Unlike Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, Judaism does not have much of a missionary impulse. That is why there are so few Jews in the world. Mormons, who very actively seek converts, already outnumber Jews even though they have been around less than 200 years compared to more than 3,500 years for Jews. In 2019 there were about 68,000 full-time Mormon missionaries serving around the world.
Judaism lacks a strong missionary impulse because Judaism is a pluralistic religion. Judaism teaches that the Jewish way is right for us, but good people in other religions also have a place in the world to come. Correct behavior in society is more important than correct beliefs about God. Thus, while Jews welcome non-Jews to join us, we do not have an urgent motive to ‘enlighten’ or ‘save’ them.
Lacking the missionary impulse of more universalistic religions, Jews react to potential converts in varied ways, ranging from wariness to encouragement. Practical community concerns guided many of our Sages. Some like Rabbi Helbo said that converts are an irritation like an itch, a sore or a scab. Perhaps Rabbi Helbo felt that the enthusiasm and idealistic expectations of converts irritated too many born Jews, who take their Jewishness much more casually.
Or maybe he agreed with Rabbi Isaac who said “Evil after evil comes upon those who receive converts”. Both these Rabbis lived in the early 4th century when the Church was vociferously attacking pagans who choose to become Jews rather than Christians. Perhaps they feared Christian anti-anti-Semitism if Jews were openly receiving converts.
On the other hand, Rabbi Simon ben Lakish proclaimed that a convert is more beloved to God than all the Jews who stood at Sinai. This seems rather extreme. Perhaps he was reacting to those who claimed Jewishness was in their noble genes. Equally amazing were Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat and Rabbi Johanan who both taught that the forced exile of the Jewish people among the Gentiles, was really a God given opportunity to influence Gentiles to become Jewish.
Some Rabbis tried to test the sincerity of potential converts by making great demands of time and effort from them. Opposing this, Rabbi Johanan advises that you should push potential converts away with your left hand and draw them close with your right hand. Since most people are right handed if you actually push away more than a few you are being too negative.
Rashi, the greatest of our Bible commentators, taught that Jews started seeking converts from the very beginning, when he interpreted a verse that states that Abraham made souls in Haran, to mean that Abraham and Sarah made converts. And the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) condemns those who push potential converts away by relating that Isaac and Jacob pushed away Timna the sister of Lotan who wanted to become Jewish. She then married a son of Esau. One of her descendants was Amalek who attacked Israel shortly after they escaped from Egypt. If, instead of being pushed away, Timna had become Jewish, Amalek would have been on our side, and not one of our enemies. A more practical view is hard to imagine.
Indeed, Rabbi Johanan says the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because Prophet Abraham didn’t try to influence some captives that he rescued to become Jewish. Even failing to encourage potential converts is wrong according to Rabbi Johanan. And several of our Rabbis felt that discouraging converts in the past had brought troubles upon us. These are practical, not theological, reasons to seek converts and not to push away those who might be interested.
Rabbis today should welcome potential converts and not discourage them. We may not be saving souls, but we should not be making future enemies by rejecting people who want to be Jewish. The recent attempt by some Haredi Rabbis in Israel to retroactively dejudiaze thousands of Jews who were converted according to Halakah is an shameful example of what not to do.
Two decades ago I met a recent Russian immigrant who had started an introduction to Judaism class in Boston. She had to leave the class to move to L.A. with her husband for his new job. She was six months pregnant and wanted to be Jewish before the baby was born, because she was the child of a mixed marriage in the Soviet Union, and she did not want her child to have a similar experience.
She told me that at age 18 everyone in the USSR had to get an identity card. Since her father was Jewish, and her mother was Russian, the government official told her she could pick either one for her identity card, but she could not change it once it was issued.
She said she wanted her identity card to read: Jewish. The official, and then his boss, spent over a half an hour arguing with her that this was a very bad decision. She insisted and it was done. When I heard that story, I told her that in my eyes she had already become Jewish by that act alone. I was ready to convert her next month. I did. And I was at the circumcision of her son two months later. The family joined my congregation, and were members for several years, until they moved to another part of L.A.
As God says: “Behold, I am a God who brings near’ says the Lord, “and not a God who repels”.(Jeremiah 23:23) And as s Prophet Isaiah states: “And the foreigners (non-Jews) who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast to my covenant, these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:6-7)