Can We Talk?


I was very happy to see a report on Beliefnet that the US Council of Catholic Bishops apologized to Jewish leaders for “feelings of hurt.” This wasn’t a fauxpology either. They actually spelled out, “Jewish-Catholic dialogue… has never been, and will never be, used by the Catholic Church as a means of proselytism, nor is it intended as a disguised invitation to baptism.”

I blogged about the so-called “clarification” that led to this moment back in the summer.  Over 40 years after Vatican II, the US Bishops seemed to be reversing course, last June, on the validity of Judaism as a separate religion–and more importantly, to view interfaith dialogue as a chance to “invite the dialogue partner to baptism.”

In this apology  the Bishops acknowledge what ought to be obvious to everyone–Jews and Catholics have a very different perspective on proselytizing. Jews don’t find welcome in proselytizing and we don’t have a tradition of proselytizing non-Jews. (I know there are some historical exceptions to this which would be interesting to discuss, but–let’s just say no one is going to be ringing the doorbell at your house at random and asking if you want to read the Torah.)

Who knows what made the Council of Bishops think it was a good idea to imply that Catholics ought to proselytize to Jews–even in the context of interfaith dialogue–in their earlier document last June? Whatever the internal political or theological reasons were, now both groups can sit down and discuss it.

6 thoughts on “Can We Talk?”

  • Yes, there is a historical tradition of Jewish proselytizing. The Hasmonean forcible conversion of the Idumeans and the Itureans is a unique example in Jewish history, and one that the rabbis of the Talmud (who considered themselves the ideological descendants of the Hasmonean’s opposition) rejected.

    But I do think you’re right, Robin, that the main reason for the halachic prohibitions and cultural taboos against urging non-Jews to convert to Judaism are the Roman clamp-down on Jewish proselytizing. From the time that Hadrian made circumcision illegal through to Christian Roman emperors bans on further proselytizing, Jews were codifying the main body of the Talmud. Their interpretation of the law reflects the conditions of their time.

    In a lot of ways it would be great if we as a group would all go back to proselytizing. But for the most part, we really have not done that. It’s one of the reasons that outreach to interfaith families is so complicated. If we had a welcoming, excited attitude toward converts–which I see as the up side to aggressive proselytizing–it would be a different picture. But Jews as a community aren’t even up to speed with our own law that mandates the full acceptance of Jews by choice. In fact that’s a picture that seems to be getting worse. Whatever our history with this question, we aren’t up to proselytizing now (and certainly not proselytizing our partners in interfaith dialogue!)

    I would be excited for more cooperation between Catholics and Jews in the US. Catholics do a lot of tzedakah, and it would very cool if the Jewish community could work with them more and more to help hungry people in this recession. It would also be good for interfaith families. This second letter from the Bishops gives me a lot of hope.

  • Dear Friends: I’ll just offer a historical perspective here — Judaism does have a strong history of conversion — it’s just that most modern Jews were never told about it.

    In the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), it’s very clear that the Jews welcomed newcomers from all kinds of other nationalities and religions. Some nationalities were declared to be Jewish by the third generation if they simply lived among the Jews for three generations and followed Jewish practices.

    While there were strands in the Tanach that discouraged conversions and intermarriages (the Ezra-Nehemiah story), there were counter-stories (Book of Ruth) where converison and intermarriage were encouraged.

    The Jews also constantly told other peoples that their gods were false, and only the god of the Jews was real, a very unusual practice in the otherwise tolerant ancient world.

    There are a number of statements in the Tanach indicating that non-Jews were allowed to bring offerings to the two Temples, though there seem to have been places that they could not go within the Temple complexes. The Tanach, in its envisionment of some type of messianic future, envisions several times a predication that all of the people of the world will be abandoning their own faiths and acknowledging the G-d of the Jews, and seeking instruction from the Jews.

    The Orthodox Selichot liturgy has one of those ‘universal temple’ quotes from the Tanach: “my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.”

    In the Talmudic/early Christian era, thousands of pagans thinking of joining Judaism filled the synagogues. They were known as the “God fearers.” The Jewish conversionary impulse also shows up in the New Testament, where there are comments to the effect that “the rabbis travel by land and by sea to make one convert.” (I am quoting from memory).

    The Jewish Hasmonaen dynasty, the last Jewish kings of Israel in that era, actually led an army to Edom, conquered the Edomites, and forced them to convert to Judaism.

    Some Talmudic rabbis were acknowledged as descendants of converts, including Rabbi Akiva and two rabbis referred to as “Ben Bag Bag” and “Ben Hei Hei” (the odd surnames of the last two rabbis seem to have been intended to conceal their own conversions or those of their parents during a period of persecutions.)

    The early Christians modeled their conversion efforts on those of their parent religion, Judaism — they didn’t come up with their aggressive conversion program on their own. They faithfully modeled on the parent religion, right down to their my-way-or-the-highway and our-god-is-the-only-god theological outlook.

    The apple never falls far from the tree.

    Judaism eventually backed away from conversions because the Christians seized control of the Roman Empire and convinced one emperor that too many Jewish men were marrying Christian women and the children were being raised as Jews.

    So the emperor outlawed such marriages, and an entire structure of persecution enveloped the Jews. Gradually the Jews pulled away from the Christians. Conversions to Judaism also became unsafe in some countries, where they might bring down the wrath of the Christian church on a Jewish community.

    As centuries passed, and Jews remained in ghettos, or otherwise segregated from Christians, Jews came to believe that they had never cared for conversions — despite the daily prayer in the Orthodox liturgy for the welfare of converts!

    So Jews entered the modern era believing that we were not a conversionary culture/faith — despite watching our daughter religions, Chrisitianity and Islam, faithfully replicate Jewish conversionary thinking.

    Now we face opposition to conversions among Jews who believe that we are required to reject converts and should not be asking people to convert. Our entire ancient tradition of vigorous conversion outreach has been forgotten.

    I myself have no hesitation in suggesting to people that they consider converting to Judaism if they express a certain type of interest in Judaism.

    I am not concerned by Christian attempts to convert Jews. I think we need to strengthen Jewish affiliation and education, so that Jews know the “whys” of Judaism, as most conversions out of Judaism occur among people who know little about it.

    It is my hope that we can get modern Jews to understand that there is nothing wrong in offering help for conversions to people who want to join Judaism.

    But this is just my perspective, others may differ.

    Robin Margolis

  • It’s always good to have your thoughtful comments, even when we disagree.

    I think perhaps we have different definitions of proselytizing. It’s not that people who proselytize are tricking people into converting to a new religion. It’s that there is both a religious legal prohibition against telling people to convert to Judaism and a cultural taboo. It’s my job to offer information about Judaism and Jewish culture, and in my personal life also I want people I encounter to feel comfortable learning about Judaism–and I don’t want to make them feel like they have to become Jews to do it, or like they ought to do so to support the Jewish community. 

    And you’re right, I do come from a culture that sees proselytizing as an attack. I don’t want to think, as I type the definition for gefilte fish into our glossary, “Oh, I’m attacking people by providing this information.”

    The other piece, though, is that the Catholic Church has a history of supercessionism, forcible conversion of Jews to Catholicism in medieval Spain and Portugal, sponsorship of anti-Semitic publications in early 20th century Poland, and so on and so forth. Vatican II and the outreach and interfaith dialogue efforts of Pope John Paul II were part of a gradual, obvious improvement in relations between the two religions. The Pope’s work blew people’s minds. The June letter from the Bishops looked like a reversal of a lot of that progress. To say “well, on your website you encourage people in interfaith families to raise their children as Jews, you proselytize too”–in the context of that seeming reversal, it’s not a great argument.

  • I’m sorry my remarks were this upsetting to you, but I am not your enemy.  I remind you “in case you haven’t noticed,” I’m often the person who defends the administrators of this site when people come in and say how terrible it is that you include contributors with anything but an ideal Jewish point of view.  (What that “ideal” is varies slightly, but generally takes a dim view of any approach that fails to condemn intermarriage to at least some degree, or that doesn’t adequately stigmatize the children of intermarriage, or basically any perspective with which they may disagree.)  I’ve always praised your willingness to allow alternate points of view so that people can be aware of the issues involved.  Nor do I try to persuade people on this website not to raise their children as Jews, only remind them to take account of the non-Jewish parent’s perspective when making their decision. 

    What would my post above sound like from a perspective in which “proselytize” is NOT necessarily a bad word?  What does it sound like if “proselytizing” could at least sometimes be about other words like “sharing,” and “inviting”, and “encouraging”, and “welcoming”?  What if proselytizing were at least occasionally about empowering people to make a choice that was deep in their hearts all along?  I certainly hope this is the experience of most Jews by Choice!  I can tell you that when I worked in RCIA, it was the experience of nearly every adult I met who was converting to Catholicism.  Isn’t it supposed to be?  That’s what the act of proselytizing, at its best, means to me:  Not coercing or tricking some poor confused person into abandoning everything they should hold dear, but welcoming people who WANT something that I already have, something that becomes richer with each person who shares in it. 

    To say that someone proselytizes, whether in a big way or in some “limited” way, is not, from my perspective, a terrible attack.  I’m asking you to claim the word honestly for yourselves.  Only then can our communities really talk about which methods of proselytization should be off-limits for EVERYONE.

    Proselytization is as much the basis of my community’s continued survival as the birth of Jewish children is to Jewish survival.  From a Catholic perspective, even our own children are converts, in that no one can be born Catholic.  We seek to convert our children to our faith, because if we don’t, they will literally not be Catholic.  Whatever our current population, we are never more than a generation away from extinction.  But then, that much is true of every community, one way or another.

    Again, I don’t think Jews who proselytize a way of life they sincerely believe has something good to offer have anything to be ashamed of, provided no tactics are employed that I consider inappropriate, including when they are used by some Christians.  (Personally, I think unilaterally converting an adopted child who already has an established religious identity crosses a line, no matter who is crossing it.  Sharing traditions with spouses and adult friends is another matter, if it is accepted that it will go both ways.)

    I stand by my position that meaningful dialogue needs to deal in some way with the reality that from a Catholic point of view, proselytization is not and probably never will be seen as the defining difference between Christians and Jews.  This is just as real as the need for Catholics engaging in interfaith dialogue to deal with the Jewish perspective that Christian proselytization is always an attack.

  • There are people in the Orthodox world who actually object to converting people in interfaith relationships because the conversion could be coerced. (Though there are rabbinic opinions that also permit such conversions, obviously.) The Conservative movement’s decision (which they have since reversed) to seek the conversion of non-Jewish spouses in interfaith marriages was anomalous, since the majority of people doing outreach work to interfaith families are very careful NOT to suggest conversion. We ran a feature story interviewing outreach workers on the subject, Teaching Judaism Without the Sales Pitch.

    If Judaism had a policy of proselytization, this website wouldn’t exist. The question of what to do for interfaith families to allow them to remain in the Jewish community wouldn’t be an issue. Having to sell Jews on the idea that interfaith marriage isn’t automatic assimilation and national suicide would not be a task. Working on providing adequate acceptance and welcome to Jews by Choice would not be an issue. You wouldn’t see a series of news stories about the Israeli rabbinate rejecting and reversing conversions. In a lot of ways, life would be much easier.

    Do Catholics have a policy of turning away prospective converts three times? Do they tell people at the moment of baptism, “You don’t have to go through with this, you know”? No.

    This website is here to provide interfaith couples with the possibility of raising Jewish children because before the 1980s, there was a widespread assumption that interfaith couples wouldn’t or couldn’t do that. You’re here, you’re reading all the time, and you somehow don’t notice that we have a listing of rabbis willing to perform interfaith marriages? Why do you think it is that Jews are less than 2 percent of the US population (apparently quite a lot less since the last time I checked) and Catholics are 24%?

    I suppose that I have to acknowledge the weak, limited efforts to proselytize the spouses of Jews as what they are–but no, it’s really not the same. Jews don’t have missions. It’s certainly not the same as saying that all interfaith dialogues are opportunities to convert the other faith, as the June 18 letter from the US Council of Bishops seemed to say.

  • Do you REALLY want to talk?  Okay.

    Speaking from a Catholic perspective, I think that Jews are kidding themselves when they say that they don’t believe in proselytizing.  Yes, Jews do believe in it.  Not just in ancient history (after all, that’s where Christianity got the concept), but here and now.

    If “proselytize” is defined as “to induce someone to convert to one’s own religion or faith”, and “convert” is defined as “to change from one identity to another”, then any time you try to persuade someone who is not Jewish to be Jewish, you are proselytizing.

    Let’s look at some quotes, all taken from this very website:

    Regarding non-Jewish spouses of Jews:
    From “Making a Right Turn on Intermarriage” by Rabbi David Lerner:
    “(In the past,) for those who, despite this advice, found themselves involved with someone who was not Jewish, the non-Jewish partner needed to convert before they married. . . . (Now,) this is a new paradigm. In this model, the non-Jewish partner does not always convert before the wedding, but commits to being a part of a Jewish home and, if blessed with children, to raising them as Jews. Ideally, over time, they become so immersed in Jewish culture and practice that they evolve organically into identifying as Jews.”

    Regarding children initiated and raised in a non-Jewish faith before being adopted by Jews:
    From “On Adopting Children from a Different Religion and Culture” by Cheryl A. Lieberman
    “My children . . . had been Christian for seven and six years respectively when they came to live with me. . . . Right after Eric was adopted his birth mother asked if he was attending church. I said that I was raising him as a Jew because I had a Jewish home, and would provide him with a grounding in the religion and values that were part of my home and family.”

    Regarding children (whether or not halakhically Jewish) with one Jewish parent:
    From “10 Questions Jewish Partners in Interfaith Couples Ask” by Micah Sachs:
    “We strongly believe that interfaith couples should choose one religion in which to raise their children, and we encourage couples to make that religion Judaism.”

    Regarding Christians who strongly believe they should raise their children in their own faith even if married to a Jew:
    From “Preservation” by Sam Jacobs:
    “I had a Catholic girlfriend in the 10th grade. She was not accepting of my Judaism. She did not appreciate the culture, and stated that she would never raise her children Jewish. At the time, I was a 15-year-old kid and I had a girlfriend when so many others didn’t, so I didn’t argue. But deep down, it hurt.”

    (Compare this reaction with this quote from a discussion thread by a Guest named Amanda:
    “We have talked about it and decided that it would be to confusing to raise our children in both religions so we decided to just raise them Jewish bc he doesn’t accept my religion at all.  I feel very hurt by this.”  Not so different, is it?)

    As a general overview of the attitude on Jewish proselytization:
    From the Mission Statement of
    “We believe that maximizing the number of interfaith families who find fulfillment in Jewish life and raise their children as Jews is essential to the future strength and vitality of the Jewish community.”

    In short, at least a good many Jews (including most who contribute to this website) absolutely, positively DO believe in proselytizing non-Jews, at least under specific (and not at all rare) circumstances.  It’s true that these are not the same circumstances under which Christians proselytize, but it is still proselytizing. 

    Do I think that Jews should be ashamed of themselves for proselytizing?  Not unless they really do think proselytization is wrong.  But I think they need to stop claiming that proselytization in general is against their fundamental principles, and presenting this as a superior point of view that everyone is duty-bound to adopt.  What is really against their principles is OTHERS proselytizing THEM.  Well, I’ve got news for you:  Every group is really against others proselytizing them.  Jews have no uniqueness in this regard, and nothing to feel particularly superior about, nor even a lot to say “You don’t understand how different we are” about.

    To continue to paint the issue as one of DIFFERENCE between Jews and Catholics is at best mistaken, perhaps even disingenuous.  Either way, it’s not going to be a good basis for long-term dialogue.  Our two communities, and the individual members of them, need to realize the ways in which we are ABSOLUTELY ALIKE on this issue:

    1)  We each value the way of life that forms our identity as individuals and as a community.
    2)  We each feel compelled, even called by God, to contribute to that identity’s survival into future generations.
    3)  We each believe strongly that our way of life has something valuable to offer to our community’s members and even to other people.
    4)  We are each willing to share our identity with those people whose inclusion in our community we believe would benefit both us and themselves.
    5)  We each try to be supportive of people converting to our way of life and help them take on their new identity fully.
    6)  We are each saddened when someone leaves behind the identity we cherish to convert to another, because we have lost something of ourselves, and we believe that they have lost something of themselves, too.

    Often it is our similarities more than our differences that make it so hard to have a conversation.  But at least when we recognize that fact, the conversation can have real meaning.

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