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Robert Eisenman

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Abrahamic Conversion

Posted: 08/19/11 12:11 PM ET

I first began writing this piece with only people of Jewish background in mind, since I was concerned about the unnecessary humiliation and suffering people from countries in the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Burma and elsewhere -- even "Christians" from the United States -- undergo in seeking conversion or when they emigrate to Israel.

I was also worried about the problem of intermarriage, an issue I am told affects some 50 percent or more of Jews in America and elsewhere. But I have since found that as many non-Jews (perhaps more) -- and, in particular "Abrahamic-minded Christians," of whom I have met perhaps thousands -- were just as interested.

Since I am writing the article for those who might find something helpful, useful or edifying in it -- whether "Jewish," "Christian," "Buddhist, "Hindu," "atheist," even "Muslim" -- I will begin as I originally intended. For those who are curious or interested (including many Evangelicals), that will be enough. For those that are not, nothing will be lost.

One of the problems Judaism is experiencing in the 20th and 21st centuries is the question of who is a Jew -- who needs conversion or "re-conversion," and how or in what way a person can or should become a Jew.

One does not wish to be needlessly crude about this, but the Nazis had no difficulty determining this, even though many and even most so-called "Jews" -- not to mention others -- still do today. They just looked into your genealogy or ancestry to see if there was some "Jewish" ancestor somewhere (male or female, it didn't matter to them) or, in many cases if one were male, they just looked to see if you were circumcised (rightly, unfortunately, realizing this had something to do with honoring "the Covenant of Moses") and that was that. Hitler didn't ask if your mother was Jewish, though, inter alia, this might have been one of the questions he might have asked.

But if we are going to be honest and go back even further than this, it is clear that the Old Testament (as some call it) is even more liberal and inclusive even than any of these. Everyone has come to realize that what Jews or Hebrews and even "God-Fearing" Christians call "the Forefathers" often had "non-Jewish" wives, whatever might have been meant by that at the time.

Abraham himself, supposedly, in his older years even took a non-Jewish, younger woman to be his wife, whose name was Keturah (Genesis 25:1). The Bible makes it plain that earlier he also had another "wife" named Hagar -- very important in traditional song and story -- who is portrayed in many respects even more sympathetically than Sarah is. The Bible doesn't either idealize or romanticize its "folk heroes or heroines," which, to the present writer, is one of its strengths and attractions.

Jacob is not idealized, nor is Abraham. Isaac comes through as rather doddering and something of a fool. Sarah is the typical jealous mother. Abraham, if the traditions are to be credited (I put many of them down to the embellishment of good story-tellers, just like the Greek epic writers did), was even willing to sell his own wife to either Pharoah or Abimelech (again an anachronism) and claimed her as his sister, i.e., the "incest" common in Northern Syrian practices of the time (Genesis 12 and 20).

Esau comes out better -- even than Jacob who supplants him -- and does nothing really wrong except being a bit dim-witted and "selling his birthright." In fact, he is portrayed as being very generous and forgiving. Ishmael and Hagar the same. Esau's only real problem is that he seems to marry the wrong woman or women (Genesis 28:1-9)!

David, certainly, is no better and despite his heroism does some particularly horrific things, especially, once again, where women are concerned. Again, Saul's son Jonathan comes out looking better. But this is literature and, in literature, often almost anything goes and one can do a lot of things (Judah, for instance, stops by the wayside and has intercourse with his son's wife, disguised as a whore. Beat that if you can!).

But to get back to our subject: Who is a Jew and what is a proper conversion? One of the purist and most heroic of all early Jewish/Hebrew characters, Joseph, certainly marries the daughter of an Egyptian Priest, "the Priest of On" (Genesis 41:45), and, of course, his children are by her. No one makes any great issues over this in the Bible. In fact, Jacob, according to the story at the end of Genesis, even gives him a double share of the future land to be conquered and settled, Ephraim and Manasseh.

Moses definitely marries out, to a woman named Zipporah who is a daughter of the Midianite (probably Ishmaelite) priest who goes by several names: Jethro, Hobab, Shuaib. In fact, the Bible makes a big issue of this when it comes to the circumcision of their offspring, Zipporah being pictured as crying out in horrified maternal pain, "You are a bloody bridegroom to me" (Exodus 4:24-5), presumably referring to their second son, Eliezer (though Aaron, Moses' alleged brother, has a third son in addition to Nadav and Abihu by a similar name, Eleazar, and somehow the priesthood devolves upon him despite "the Golden Calf" episode, while Moses' offspring -- the first allegedly being Gershom -- seem virtually to evaporate).

Even David, the arch hero, or hero of all heroes by rabbinic standards, wouldn't be considered Jewish at all (though, to go back to more recent grimness, by Nazi standards, he most certainly would have) since his paternal great grandmother, Ruth, is clearly designated as a Moabitess. In fact, her words to her mother-in-law Naomi at the death of her first husband, "whither thou goest, I will go," have become proverbial for conversion.

But this is certainly no rabbinic conversion and brings us to the whole point of my article. It is certainly looser, less formal, and more spiritual or behavioral than anything any of the forms of Judaism, which of course become more stringent the more "Conservative" or "Orthodox" one gets, would deem sufficient or even recognizable.

So what should one call it, "Davidic" or "Abrahamic"? I prefer to call it "Abrahamic Conversion" because all of this is covered quite plainly, clearly and explicitly in Genesis 17:10-14 when Abraham is commanded to circumcise all the males in his household. In fact, the Mosaic Covenant hasn't even been revealed yet, something both Muhammad and Paul (to counter-effect) play off of very effectively in their dialectic.

This "Abrahamic Conversion" is very liberal -- to the extreme -- and extends to all the males in Abraham's household, including all those traveling with him (i. e., all the "fellow-travelers," as it were, or what would later be called in the Dead Sea Scrolls and nascent Christianity "God-Fearers"). There is nothing said about the women in this situation at all, and that is just the point. This is also the end point of the story about David's origins and genealogy which does involve the woman's place -- anyone who wanted to be "Jewish" or chose to share the fate of "the Jews" (never an easy one) was considered part of the People. There was nothing else asked and nothing else required.

This is what is implied by the watchword, "Whither thou goest, I will go." Anyone who wished to share the fate of the Jewish People or be part of its traditions was considered part of it -- period! There was nothing ever said about women or who one's mother might have been throughout the whole of the Old Testament except ever so slightly, as I said, in the story of Esau. If you wanted to be "Jewish," "Hebrew" or part of the tradition, then you were. It was as simple as that.

It had nothing to do with who your mother was (of course, this is one of the other things Ruth is pictured as saying: "your People will be my People"). By implication too, the opposite was true: If you did not, then you were not. To my mind, Karl Marx and people like today's George Soros, Noam Chomsky or Bernadine Dohrn would be good examples of this.

So when did this idea of one's mother being Jewish as the determining factor of whether one was "Jewish" or of one's Judaism begin to enter or show itself in the tradition? Of course, it is rabbinic, as there is nothing about it before that time. But precisely what period and under what circumstances? To my mind, too, this is a very easy question to answer. It starts to enter the tradition during the Maccabean or pre-Roman/Roman/Herodian Period.

It is certainly not in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Genesis 17:16-7 is mentioned very importantly in the Damascus Document, for instance. But I have yet to see anything about matrilineality or matrilineal descent before either Talmudic or rabbinic literature, and there it emerges quite clearly in "The Herodian Period"!

Why the Herodian? I have covered this in a number of pieces I have done relating to the Temple or Temple Mount and making its "Herodian Stones" into religious icons and the like -- the Western or Wailing Wall for instance. It comes in during the Herodian Period because neither Herod, nor his father Antipater (the first Roman Governor of Palestine after the conquest under the Roman General Pompey in B.C.E. 63), nor his brothers, nor any of his family, were "Jews" or "Jewish" in the proper sense of that word or even as it came to be defined at this time and later by the rabbis. Nor, as I would define it and see it, did any of them particularly want to be.

But the Pharisees -- cum Rabbinic Party and Rabbinic Judaism to be -- from Hillel and Shammai's time onward approved of this takeover, since in the main they were anti-Maccabean. To anyone who doubts this, Josephus makes this plain in all his works in his description of the fall of the Temple in 63 B.C. and what follows it.

The Herodians were Greco-Arabs from the Palestinian Coastline and from the Kingdom of Petra. They weren't even Idumaeans, as many in rabbinic literature enjoy referring to them -- Herod's father, who was a Greco-Arab Priest of Apollo from Gaza, for a time having been kidnapped by so-called Idumaeans; his mother, a high-born woman of Petra. The Herodians turned a Roman governorship into a Roman kingship -- "the King(s) of the Jews" as they would come to be called in the New Testament and even though they were not necessarily "Jews" themselves. This was typical of Roman nomenclature.

But Herod had at least two "Jewish" wives, both called Mariamne or Miriam (the prototype of the later Marys) and both descendants of High Priests -- the first and favorite Maccabean, and the second of the High Priest of the Jewish Temple that had been established in Egypt at Leontopolis (see my "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians" and "James the Brother of Jesus"). The descendants of the first of these, for obvious reasons, became more important as time went on and included such persons as Herodias and Salome, Agrippa I and Agrippa II, Bernice (ultimately Titus' mistress), Drusilla Felix's wife, etc., the last four of whom appear in the Book of Acts and the first in the Gospels.

Herod (like Muhammad six centuries later) had some 10 wives, most of whom were non-Jewish of one background or another. But his descendants by his Maccabean wife were the line most recognized and favored by the People -- again, for obvious reasons. This was the reason, for instance, that everyone wanted to marry them (Herodias' situation, for example, in the background to the beheading of John the Baptist story).

For that matter, it was also the line most favored by Julio-Claudian Rome, even though Herod not only executed his two sons by Mariamne because of the People's preference for them, incurring the displeasure both of the Divine Augustus, who hated this kind of family fratricide, and also this first Mariamne, her brother, one Jonathan when he came of age and was the last Maccabean High Priest, and her uncle Hyrcanus II, who had originally paved the way for his own father's ascent.

But it was in the second generation of Maccabean Herodians where these things really came into play and, in particular in relation to Agrippa I above (c. 40 C.E.), of whom both the rabbis and even Josephus approved, and his son Agrippa II (c. 50-95 C.E.), in whose time the Temple was destroyed.

Not only was Agrippa I brought up in Rome as part of the Imperial Family (probably to protect him as the Romans, particularly under Augustus, honored Royal blood) and almost a blood-brother of the coming Emperors-to-be Caligula and, in particular, Claudius who sent him back to Palestine as "King" and not "Governor" (in fact, in place for a time of the Roman Governors, see, for instance, Acts 12:1-23), but he was also approved of by the rabbis and this is made very clear in the Talmud, especially in the earlier Mishnaic part of it.

When Agrippa I, who died under mysterious circumstances in 44 C.E. (again see Acts 12:23), came to read the Torah on Sukkot -- the custom of the time for the King -- and came to "the Deuteronomic King Law" (Deuteronomy 17:16-7: "Thou shalt not put a foreigner over you"), the Talmud records -- since he at least among other "Herodians" seemed to reflect some piety -- that he began to weep, obviously thinking that they did not consider him Jewish but rather "a foreigner" because of his Herodian origins. Whereupon the Talmud records (Mishnah Sota 7:8, 41a), the People and, presumably, all the assembled rabbis cried out "You are one of us, you are one of us, you are one of us!" three times, just like many similar and probably derivative numerations in the New Testament.

And that is just my point. He was "Jewish" in their eyes because his grandmother, the Maccabean Princess Mariamne was "Jewish," even though the marriage had been forced upon her and even though she and all her relatives were eventually killed by the ever blood-thirsty Herod who had 10 wives, most of whom were non-Jewish. In my view, this is the first instance of matrilineal descent being the determinant in Jewish lore.

In other words, like many things we now recognize as Jewish or Judaism, it is a Herodian imposition or appendage and a product of the Herodian Period -- in this case, to legitimatize this one line of the descendants of Herod who could at least claim some legitimacy via his "Jewish" wife Mariammne/Miriam/Mary. Again, in other words, they were using it to legitimatize themselves over the other lines. This is how it came into rabbinic Judaism and this is where it has remained up until today. Again, too, it is Herodian, which is in contradistinction to a wider and more general biblical view that stems from the portraits or time of Abraham or David. That is why I call it "the Abrahamic view."

That view was that anyone "traveling with us" or "wanting to be part of us" was Jewish or Hebrew or whatever you wish to call it. Again, if you wanted to be Jewish or part of the tradition, then you were Jewish or "a God-Fearer" (words found, as we noted, both in the Dead Sea Scrolls and New Testament), a part of the tradition. In my view, this is the older, more classical and uncorrupted view (this and, of course, "circumcision for males" as in Genesis 17 above, "the sign of the Covenant," with which I agree and which even Spinoza viewed as the keystone of Jewish survival) -- to my mind, everything Herodian being a corruption of that Judaism that was in place before it, including even that found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Moreover, this is how it should remain today. Those who want in are and should be in. Those who want out are and should be out. And this has nothing whatever to do with who your mother was or who your grandmother or great grandmother might have been. It might just as well have to do with who your father, grandfather or great grandfather might have been. But basically, really, your own soul.

No such persons need conversion or "re-conversion" as it were. As God put it or is pictured as saying to Abraham, "Circumcise all those traveling with you." It had nothing to do with who your mother was or your father might have been, though it might have. Then, again, it might not have. It is all-inclusive.

The same today. We have already lost 6 million "Jews" -- most of whom probably were not asked "who their mother or grandmother was" -- and this, in my view, was and still is the greatest barbarity in human history. No other, to my knowledge, approaches it in systematic cruelty or finality. We now must, rather, follow Ruth's words to her mother-in-law Naomi: "Whither thou goest, I will go."

Whoever wishes to travel with us -- we, the new restored Israel or old or new "Jewish People," both in and out of its Homeland -- is with us. Whoever does not wish to, is not. It should have nothing whatever to do with who one's mother was or is. It never did before the Herodian Period and it should not now. This is a Herodian graft on traditional Judaism before that time and only had meaning in the context of determining the only legitimate line the people could stomach within that family, even though for the most part they were pretty abominable too.

But it has no legitimacy now and can and should be discarded as an imposition -- or, as Paul would have it in Romans 11:19-25, "a graft." In fact, in the run-up to the war against Rome, these third-generation, last "Herodians," Agrippa II and Bernice, with whom Paul converses so convivially in Acts 24-27, to say nothing of Drusilla and her brutal Roman-Governor-husband Felix -- a marriage connived at by someoneJosephus calls "Simon a magician" -- were barred from the Temple as foreigners, a wall being deliberately constructed to block their view of the sacrifices; and even stoned as "incestuous fornicators" by the Zealots!

Rather, it has everything to do with what is in your soul and in your heart. If you identify or want to identify, then you are. This is a hard enough requirement in today's often brutal, cruel and already-proven barbaric world. Surely this takes courage and spiritual purity enough. That is all it has to do with and all it ever had or should have to do with.