Why Jews Don’t Proselytize (Part I) – OpEd


Brennan Nevada Johnson writes about what it’s like being a Black Jewish woman in Essence magazine. Johnson grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and was warmly embraced by the local Jewish community, and then she moved to NYC for college. “When I would proudly tell people that I was Jewish, they would either laugh, doubt or challenge me, and most times, they thought I was making it up,” she writes. “This happened with nearly everyone, including other Jews, Black people, college classmates — it was coming from all sides.” 

One of the reasons that many Jews are surprised by non-European or Near East descent converts to Judaism is that they know that ‘Jews Don’t Proselytize’. And the reasons why Jews do not proselytize are well explained by an article in Renovatio – The journal of Zaytuna College 3.1 (2019) written by Dr. Rabbi Reuven Firestone who is a professor at the Reform Judaism Rabbinical Seminary The Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. He writes as follows:

The ancestors of the biblical Israelites, like all the other communities of the ancient Near East, were idol worshippers. We know quite a bit about their religion from the great number of archaeological finds, including writings, that have been unearthed in what are today’s Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. It appears that all the peoples of the ancient Near East (pre-Abraham) practiced essentially the same religion. 

This religion functioned in a world believed to be populated by intangible powers (or deities) that ran nature and protected the tribal communities who lived there. Certain powers controlled important aspects of nature, such as the weather, the waters, fertility, moving celestial bodies, and so forth. In addition to these, there were tribal deities who were intimately connected with communities of humans who worshipped them. 

None of these deities were considered all-powerful or all-knowing. In fact, it was believed that the gods lived in a symbiotic relationship with their people. In addition to those powers that ran nature, every human community needed its own divine protection from the dangers of nature and the predations of neighboring tribes, and the gods needed sustenance in the form of sacrificial offerings. These tribal gods were intimately connected to their people. One could even say they lived in a covenantal relationship with their communities. The gods protected their people, and the people fed their gods. That is a form of covenant, or official agreement. 

A telling scene in the “Epic of Gilgamesh” speaks volumes about the relationship between gods and humans in the ancient world. In this story, dated centuries before the earliest layers of the Hebrew Bible, the gods destroy humanity in a massive flood for making too much noise and disturbing them, but then realize, too late, that they have foolishly destroyed their source of sustenance. They soon become desperately hungry. A long time later, after the water has subsided, Utnapishtim, the Noah character, makes offerings to the gods in thanks: “I offered incense in front of the mountain-ziggurat. Seven and seven cult vessels I put in place…. The gods smelled the savor, the gods smelled the sweet savor, and collected like flies over a (sheep) sacrifice.” 

The community gods were loyal to their human flocks, protecting and keeping them so they would provide them with sustenance. Every people had its deity, and we know the names of many of them from the Hebrew Bible, which has often been corroborated by ancient non-biblical sources. The people of Moab had a tribal deity named Kemosh (Numbers 21:29), the Ammonites’ deity was called Milkom (1 Kings 11:5), the Philistines’ god was Dagon (1 Samuel 5), and the goddess of Tyre was Ashtoret (2 Kings 23:13). The god of Shechem (today’s Nablus) was even called Ba’al Berit, meaning “keeper of the covenant” (Judges 9:4, 46). And before the Israelites transitioned to monotheism, they also had a tribal god with a unique name, constructed from the four letters YHWH, that conveyed a meaning something like “existence” or “being.” 

Like all the other gods of the ancient Near East, the pre-monotheist god of Israel was at first neither omnipotent nor omniscient, and some interesting vestiges of this pre-monotheist tradition remain in the Hebrew Bible, for that scripture contains snippets of very ancient Israelite and pre- Israelite thinking. For example, when God confronted Adam after he had eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree in the Garden, God had to ask where Adam was (Genesis 3:9). 

Later Jewish and Christian commentators, whose theology of monotheism presumed that God was all-powerful and all-knowing, felt it was impossible for God not to know where Adam was. They therefore argued that God was simply testing Adam to see whether he would admit to his transgression. So when God asked, “Where are you?”, He was only providing Adam an opportunity to repent for his sin. 

The Hebrew Bible, however, is an ancient anthology of literature: some parts are assumed by Jews to have been revealed directly by God, but other parts include historical material, Psalms, narratives, ancient legends, moralistic tales, and even love poetry (the Song of Songs).

What is important about all this for the purpose of this discussion is that one’s relationship with the transcendent in the ancient Near East was tribal. One’s personal god was also the god of everyone else in the extended family, clan, tribe, and sometimes even tribal federation. At the same time, everyone recognized that other tribes had their own tribal gods, and each was limited. One could not simply leave the family god and take on a different one, because each god was associated with a different tribal community. 

Therefore, the idea of conversion simply did not exist in the ancient Near East. It did not make sense in such a context. One could no more convert out of a deity relationship than one could convert out of a family relationship. Family is family (including the family deity), and nobody could change that.

Then, for some reason that has not been understood by historians of religion or historians of the ancient world, the Israelites transitioned from polytheism to monotheism. The Bible itself seems to recognize this in a famous passage in the Book of Joshua (24:2–3). Just before leading the Israelites across the Jordan River to the Promised Land, “Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus said the Lord (YHWH), the God of Israel: In olden times, your forefathers—Teraĥ, father of Abraham and father of Naĥōr—lived beyond the Euphrates and worshipped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and led him through the whole land of Canaan and multiplied his offspring.”  

The transition from polytheism to monotheism took (many) generations and even centuries, and it was a very difficult changeover. The Hebrew Bible is full of references to Israelites backsliding; being “stiff-necked”; and failing to be entirely loyal to the One Great God of the universe, who demands absolute and unfailing loyalty. Some of these references seem quite bizarre, but they reflect the difficulty of moving from the worship of many gods to only one. This is something that the Qur’an and hadith also acknowledge was a difficult transition for some Arabs during the time of the Prophet. 

When someone is new to monotheism and has learned from childhood that the world is full of divine powers that can punish you for not remaining loyal and paying your dues through sacrificial offerings, it might seem prudent to “hedge your bets” by making small offerings to other gods as well as the One Great God—even if the other gods are not supposed to really exist. Recall that in the ancient Near East, people made offerings to their tribal gods along with the deities who powered nature (e.g., the weather, fertility). That is exactly what some Israelites stubbornly continued to do. 

During the early period of monotheism, when the entire world outside their small community worshipped differently, it must have felt risky to many—even frightening—to remain absolutely loyal to the one God, when everybody else was loyal to many gods. “When someone is new to monotheism, it might seem prudent to “hedge your bets” by making small offerings to other gods as well as the One Great God—even if the other gods are not supposed to really exist.” 

The religious leaders of Israel and those who had transitioned successfully to monotheism were not concerned about the religious practices of neighboring tribes, except when those practices became dangerously enticing to their own people. They were concerned, rather, about remaining loyal to what seemed (to everyone who was not Israelite) the strange and perilous practice of worshipping only one god. Under such conditions, they had no incentive to convince others to take on their unpopular religious practice. 

On the contrary, they were intent on creating a safe space where they could worship their One Great God without the temptation to “hedge bets” and be disloyal. The Hebrew Bible is full of exhortations to the Israelites to restrict their worship to the One Great God precisely because many were doing otherwise, and it calls repeatedly for establishing a safe haven for monotheism.

It is certainly true that the Hebrew Bible calls for the destruction of temples and high places dedicated to polytheistic worship, but only within the borders of the Holy Land. This does not suggest that Israel was commanded by God to eradicate idolatry from the earth but only to remove it from the “safe haven” of what Jews refer to as the Land of Israel. Outside that land, Israel is not commanded to eradicate idolatry among non-Israelites, presumably because outside the land it would have no significant influence on Israelite practice.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *