History of Conversion - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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History of Conversion

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The Jewish view of conversion has a long and complicated history. The following articles give overviews of Jewish views on conversion during sections of this history.

Overview Articles

Angel, Marc Dwight. Conversion to Judaism : Halakha, Hashkafa, and historic challenge. Hakirah 7 (2009) 25-49

Abstract:  The current policies of the Orthodox rabbinic beth din establishment are causing anguish to thousands of would-be converts and their families; are turning would-be converts away from Orthodoxy. Therefore, must ask ourselves some serious questions: Are these current policies relating to conversion absolutely required by halakha, or are there other valid views that must be considered? Are current efforts to “raise standards” focusing on ritual mitzvoth, while actually “lowering standards” of mitzvoth relating to maintaining Jewish families, treating converts and potential converts wit h compassion, and other moral considerations? If the current policies are halakhically and morally deficient, how should we be addressing the issue of conversion to Judaism?

Seltzer, Robert. An Historical Overview of Outreach and Conversion in Judaism. Journal of Jewish Communal Service. Vol. 66/Num. 3

Abstract: There have been much more conversion and outreach to Judaism in the past than the conventional picture implies. The lack of interest that has been predominant since the late Middle Ages is only a limited phase in a long history of cycles of isolation and outreach. We may now be entering into a new historic era of outreach.

Berger, David. Reflections on Conversion and Proselytizing and Judaism and Christianity. Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations. 3, 1 (2008).

Abstract: “Setting aside disputes regarding the State of Israel, there is no more sensitive subject in the universe of Jewish-Christian relations than conversionary aspirations on the part of Christians. The reasons for this appear obvious—and in large measure they are—but they are also marked by layers of complexity that we would do well to examine, particularly in light of the controversy engendered by the revised Tridentine mass issued by Pope Benedict XVI and a full page advertisement in the New York Times in which prominent evangelical Christians advocated the targeted proselytizing of Jews.” This article examines the history of conversion between Jews and Christians and it’s implications for the modern era.

Epstein, Lawrence. “Why the Jewish People Should Welcome Converts” Judaism: Summer 1994, 43, 3 p. 302.

Abstract: Traces the history of conversion to disprove those who view it as an antidote to intermarriage. "Whatever efficacy conversion may or may not have in reducing the number of intermarriages, the linking of the two subjects distorts conversion's crucial role in Jewish theology, its centrality at important eras in Jewish history, and its promise as a component of Jewish renewal."

Lichtenstein, Aharon. “On Conversion” by in Tradition 23, 2 (1988) 1-18.

Abstract: This article focuses on the process of Gerut itself. "If we wish to define it we will discover that the essence of Gerut is it's being a turning point. It's foundation is a radical transformation: an uprooting in one world to strike root in a different one."

Zabarenko Abrams, Judith “What Characterizes the Ideal Ger-Gioret? The Politics of Tradition’s Answer” CCAR Journal 39, 1 (1992) 29-34.

Abstract: One of the most rewarding tasks rabbis perform is teaching and counseling prospective converts to Judaism. Much time is spent not only on the study of Judaism, but on the intangibles of identification with, and commitment to, the Jewish people and faith. The three rabbinic texts which follow will show that these were important characteristics of an ideal ger/ gioret in ancient days, as well. However, they will show us more than that. These texts can serve as a window on the world of the rabbis, for their definitions of the perfect ger/ gioret reveal much about that world, and may also be useful in our own day and age.

Sagi, Av; Zohar, Zvi. The Halakhic Ritual of Giyyur and its Symbolic Meaning. Journal of Ritual Studies 9 no 1 Wint 1995, p 1-13.

Abstract: Of all Judaic rituals, that of giyyur ('conversion') is arguably the most radical: it turns a Gentile into a Jew once and for all and irrevocably.1 The very possibility of such a transformation seems prima facie anomalous, according to Jewish tradition, which regards Jewishness as an ascriptive status entered through birth to a Jewish mother. Choice of religion in no way affects that status: a Jew who has converted to (e.g.) Islam remains nevertheless a Jew, according to Judaic normative tradition (halakha). What is the internal logic of the ritual of giyyur, which seems to enable a Gentile to acquire an 'ascribed' identity? It is to that question, and others deriving from it, that we address ourselves herein.

Garber, Zev. Conversion, Halakhah, and Practice. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies; Spring2009, Vol. 27 Issue 3, p178-181, 4p

Abstract: The article reviews the book "Conversion, Halakhah, and Practice," by Menachem Finkelstein.

Angel, Marc D. Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion. Publishers Weekly; 10/17/2005, Vol. 252 Issue 41, p59-59, 1/4p

Abstract: In this compelling, informative, and easy-to-read analysis of conversion to Judaism, Angel draws on his many years of experience as an Orthodox rabbi who has performed countless conversions to entreat the Orthodox community to be more open-minded in its approach to conversion candidates. Angel submits that although the last 200 years have seen increased opposition to Jewish conversion, historically this was not always the case; therefore, converts who exhibit sincere interest and a bona fide desire to join the Jewish community and abide by halakha (Jewish law) should be encouraged and welcomed. Within his assessment of why people choose to convert, he examines candidates who have found their way to Judaism through a journey of the intellect and spirit; others who wish to marry a Jew; some who have unearthed Jewish ancestry; and still others who aspire to live in Israel among the Jewish people. Interspersed are poignant personal stories submitted by converts of all backgrounds that should successfully aid in convincing opponents. By bringing historic, Talmudic and societal evidence for his plea to respond to the need of converting proselytes via Orthodox requirements (minimizing the alternative of Conservative or Reform conversions, which are considered invalid by the Orthodox community), Angel powerfully demonstrates not only the issue's urgency, but its permissibility as well.

Michael J. Broyde and Shmuel Kadosh. Review Essay: Transforming Identity by Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar. Tradition. 2007

Abstract: This review will be divided into three sections. "The first section examines the basic analytic insight of the book,"Transforming Idenity": that the two central Talmudic sources which discuss giyyur (conversion) are at odds with one another and that the halakha is uncertain which view is correct. The second section critiques specifi c but critically important source readings that the authors undertake, and the third argues that their basic framework for pondering acceptance of commandments is mistaken. The conclusion and postscript examine paths not taken."

Rabinowitz, Louis, and David Eichhorn. "Proselytes" Encyclopaedia Judaica. Eds. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 16. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 587-594. 22 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. HEBREW UNION COLLEGE. 26 July 2010


Conversion and the Rabbis

Corinaldi, Michael. The Problem of the Patrilineal or Matrilineal Decent and Inter-Marriage According to the Samaritan and Rabbinic Halakah (Jerusalem)

Abstract: The author compares the Samaritan and Kaarite view on partilineal and matrilinial decent as well as intermarriage across sects two better understand how these groups related to one another in the ancient world.

Cohen, Shaye. “Crossing the Boundary and Becoming a Jew” Harvard Theological Review 82, 1 (1989) 13-33.

Abstract: In this essay I hope to illustrate some of these generalizations by studying the process by which a gentile in antiquity (mid-second century BCE to the fifth century CE) became less a gentile and more a Jew. How did a gentile cross the boundary that separates "the nations of the world" from Judaism? How did a gentile "become a Jew" in the eyes of the gentile him/herself, in the eyes of contemporary gentiles and in the eyes of cont emporary Jews?In this essay I hope to illustrate some of these generalizations by studying the process by which a gentile in antiquity (mid-second century BCE to the fifth century CE) became less a gentile and more a Jew. How did a gentile cross the boundary that separates "the nations of the world" from Judaism? How did a gentile "become a Jew" in the eyes of the gentile him/herself, in the eyes of contemporary gentiles and in the eyes of cont emporary Jews?

Regev, Eyal. Herod's Jewish Ideology Facing Romanization: On Intermarriage, Ritual Baths, and Speeches. Jewish Quarterly Review; Spring 2010, Vol. 100 Issue 2, p197-222, 26p

Abstract: The article offers information on the ideology of Herod on the Jewish ritual bath mikveh and intermarriage. It says that the incorporation of the ritual bath on the Roman bathhouse shows the ritual purity in the private life and in the palace of Herod. On the other hand, the Herodian dynasty allows intermarriages between Jewish people and requires non-Jewish men to convert to Judaism when marrying female Jews.


Conversion in the Medieval Era

Zohar, Zvi M. Maimonides as inspiration and guide for Sephardic halakhic leadership in modern times : (with special reference to the case of giyyur). Journal for the Study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry 2 (2007) 102-115

Abstract: This paper begins with the definition of one kind of Jewish leadership, that I entitle halakhic leadership, i.e.: the ability of a rabbi to creatively apply the resources of halakha (Jewish religious norms) to the guidance of Jewish praxis in a manner that is conducive to the vitalization of Jewish life in its current context(s).After briefly noting aspects of Maimonides’ halakhic leadership in his own lifetime, I point out ways in which his work influenced, directed and supported Sephardic halakhic leaders in modern times. This influence is reflected in several ways. Firstly, in the plethora of works by these rabbis in which they creatively grapple with the intellectual content and implications of Maimonides’ oeuvre, through works of novellae and commentary. Secondly, in their grounding of current Sephardic religious praxis in Maimonidean texts and authority. And thirdly, in their derivation of theological and ethical guidance for contemporary life from Maimonides’ Mishne Torah. In the final part of this paper, I focus on a specific issue that poses a major challenge to halakhic leaders in modern times, the widespread phenomenon of intermarriage. After explaining the relationship between intermarriage and giyyur as reflected in Maimonides’ Code and in his responsa, I present and discuss the halakhic rulings of three Sephardic rabbis in modern times, whose positions with regard to giyyur as solution to intermarriage were explicitly grounded in their interpretation and application of Maimonidean texts.

Shatzmiler, Joseph. "Converts and Judizers in the Early Fourteenth Century." Harvard Theological Review 74 no 1 Ja 1981, p 63-77.

Abstract: Explores halachic issues of converts who left Judaism for Christianity and subsequently decided to return. A good history of the attitude toward conversion during the 14th C.

Scheiber, Alexander, and Israel Adler. "Obadiah, The Norman Proselyte" Encyclopaedia Judaica. Eds. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 15. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 366-367. 22 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. HEBREW UNION COLLEGE. 26 July 2010


Conversion in the Early Modern Era

Jacob, Walter. “Conversion in Reform Halakhah” Conversion to Judaism in Jewish Law (1994) 115-132.

Abstract: "This paper is divided into two segment; the first will summarize the Reform position as expressed through synods, conferences, and responsa. The second section will analyze these  developments and seek the rationale behind them."

Ellenson, David. Representative Orthodox Responsa on Conversion and Intermarriage in the Contemporary Era. Jewish Social Studies; Summer/Fall85, Vol. 47 Issue 3/4, p209-220, 12p

Abstract: The article explores the representative responsa of leading Ashkenazic Orthodox rabbis to the issue of conversion and intermarriage developed among Orthodox Jewish legal authorities in Central Europe, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Responsa of Rabbis Yeheil Yaakov Weinberg and Simcha Levy are considered, as they represents the transition from lenient to stringent halakhic attitudes. The analysis aims to understand why the stringent Orthodox responsa has obtained a near total monopoly in the Orthodox camp.

Shilo, Shmuel. “Halakhic Leniency in Modern Responsa regarding Conversion” Israel Law Review 22, 3 (1988) 353-364.

Abstract:The topic we will be discussing concerns the attitude of certain 19th and 20th century halakhic scholars and t heir decision making concerning proselytization, and the reasons be hind their legal pronouncements . As we shall see, the sentiments underlying their specific decisions were not usually based on the general outlook as to proselytes a n d proselytization.- Rather , the non-legal background to their decisions was mad e up of their own psychological views of the convert , of individual Jews and of the Jewish people. All this - within the historical context of Judaism and the Jewish people in the 19th and 20th centuries.