THE BLOG
05/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Seeking Converts to Judaism

Proselytizing, seeking converts, sharing the "good news", or evangelizing. While different communities favor different terms, it's all pretty much the same.

Now, it's true that no form of Judaism imagines that one must be Jewish to attain salvation or gain entrance to heaven, and equally true that Jews have not traditionally sought converts. But rabbis serving the nation's largest Jewish denomination, the Reform movement, recently stepped away from that tradition.

At the 121st meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the group decided that the open spiritual marketplace of America and the reality of increasing intermarriage between Jews and gentiles demanded the change. A press release from the meeting included the following:

"While in the past the Reform rabbis focused discussion on how to prevent intermarriage, the CCAR today affirmed that intermarriage is a given and should be approached with the goal of engaging intermarried families in Jewish life and living. Rabbis can and should work to improve the effectiveness of their efforts to encourage intermarried people to embrace Judaism for themselves and their children." The statement goes on to stress "the importance of encouraging in-marriage (marriage between Jews) and conversion of non-Jewish spouses".

Whatever one thinks about the substance of this statement on intermarriage and the conversion of Christians to Judaism, there are lessons there for all of us -- lessons about keeping things in perspective and appreciating that even the most radical things often become entirely normal.

Minimally, I hope that their statement will remind Reform rabbis that when it comes to seeking converts, what's sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander, that turnabout is fair play, and that we should do unto others as they would do unto us.

Imagine the consternation that would be caused were a Christian group to target Jews, even if "only" those married to Christians, this way. Oh wait, we don't have to because they sometimes do, and when they do, it is the Reform movement that has traditionally led the cry against such behavior, labeling it theologically ugly and communally inappropriate.

Truthfully, I am not fundamentally opposed to seeking converts to Judaism as long as doing so is never based on the superiority of Judaism to other paths. The fact that Jews have not done so over the last two millennia is at least as much a function of historical circumstance as theological commitment. But then we should be open to the fact that members of other faiths have the right to do the same thing.

But it is weird when Jewish groups call it "poaching" when Christians seek to convert Jews, yet find it acceptable for Jews to seek the conversion of Christians. That we are numerically smaller and more psychologically insecure about our own existence does not give us rights we do not grant others.

I am also struck by the fact that the ideas which form the substance of CCAR's statement were first proposed to the same movement as early as 1978 by Rabbi Alexander Schindler. But when Schindler first imagined that intermarriage was a door into -- and not out of -- the Jewish community, he was thought of as kooky at best and reviled at worst. To miss that is to miss the really important lesson in this new move by these rabbis.

Every tradition was once a radical innovation, and virtually every innovation was initially decried as destructive of the very culture it sought to revitalize. I hope that whatever people think about intermarriage, proselytizing by Jews, or virtually any other religiously divisive issue, we can all keep that in mind and treat each other accordingly.

The rabbis of the Mishnah (legal text from about 100 years after the time of the New Testament) ask why we preserve minority and rejected opinions in Jewish law so carefully. The response is that one day another generation will arise and view the rulings rejected now as appropriate conclusions for them.

Imagine if different kinds of Jews looked at each other that way. Imagine if members of different faiths did so as well. If they did, all of our houses of worship would be overflowing and nobody would worry about shrinking numbers, religious competition, or any of the other worries which distract us from the bigger picture - the picture of people using the world's many wisdoms to make their lives better and empower them to help others do the same.

What we really need, at least for now, is a new ethic of proselytizing, one which accepts that some people feel compelled to share their faith, while demanding that they do so in a way that doesn't turn the believers' pursuit of heaven into a living hell for those who don't share their beliefs.