Although most Christian churches advocate some sort of mission to non-Christians, no Jewish group advocates a mission to non-Jews. Proselytization seems to be foreign to Judaism. Are covenant and mission essentially correlative tasks for Christianity but antithetical tasks for Judaism? Not at all—though Judaism sees these tasks in her own way.
Both Jews and Christians take for themselves the words of Isaiah: “I am the Lord who has rightly called you. I take hold of your hand and have formed you. And I have made you to be a covenanted people, to be a light of the nations . . . . I have given you to be a light of nations, that my salvation be unto the ends of the earth.” Being “a covenanted people” and being “a light of the nations” seem to be imperatives. The first means the Jews are to be actively related to God, the second that they have a mission to enlighten Gentiles by teaching them the Torah and even to try to bring as many Gentiles as possible into the covenanted community of Israel. Thus Maimonides taught that it is a positive commandment of the Torah “to proclaim the true religion” to the world.
We Jews who willingly and happily confirm our covenantal status and its attendant rights and duties must take the question of mission seriously: either to accept it or reject it knowingly and with conviction. We cannot regard it as irrelevant to our covenantal identity. Mission cannot be an issue at all for Jews who do not confirm God’s covenant with Israel—Jews who usually call themselves “secular Jews” or “cultural Jews.” After all, “mission” comes from the Latin missio, “being sent,” and pursuing a mission without a sender is like serving as an ambassador from nowhere.
Secularized Jews who object to Jews being proselytized can do so only on political grounds (“It is undemocratic to push religion in public”) or “cultural” grounds (“We don’t want to be told to adopt someone else’s communal identity”). Having no basis for understanding how mission could matter to themselves, they cannot understand how it could matter to anyone else. They have little to say to those for whom it does matter.
A religious commitment coupled with theological awareness gives Jews a much better way to answer the claims made upon us by missionaries representing other religions than do the rather weak political and cultural arguments of the secularists. Those having a true home in the world have the best reasons for intelligently resisting any effort to get them to move elsewhere.
I do not, by the way, regard attempts to proselytize Jews as illegitimate either for Christians or for those committed to democratic discourse. Proselytizing is only wrong if coercive or deceptive. Coercion, whether violent or not, is immoral, just as deception is immoral. If coercion is like rape, deception is like seduction. In both cases, the victim is violated. No attempt to win over converts to one’s religious conviction, as long as it is not coercive or deceptive, is immoral in a democratic society, however. Indeed, religious proselytizing is no more immoral than attempting to win over people to one’s political convictions. And just as political convictions are the business of political groups (usually called “parties”), so are religious convictions the business of religious groups (usually called “communities” or “communions” or “confessions”). Both political parties and religious communities are legitimate associations in any truly democratic society.
Are covenant and mission essentially correlative tasks for Judaism as they are for Christianity? To answer this question, Jews need to ask four questions. First, what has been and what should be the Jewish reaction to Christian attempts to proselytize Jews? Second, does Jewish exclusion of Gentiles from the covenanted community in this world mean that they cannot ever become members of the community, so that proselytizing them should be prohibited? Third, may Gentiles become members of the community through conversion, so that proselytization of them should be permitted? Fourth, ought they to become members of the covenanted community through conversion, so that proselytization of them should be mandated?
First, what has been and what should be the Jewish reaction to Christian attempts to proselytize Jews? Jewish reaction to Christian proselytization of Jews should not be made on general moral grounds but only on specifically Jewish theological grounds. (“Theology” primarily means “God’s word” as revelation as transmitted to, by, and through the covenanted community, and only secondarily human philosophical speculation about God, what we now generally call “God-talk.”) Jewish theology binds only Jews, however, and so a Jewish theological response is not a moral argument made to Christians as human beings, especially to Christians as citizens of a democracy.
Jews have, do, and should resist the efforts of any other religious community to proselytize us as Jews. That is because monotheists (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) not only worship the unique God alone but are committed to a unique relationship with that unique God. That is what is usually called “religion”: the service of God by a distinct community. (A private religion is as absurd as a private language; religion, like language, is necessarily social.) Adopting another religion, even if that other religion worships the same God, means rejecting the religion in which one is already a permanent participant. That is “apostasy,” which comes from the Greek word meaning “to stand apart,” something Jewish law, Christian law, and Islamic law all strictly prohibit. Indeed, each system of law assigns grave consequences both in this world and in the world beyond for their apostates.
It is not a theological argument made against Christianity. In fact, this theological reaction contains a political argument made to Christians only when it reminds them of how a specific mission to Jews makes dialogue with Jews impossible, which is not the case when Christians simply proclaim the gospel to the whole world in general. But it is for Christians, not Jews, to decide whether the abandonment of a specific mission to Jews for the sake of dialogue with Jews can be a genuinely Christian public policy or not. In other words, like Jews, Christians have to ponder whether or not Christian-Jewish dialogue is theologically justified. In fact, the Catholic Church, which since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s has abandoned any specific mission to the Jews, is still struggling with this issue.
Short of anti-Semitic proposals for the persecution or even the murder of Jews, nothing is more offensive to Jews than concerted programs targeting Jews to convert to another religion. (Let me emphasize that since at least the third century, Judaism and Christianity have been different religions. Christianity is no more “fulfilled Judaism” than Judaism is “proto-Christianity.”) To convert is to commit religious and political suicide. Even when such programs simultaneously denounce the “injustice” of anti-Semitism, even when they express “genuine friendship and love for the Jewish people,” even when they genuinely support the State of Israel, they denigrate Judaism as a religion, by declaring it insufficient for the salvation of the Jews who live it, if not a false religion altogether.
As for proselytizing in general, the fact that the Catholic Church eagerly accepts converts whatever their origins happen to be should be no more offensive to Jews than the fact that Jews accept converts to Judaism whatever their origins (religious or ethnic) happen to be.
Second, does Jewish exclusion of Gentiles from the covenanted community in this world mean that Gentiles cannot become members of that community, so that proselytization of them should be prohibited? Even though Judaism does not necessarily entail active proselytization of possible converts, proselytization itself necessarily presupposes the institution of conversion, and conversion is a permanent and inextricable feature of Judaism. The Rabbis established the procedures for conversion to Judaism in the second century c.e. No one within the normative Jewish community (those who completely accept the authority of revelation-based Jewish law) can reject the institution of conversion (called gerut in Hebrew) per se. In fact, conversion has been considered not only a Jewish necessity but also a Jewish desideratum.
The Rabbis could have easily eliminated conversion by legal means after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e., as ancient tradition stipulated that to complete the process of conversion the convert had to bring a sacrifice to the Jerusalem Temple. Nevertheless, they ruled that this was not an impediment when circumstances prevented anyone from bringing a sacrifice. Furthermore, ancient tradition stipulated that those supervising a conversion had to have the type of rabbinical ordination going back to Moses (something quite like apostolic succession in Christianity) that would qualify them to be constituted members of the Sanhedrin. Even with the demise of the Sanhedrin less than one hundred years after the destruction of the Temple, this too could have been made a necessary condition of conversion, but later authorities ruled that any three adult responsible Jewish males could supervise the proceedings. This approach to conversion was especially emphasized by those Jewish theologians, like Maimonides, who gave greater priority to voluntary conviction for Judaism than to involuntary birth into the Jewish people.
Third, may Gentiles become members of the community through conversion, so that proselytization of them should be permitted? The permissibility of accepting converts, perhaps even the desirability of doing so, has much support in the Jewish tradition, yet even the most enthusiastic proponents of welcoming converts cannot argue that there is any true obligation to do so actively. That leads one to answer the fourth question, Ought Gentiles to become members of the community through conversion, so that proselytization of them is mandated?, with a no. Jews have an obligation only to accept those Gentiles who have voluntarily come and have demonstrated their commitment to live according to the commandments of the Torah as best they can.
Some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Reform Jews spoke of “the mission of Israel.” However, their mission was not an attempt to convert Gentiles but advocacy of the universal, “enlightened” values they claimed Jewish “genius” had first proclaimed and the Jews had best preserved. Today, we still see secularized remnants of this mission in attempts to proclaim a “secular Judaism” as the paradigm for others attempting to overcome the supposedly narrow restraints of their own traditions.
By contrast, traditional Jews like me who have attempted to bring the wisdom of the Jewish tradition into current discussions of universal moral questions have carefully avoided seeing ourselves as missionaries to the Gentiles. Indeed, we have not done so for the sake of any ideal whose human achievement lies on the immanent historical horizon. Instead, we have tried only to remind our fellow citizens, especially our Christian fellow citizens, of the universal morality that lies behind both Judaism and Christianity, that we inherited rather than invented. This universal morality is a minimal precondition, not a maximal ideal. To secularists we have argued—often in league with Christian ethicists—that the morality we espouse is evident to any rational, morally earnest human person.
We have more deeply argued that there is a “Judeo-Christian morality” based on the doctrine known before the rise of either Judaism or Christianity, that every human person is the imago Dei, which to me means that every human person is to be regarded as the object of God’s everlasting concern. Thus the imitatio Dei is the task of every human subject: continually to emulate that divine concern in all one’s interpersonal relations with every other human being. One of the ancient sages saw the words “This is the book of the human generations, on the day of God’s creation of the human person; in the likeness of God He made him” to be the reason we are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Having answered the four questions this way, we must ask a final question: Is Jewish proselytization of Gentiles something to be encouraged (but not strictly mandated) or discouraged (but not strictly prohibited)? I ask this question as a rabbi who has officiated at the conversion of many Gentiles who have greatly enriched the Jewish community, spiritually, intellectually, and politically. But I think proselytization of Gentiles, as distinct from welcoming conversion, should be discouraged for two reasons.
First, most Jews have bad (even painful) memories of having been proselytized by Gentiles, especially Christians. As Hillel the Elder taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else” is the most basic Jewish norm. Were we to advocate an active Jewish mission to the Gentiles, most Jews would either laugh or shudder.
Second, proselytization inevitably involves some sort of triumphalism. If it does not tell its Gentile objects that their religion is absolutely evil, it tells them it is inadequate. Yet that is decidedly unbiblical. Those not born into the covenanted community cannot be held responsible for not worshiping the covenanting God. The Prophets of Israel never condemned the idolatry of the Gentiles per se; they only condemned Gentile immorality. In fact, they condemned Gentile idolatry only when Jews were attracted to it to the point of practicing it.
This comes out when one correctly interprets the two verses from Isaiah I quoted at the beginning. Many have spoken of Israel being “a light to the nations.” But the verse actually reads: “I have made you a covenanted people, to be a light of nations.” What is the difference? The Gentiles are to be impressed with what God has done to and for his people; God’s people are not to go out and actively enlighten them. In one rabbinic interpretation, Jethro, who could be considered the first convert, becomes one with the people of Israel when he hears that God revealed the foundation of the Torah, the Decalogue, to the whole people at Mount Sinai.
Even in the end of days, when Gentiles en masse will say, “Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he might instruct us in his ways, that we might walk in his paths,” the initiative will come from them, not from us. In fact, the medieval Jewish Bible commentator Rabbi David Kimhi interpreted this verse to mean that these Gentile peoples will ask for instruction in what are called the “seven commandments to the children of Noah” (who are all of humankind after the Flood), which all human communities are expected to uphold and all human persons are expected to live up to. The Gentiles are only asking the Jews to teach them what is prior to Judaism and to any other historical religion, which the Jews seem to have preserved for themselves and all humankind accurately. The Gentiles here are not asking to become Jews. And the Jews are not asking the Gentiles to help us “fast-forward” the kingdom of God on earth by becoming full or even partial proselytes.
The discouragement of proselytization should not lead one to think that one religion is as good as the other, so everyone should simply stay in the religion of his own culture, or that since one religion is as false as the other, everyone should drop the religion of his own culture. Such relativism, whether tolerant or intolerant, makes one’s Judaism (or one’s Christianity) something of less than ultimate concern, something that could hardly require one to die a martyr if that be the only alternative to apostasy. And martyrdom is something that Judaism requires of all Jews and that Christianity requires of all Christians.
That is something faithful Jews and faithful Christians should never forget. Like Christians, we Jews cannot condone, let alone bless, the apostasy of those who have left our covenanted community. Like Christians, we can only welcome with a blessing those who have joined our community. “We bless you who have come in the name of the Lord; we bless you from the House of the Lord,” as the Psalmist says. “May the Lord reward your effort, and may your recompense be complete from the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to be sheltered,” as Boaz tells Ruth. Welcoming converts enables us to proclaim the righteousness of God, who has inspired them to come into God’s house—or at least our Jewish wing of God’s house. Proselytization, though, could too easily lead us to the false proclamation of our own righteousness rather than our bearing witness to whoever wants to see the righteousness of God at work in the life of our covenanted community.
But the full and complete working of God’s righteousness through us and ultimately for the whole world will come only with the coming of the Messiah. May he come soon!
David Novak, a member of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, is professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. This article is a revised version of a lecture given at the University of Dallas.
Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our January 2013 issue.
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