Islam’s Flexibility For Converts Vs. Judaism’s Discouraging Attitude – OpEd


The Arab tribe of Thaqeef remained hostile to Islam for a long time. It was one of the most important tribes in Arabia, living in Taif, where they were virtually immune from attack, as they lived high up in a mountainous area. Three years before he fled to Madinah to escape a plot by the Makkans to kill him, Prophet Muhammad went to Taif to build a new base for Islam, but they gave him a very hostile reception, hurling stones at him.

The Thaqeef tribe remained hostile to Islam even after Makkah had surrendered to Islam. The Prophet laid siege to Taif for over a month. He was informed that its people could easily withstand a yearlong siege. He then decided to end his siege, trusting that in time, Thaqeef would have no option but to turn to Islam.

A few months later, Thaqeef began to realize that their situation was getting more critical, with most of Arabia joining Islam. They felt that they might soon be facing the whole of Arabia in war. They decided to send emissaries to the Prophet, When they expressed their tribe’s willingness to accept Islam, they tried to demand certain conditions. Their main concern was that they should be allowed to continue to worship their main idol, Al-Lat, for three years. The Prophet refused.

The Thaqeef tried hard to persuade him to agree, reducing the period to two years, then to one, then a few months, before insisting on a grace period of just one month. The Prophet refused to accept this condition for any set period whatsoever. Needless to say, the compromise they tried to strike is against the most central Islamic belief in God’s oneness. It could never be accepted, not even for an hour.

The Thaqeef also asked that they should not be made to destroy their idols with their own hands, and further requested that they should be exempted from prayer. The Prophet said to them: “As for destroying your idols with your hands, we will not ask you to do that.” 

Obviously the important point is that the Thaqeef people would see that those idols were useless, as they could not prevent their own destruction, regardless of the identity of the people carrying out the destruction. If the Thaqeef people felt it hard for them to destroy objects they used to worship, the task could be carried out by others.

The Thaqeef tried to place other conditions including that “they should not be required to fight in jihad, pay one tenth of their money in zakah, or be required to offer prayers.” The Prophet accepted the first two conditions, but as for prayers he said: “A religion that does not require its followers to pray is of little benefit.” He told his companions: “If these people accept Islam, they will in time fight for it, and they will pay their required charity.”

It should be noted that Zakah is one of the five pillars of Islam, yet the prophet did not require it of them in order to facilitate their conversion to Islam. This flexibility in encouraging people to convert to Islam is very different from the way Orthodox Rabbis make the conversion process long and difficult.

Unlike Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, Judaism does not have 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 Mormons have been around less than 200 years; compared to more than 3,500 years for Jews.

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 should welcome non-Jews to join us, many Jews, including some rabbis, see no reason to encourage conversion; and so do not welcome interested non-Jews who desire to become Jewish.

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-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 Yohanan 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 Johanna 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 non-Jews 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 Yohanan says the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because 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 Yohanan. 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 Talmud says Jews suffered the great damage of being enslaved in Egypt because Abraham failed to give some non-Jews an opportunity to convert. (Neddarim 32a) “Rabbi Abbahu said in Rabbi Eleazar’s name: Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years?… R. Yohanan said: Because he prevented people from entering beneath the wings of the Shechinah (converting to Judaism), as it is written, ‘The king of Sodom said to Abraham: Give me the people, and take the property for yourself’ (and Abraham agreed). (Genesis 14:21)

Thus, when Rabbi Yohanan says the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because Abraham didn’t try to influence some captives that he rescued to become Jewish, he means that even failing to encourage potential converts is wrong. These are practical, not theological, reasons to seek converts and not to push away those who might be interested.

All rabbis today should welcome potential converts and not discourage them. We may not be saving souls, but by rejecting people who want to be Jewish, we may be making them or their descendants into future enemies, at a potential great cost to our own descendants.

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.

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