Jewish. For the most part, their intention was not to become Jewish, but they came because they felt that their lives were enriched by the unique, lifeaffirming, this-world orientation of Jewish spirituality. Many thousands have remained friends and supporters of the Jewish community.
This is not to portray Christianity as a lesser faith. On the contrary, Judaism and Christianity, both G-dly religions, simply have vastly different appeals, even as they share a great deal in common. Christianity will always appeal to those who prefer a more corporeal religion, where G-d is incarnate in human form and is more physically tangible, just as Judaism will always appeal to those attracted to a more subtle and intangible G-d and to those who wish to approach G-d without intermediaries.
With Israel’s survival continually threatened on all sides by sworn enemies, it would be logical for the Jewish state to call an international conference of Jewish leaders and educators where the issue of promoting a global Noachide movement can be discussed, where the question of actively promoting Judaism among non-Jews can be debated, and where the world Jewish community can be propelled out of its insularity and finally address the growing crisis of our tiny number.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the best-selling author of 15 books, recently won the American Jewish Press Association’s Award for Excellence in Commentary. He is also the host of TLC’s upcoming TV program, “Shalom in the Home.”