There is ample evidence of a widespread conversion to Judaism during the period of the Second Temple, especially the latter part of the period, and the word ger, which in biblical times meant a stranger, or an alien, became synonymous with a proselyte (see *Strangers and Gentiles).
Among the notable converts to Judaism may be mentioned the royal family of Adiabene, Aquila and/or Onkelos, Flavius Clemens, the nephew of Vespasian, and Fulvia, wife of Saturninus, a Roman senator. Unique, as the only case of forced conversion in Judaism, was the mass conversion of the Edomites by John Hyrcanus.
In addition to those outstanding figures, however, it is obvious that proselytism was widespread among the ordinary people. The statement of the New Testament that the Pharisees "compass sea and land to make one proselyte" (Matt. 23:15), suggesting a vigorous and active proselytization may possibly be an exaggeration, but on the other hand, the near pride which the rabbis took in the claim that some of their greatest figures were descended from proselytes (see below) point to an openhanded policy toward their acceptance. Such incidents as the different approach of Shammai and Hillel to the request to be taught the principles of Judaism by a potential proselyte (Shabb. 31a) and the incidental mention of "Judah the Ammonite proselyte" (Ber. 28a) point to the fact that the movement was not confined to the upper classes. In fact Josephus states explicitly that in his day the inhabitants of both Greek and barbarian cities evinced a great zeal for Judaism (Contra Ap. 2. 39).
It was during this period that the detailed laws governing the acceptance of proselytes were discussed and codified, and they have remained standard in Orthodox Judaism.
Laws of Conversion
The procedure, established by the tannaim, according to which a non-Jew may be accepted into the Jewish faith, was elucidated as follows: "In our days, when a proselyte comes to be converted, we say to him: 'What is your objective? Is it not known to you that today the people of Israel are wretched, driven about, exiled, and in constant suffering?' If he says: 'I know of this and I do not have the merit,' we accept him immediately and we inform him of some of the lighter precepts and of some of the severer ones… we inform him of the chastisements for the transgression of these precepts… and we also inform him of the reward for observing these precepts… we should not overburden him nor be meticulous with him…" (Yev. 47a; cf. Ger. 1, in: M. Higger, Sheva Massekhtot Ketannot (1930), 68–69). This text refers to a person who converted through conviction. The halakhah also accepts a posteriori, proselytes who had converted in order to marry, to advance themselves, or out of fear (Yev. 24b, in the name of Rav, see tj, Kid. 4:1, 65b–d; Maim. Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 13:17; Sh. Ar., yd 268:12). The acceptance of a proselyte "under the wings of the Divine Presence" is equivalent to Israel's entry into the covenant, i.e., with circumcision, immersion, and offering a sacrifice (Ger. 2:4, in: M. Higger; loc. cit. 72).
A proselyte had to sacrifice a burnt offering either of cattle or two young pigeons. R. Johanan b. Zakkai instituted that in those times when sacrifice was no longer possible, a proselyte was not obliged to set aside money for the sacrifice (Ker. 9a). Therefore, only circumcision and immersion remained. R. Eliezer and R. Joshua disagreed as to whether someone who immersed himself but was not circumcised or vice versa could be considered a proselyte. According to R. Eliezer, he is a proselyte, even if he performed only one of these commandments. R. Joshua, however, maintained that immersion was indispensable. The halakhic conclusion is that "he is not a proselyte unless he has both been circumcised and has immersed himself" (Yev. 46). The act of conversion must take place before a bet din, consisting of three members; a conversion carried out by the proselyte when alone is invalid (Yev. 46b–47a). There is a suggestion that the three members of the bet din must be witnesses only to his acceptance of the precepts but not to the immersion. Maimonides, however, decided (Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 13:7), that a proselyte who immersed himself in the presence of two members only is not a proselyte. The schools of Shammai and Hillel differed on the issue of a proselyte who had already been circumcised at the time of his conversion: "Bet Shammai states: 'One must draw from him the blood of circumcision'; Bet Hillel states: 'One need not draw the blood of circumcision from him'" (Tosef., Shah. 15:9; tb, Shab. 135a). Most of the rabbinic authorities decide in favor of Bet Shammai (Tos. to Shab. 135a; Maim. Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 14:5; Sh. Ar., yd 268:1), and "who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments and hast commanded us to circumcise proselytes and to draw from them the blood of the covenant" (Shab. 137b) is said in the circumcision benediction of proselytes.
A proselyte must observe all the precepts that bind Jews. The statement: "There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger that dwelleth amongst you" (Ex. 12:49), which refers to the paschal lamb, the sages interpreted to mean that the stranger (proselyte) was the equal of the citizen concerning all the precepts of the Torah (Mekh. Pisha, 15). They tried to equalize the status of the proselyte and that of the Jew; certain differences stemming from the origin of the convert, however, remained. According to an anonymous Mishnah, a proselyte may not confess himself after taking out the tithes since the statement occurs in the confession "the land which Thou hast given to us"; nor does he read the section on the first fruits, where the statement is: "which the Lord hath sworn unto our fathers to give unto us." The proselyte, praying by himself must say: "the God of the Fathers of Israel"; in the synagogue he says: "the God of your Fathers" (Ma'as. Sh. 5:14; Bik. 1:4). According to one tradition, R. Judah permitted a proselyte to read the section on the first fruits, claiming that Abraham was the father of the whole world (tj, Bik. 1:4, 64a; but in Tosef., Bik. 1:2 this permission is only extended to the Kenites). The Palestinian amoraim, R. Joshua b. Levi and R. Avihu, agreed with R. Judah. The authorities (particularly R. Samson in his commentary to Bikkurim (ibid.), and Maimonides in his letter to Obadiah the Proselyte, below) in permitting a proselyte to say "the God of our Fathers" in the prayers based themselves on the same rationale.
A proselyte terminates all former family ties upon conversion and "is considered a newly born child." His Jewish name is not associated with that of his father and he is referred to as "the son of Abraham (our father)." Later, it became the custom to name the proselyte himself after the first Jew who knew his Creator "Abraham the son of Abraham." According to the letter of the law, a proselyte may marry his relatives. The sages, however, decreed against this "So that they should not say: 'We have come from a greater sanctity to a lesser sanctity'" (Yev. 22a, Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 14:12). The disqualifications pertaining to testimony of relatives in judicial cases of family members do not apply to the proselyte; his relatives also may not inherit from him. If no heirs were born to him after his conversion, his property and his possessions are considered not to belong to anyone, and whoever takes hold of them becomes their owner (bb 3:3, 4:9; Git. 39a; Yad, Zekhi'ah u-Mattanah 1:6).
A proselyte may marry a Jewish woman, even the daughter of a priest (Kid. 73a; Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 19:11; Sh. Ar., eh 7:22). A female proselyte, however, cannot marry a kohen, unless she was converted during childhood, not later than the age of three years and one day (Yev. 60b; Kid. 78a). R. Yose permits the marriage of the daughter of a male or female proselyte to a kohen; R. Eliezer b. Jacob, however, disputes the matter. The statement "From the day of the destruction of the Temple, the kohanim have preserved their dignity and followed the opinion of R. Eliezer b. Jacob" shows that tradition tended toward the latter's opinion. The amoraim, however, decided that he be followed only in those cases where the marriage has not yet taken place. If a female proselyte is already married to a kohen, she is not bound to leave him (Kid. 4:7; tb, Kid. 78b; Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 19:12). A proselyte may also marry a mamzer ("bastard"). According to some opinions, the permission may extend over ten generations, while others claim it should be only until his heathen origin is forgotten (Kid. 72b, 75a).
A proselyte cannot be appointed to any public office. The rabbis based their decision on the verse: "Thou shalt appoint over thee a king from among thy brothers – appointments shall be only from among thy brothers." This injunction does not apply to a proselyte whose mother or father are of Jewish origin (Yev. 45b; Kid. 76b; Tos. Sot. 41b, Yad, Melakhim 1:4). A proselyte may not hold the office of judge in a criminal court; he may act as such in a civil court (Sanh. 36b) and also judge a fellow proselyte, even in a criminal law case (Rashi to Yev. 102a). Unless one of his parents was born Jewish, most authorities bar a proselyte from acting as judge even in a civil court (Alfasi on Sanh. 4:2, Yad, Sanh. 2:9, 11:11). Others are of the opinion that even in a civil court he can only judge a fellow proselyte (Tos. Yev. 45b; Ra-Sh-BA on Yev. 102a).
Appreciation of the Proselyte
In the Talmud and the Midrashim, as well as in other contemporary literature, the accepted attitude toward proselytes is usually positive. There is, however, strong evidence in rabbinic sources that some authorities were opposed to the concept of conversion and proselytes. Those scholars who ignore or obliterate such evidence cannot be justified. The differences in outlook found in rabbinic sources can partly be explained by disparities in character and temperament. However, the deciding factors were usually contemporary conditions and the personal experiences of the rabbis. R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, who was under ban, objected to the acceptance of proselytes (Eccles. R. 1:8). When Aquila the Proselyte wondered and asked: "Is this all the love which the Lord hath given unto the proselyte, as it is written 'and He loveth the stranger to give him bread and clothing?'" R. Eliezer was angry with him, but R. Joshua comforted him, saying: "Bread means Torah… clothing means the tallit: the man who is worthy to have the Torah, will also acquire its precepts; his daughters may marry into the priesthood and their grandsons will sacrifice burnt offerings on the altar." (Gen. R. 70:5). It is possible that R. Eliezer's negative attitude may have been influenced by his contacts with the first Christians. He may have seen that many of the new heretics were proselytes who had relapsed and it is only concerning these that he said, "They revert to their evil ways" (bm 59b). The same R. Eliezer also states: "When a person comes to you in sincerity to be converted, do not reject him, but on the contrary encourage him" (Mekh. Amalek 3). From his time, proselytes out of conviction were mentioned in the benediction for the righteous and the pious in the Amidah (Meg. 17b). The bitter experience of Jews with proselytes in times of war and revolt influenced the negative attitude to conversion. Proselytes and their offspring became renegades, often slandering their new religion and denouncing the Jewish community and its leaders to the foreign rulers. In Josephus there is a description of Hellenist proselytes who apostatized and returned to their evil ways (Jos., Apion 2:123). Reference to the situation which existed after the destruction of the Temple and the abortive revolt which followed it is made in the baraita statement: "Insincere proselytes who wear tefillin on the heads and on their arms, zizit in their clothes, and who fix mezuzot on their doors – when the war of Gog and Magog will come… each one of them will remove the precepts from himself and go on his way…" (Av. Zar. 3b). At the time of the revolt of Bar Kokhba the expression "they impede the arrival of the Messiah" (Nid. 13b), referred to such proselytes. At the same epoch, R. Nehemiah taught: a proselyte who converted in order to marry or converted to enjoy the royal table or to become a servant of Solomon, proselytes who converted from fear of the lions (see: ii Kings 17:24–28), proselytes who converted because of a dream, or the proselytes of Mordecai and Esther, are not acceptable as proselytes, unless they convert themselves (as) at the present time (Yev. 24b), i.e., by conviction in times of political decline, oppressions, persecutions, and lack of any material benefit. R. Simeon b. Yohai, upon seeing Judah b. Gerim ("a son of proselytes"), who was responsible for the rabbi's criticism of the Romans reaching the ears of the rulers, said: "Is this one still in the world!" and set his eyes upon him, turning him into a heap of bones (Shab. 33b–34a). This experience throws light on the commentary of R. Simeon: "Those who feared the Lord were a hindrance to Israel… the best of the gentiles, you should put to death…" (Mekh. Va-Yehi 2). His real opinions, however, found expression in the commentary (Mekh. Nezikim (Mishpatim) 18): "It is said – 'And those that are beloved by Him are compared to the sun when it rises in all its strength'; Now who is greater – he who loves the king or he whom the king loves? One must say – he whom the king loves, as the verse says: 'and He loves the stranger [proselyte]'"; the statement of R. Hiyya: "Do not have any faith in a proselyte until 24 generations have passed because the inherent evil is still within him" (Mid. Ruth Zuta on 1:12); and other statements of amoraim who despised proselytes: "Proselytes are as hard for Israel [to endure] as a sore" (Yev. 47b) were prompted by the bad experiences Jews had with proselytes who had turned national or religious recreants. To these the rabbis referred: "The proselytes who left Egypt with Moses, made it [the Golden Calf] and said to Israel: These are your gods" (Ex. R. 42:6). The rabbis distinguished between three categories of proselytes: "Proselytes are of three types: There are some like Abraham our Father, some like Hamor, and some that are like heathens in all respects" (ser 27). In the teachings of the amoraim the basic tone is that of the tannaitic statement: "Proselytes are beloved; in every place He considers them as part of Israel" (Mekh. ibid.). They too made efforts "not to close the door before the proselytes who may come" (ibid). In the third century, R. Johanan and R. Eleazar separately deduced from different verses that "the Holy One, Blessed be He, exiled Israel among the nations only in order to increase their numbers with the addition of proselytes" (Pes. 87b). R. Eleazar also said: "Whoever befriends a proselyte is considered as if he created him" (Gen. R. 84:4). There are numerous other statements which praise proselytes (e.g., Tanh. Lekh Lekha 6; Num. R. 8:9; Mid. Ps. 146:8). A tendency to increase the honor of the proselytes and to glorify conversion can perhaps be found in the tradition which traces the origins of such great personalities as R. Meir, R. Akiva, Shemaiah, and Avtalyon to proselytes. They were descendants of such wicked men as Sisera, Sennacherib, Haman, and Nero (Git. 56a, 57b; Sanh. 96b). The name of R. Akiva's father does not appear explicitly in the Talmud, but Dikdukei Soferim, ibid., 9 (1878), 283 and also Maimonides' introduction to Mishneh Torah relate that Joseph, the father of R. Akiva, was a proselyte by conviction. The last of the Babylonian amoraim, R. Ashi, said that the destiny of the proselytes had also been determined at Mount Sinai (Shab. 146a). Most of the rabbis of the Talmud observed the tradition: "When a proselyte comes to be converted, one receives him with an open hand so as to bring him under the wings of the Divine Presence" (ser 7; Lev. R. 2:9).
Two of the three paradigmatic biblical proselytes in midrashic tradition, Ruth and Rahab (Joshua 2), are female. Pesikta Rabbati 40:3 links these two women with Jethro, Moses's father-in-law, as examples of "upright" gentiles who chose to join the Jewish people. Ruth, the ancestor of King David, is praised for her loving-kindness and for her complete devotion to Jewish law and practice (Ruth R. 2:22, 2:23). Rahab, the beneficent Jericho harlot who preserved Joshua's spies from capture, became the pre-eminent rabbinic model of the righteous proselyte who went beyond all others in her proclamation (Josh. 2:11) of divine ubiquity and omnipotence (Mekhilta Amalek 3; Deut. R. 2:26–27). She is said to have married Joshua and their descendants became prophets and righteous men in Israel (Sifrei Numbers 78; Meg. 14b; Num. R. 8:9; Ruth R. 2:1). It may be that Rahab, a woman with a lurid past, assumed this special importance in a rabbinic setting looking for engaging female figures of repentance and conversion (Zev. 116a–b).
During the following era the proponents of the two ruling monotheistic religions – in contrast to polytheism – regarded abandonment of their faith and transfer to another religion as a capital offense. The canons of the Church forbade proselytism and Christian rulers fiercely opposed any tendency to adopt Jewish religious customs. The number of proselytes diminished in Christian countries, and those who endangered their lives by adherence to Israel were generally compelled to flee to lands beyond the bounds of the rule of the Church.
At the commencement of this period, however, during the period of transition from polytheism to belief in One God, Judaism also succeeded in winning the hearts of the upper classes of two peoples, as formerly occurred with the kingdom of Adiabene. In the fifth century the kings of Himyar in southern Arabia adopted Judaism, and in the first half of the eighth century the upper classes of the Khazars. There is no information about Muslim proselytes, but the adoption of Judaism by Christians in Muslim countries was not forbidden, and even common. The sources chiefly mention Christian male and female slaves in the houses of Jews whose owners were enjoined by Jewish law to circumcise them and have them undergo ritual immersion. The geonim Sar Shalom and Zemah Zedek b. Isaac were asked about a "gentile woman slave who was conversant with the idolatry of the Christians and was compelled to undergo ritual immersion by her owner," and about "a slave woman who says I am a Jewess, but acts in all respects like a gentile" (Ozar ha-Ge'onim, Yev. 114). They also mention that there are some slaves "who become proselytes immediately and some eventually. Some of these do not want to convert at all; most are such and do not convert but there are some who say: 'Wait until we see your laws and learn them, and we shall convert…'" (ibid., 199). It may be assumed that many of these slaves became assimilated into the Jewish community. Sometimes Jews became sexually involved with women slaves and had them undergo ritual immersion for the purpose of proselytism; their children were regarded as full-fledged proselytes. The best known of these cases concerns the Exilarch Bustanai b. Haninai (ibid., 39–43, 173).
Besides such converts, there were also proselytes from conviction in Christian countries who voluntarily adopted Judaism out of love for Jewish law and about whom only fragmentary information has been preserved. Such proselytes were mainly members of the Christian clergy, whom theological study, and especially comparison of the New Testament with its roots in the Old, brought to Judaism. After becoming proselytes some even attempted to win over souls for their new religion. Bodo-Eleazar, court deacon of Louis the Pious in the ninth century, escaped to Muslim Spain and wrote sharp polemics attacking Christianity (B. Blumenkranz, in: rhpr, 34 (1954), 401–13). In 1012 the priest Vicilinus in Mainz became a proselyte, and he, too, wrote works to prove from the Bible the correctness of his course and the truth of the religion of Israel. Some scholars consider that his action was the cause of the expulsion of the Jews from Mainz by Emperor Henry ii (Aronius, Regesten, nos. 144, 147). From about the same period record has been preserved about a wealthy Christian woman of distinguished family who became a proselyte, settled in Narbonne, and married R. David, a member of the family of the nasi Todros.
One remarkable case of proselytism in the Middle Ages concerns the Norman proselyte Obadiah (c. 1100), a member of a noble family of Oppido in Lucano, southern Italy. The events that befell him are known from a number of fragments preserved in the Cairo Genizah. This proselyte left notes in which he introduces himself by his gentile name Johannes and relates first concerning "the archbishop Andreas, chief priest of the province of Bari… in [whose] heart God placed love of the Torah of Moses. He left his land and priesthood, and all his glory, went to the province of Castantinia and circumcised himself. Troubles and evils befell him. He arose and fled for his life because the uncircumcised sought to kill him, and God delivered him from their hands… strangers arose after him, saw his deeds, and acted as he had done, and they too entered the covenant of the Living God. This man then went to Egypt and dwelt there until his death. The name of the king of Egypt at that time was Al-Mustanzir…" News of the action of Andreas, bishop of Bari from 1062 to 1078, spread throughout Greece and Italy and reached the ears of Johannes while he was a youth. In the first year of his entering the priesthood he had a dream which influenced him to follow in the path of Andreas. In 1102 he was circumcised and began to observe the Sabbath and the festivals, and even wrote pamphlets calling upon all religious people to return to the religion of Israel. The authorities, however, imprisoned him and threatened to kill him unless he repented of his deeds. He succeeded in escaping, arrived in Baghdad, and dwelt in "the home of Isaac b. Moses, head of the Academy." He also visited Jewish communities in Syria, Erez Israel, and Egypt, and wrote the events of his life.
There were also proselytes who remained in Christian countries and apparently succeeded in concealing themselves from the vigilance of the Church by roaming from one country to another. There is also mention of a proselyte family at the time of Jacob Tam which originated in Hungary and was living in northern France or Germany. The father, Abraham the proselyte, interpreted the rabbinic dictum "Proselytes are as hard for Israel [to endure] as a sore" (Yev. 47b) in favor of proselytes: because they are meticulous in observing the precepts they are hard for the Jews since they recall their iniquities. He and his two sons Isaac and Joseph, engaged in biblical interpretation, taking issue with Christian exegesis, and also criticizing the Gospels and the Christian prayers. A pupil of Jacob Tam, Moses b. Abraham of Pontoise, tells of a proselyte who used to study "Bible and Mishnah day and night." Six piyyutim composed by the paytan Josephiah the proselyte who lived in France in the 12th century are known (Zunz, Lit Poesie, 469). Toward the end of the 12th century a proselyte living in Wuerzburg who knew "the language of the priests" (i.e., Latin) but not Hebrew made a copy of the Pentateuch for his own use from "a rejected book belonging to priests." R. Joel permitted this proselyte to act as reader for the congregation.
A talmudist who was a proselyte by conviction sent halakhic queries to Maimonides, who addressed him in respectful terms: "Master and teacher, the intelligent and enlightened Obadiah, the righteous proselyte," and wrote to him, "You are a great scholar and possess an understanding mind, for you have understood the issues and known the right way." In his letters to this proselyte, Maimonides expresses high appreciation of proselytism and the proselyte: he permits him to pray: … as every native Israelite prays and recites blessings… anyone who becomes a proselyte throughout the generations and anyone who unifies the Name of the Holy One as it is written in the Torah is a pupil of our father Abraham and all of them are members of his household… hence you may say, Our God, and the God of our fathers; for Abraham, peace be upon him, is your father… for since you have entered beneath the wings of the Divine Presence and attached yourself to Him, there is no difference between us and you…. You certainly recite the blessings: Who has chosen us; Who has given us; Who has caused us to inherit; and Who has separated us. For the Creator has already chosen you and has separated you from the nations and has given you the Torah, as the Torah was given to us and to proselytes…. Further, do not belittle your lineage: if we trace our descent to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, your connection is with Him by Whose word the universe came into being.
(Resp. Rambam (ed. Freimann), no. 42). Concerning the vexations and humiliating words violently addressed to this proselyte by certain Jews, Maimonides writes to him:
Toward father and mother we are commanded honor and reverence, toward the prophets to obey them, but toward proselytes we are commanded to have great love in our inmost hearts…. God, in His glory, loves proselytes…. A man who left his father and birthplace and the realm of his people at a time when they are powerful, who understood with his insight, and who attached himself to this nation which today is a despised people, the slave of rulers, and recognized and knew that their religion is true and righteous… and pursued God… and entered beneath the wings of the Divine Presence… the Lord does not call you fool [Heb. kesil], but intelligent [maskil] and understanding, wise and walking correctly, a pupil of Abraham our father… (ibid., no. 369). There were proselytes who suffered martyrdom (Kiddush ha-Shem) and even those who became proselytes with this intention. Among those who suffered martyrdom during the massacres of the First Crusade in 1096 was a man whose "mother was not Jewish"; before his martyrdom he said: "hitherto you have scorned me." In 1264 the burning took place at Augsburg of "Abraham, son of Abraham our Father, of Ishpurk, who rejected the gods of the nations, broke the heads of the idols… and was tormented with severe tortures." This proselyte had conducted a campaign for Judaism among the Christians and attacked the symbols of Christianity. Elegies on his death were written by the great scholars of the generation; Mordecai b. Hillel ha-Kohen described how the man became a proselyte: "And Abraham journeyed, reaching the Hebrew religion, attached himself to the house of Jacob and cut his foreskin," and related that the words spoken by the proselyte in public against his former religion were the cause of his being burned at the stake: "when he proclaimed his ideas… in the town, he was taken to the stake." Another elegist spoke of his courage during his life and at his death: "He walked in purity and broke images… he revealed the glory of the Creator to the nations, denying belief in the crucified one; to martyrdom he walked like a bridegroom to the bride." In 1270 Abraham b. Abraham of France was burned in Wiesenburg. He was a respected monk and fled from his country after he became a proselyte: "he rejected images and came to take refuge in the shadow of the wings of the Living God." In 1275 it was noted that a monk, Robert of Reading, became a proselyte in England.
It is difficult to ascertain with certainty the extent of proselytism in the Middle Ages. The historical sources mention isolated cases only. However, the fact that such cases recurred in every generation, as well as the preachings and admonitions by the heads of Church against Judaizing and the many regulations and decrees they issued to prevent this danger, testifies to the persistence of the phenomenon, at least to a limited extent. Some scholars regard proselytism as being of quantitative significance also during the Middle Ages and explain the marked anthropological differences between the various Jewish communities, and the resemblance of every community to the ethnic type of its environment, as being due in great measure to the inflow of external ethnic elements which continued at least throughout the first half of the Middle Ages.
With the decline in the number of proselytes by conviction, the fundamental attitude of the medieval Jewish scholars toward proselytism as a phenomenon of profound religious significance did not change, and some of them continued to consider that the purpose of Israel's dispersion among the nations was to gain proselytes. Moses b. Jacob of Coucy (mid-13th century) explains to his contemporaries that they must act uprightly toward gentiles since "so long as they [i.e., Jews] act deceitfully toward them, who will attach themselves to them?" (Semag, Asayin 74). Isaiah b. Mali di Trani the Younger permits the teaching of the books of the Prophets and the Hagiographa to gentiles, because he regards them as consolation spoken to Israel, "and as a result he [the gentile] may mend his ways" (Shiltei Gibborim, Av. Zar., ch. 1).
In Modern Times
The Jewish attitude to proselytism at the beginning of the modern period was inclined to be negative; aspirations to win over people of other faiths to Judaism dwindled. However, the bet din has no authority to repudiate proselytes wishing to convert despite the admonitions concerning the gravity of such a step; the Shulhan Arukh and the other posekim of the period left the laws concerning proselytism in force, but examination of the texts reveals, and at times it is even expressly stated, that it was only a formal duty to accept proselytes, and, indeed, attempts at active conversion were infrequent. However, isolated cases of conversion continued to occur. Proselytes were associated with the Hebrew press in Amsterdam, in various cities in Germany, in Constantinople and Salonika (see A. Yaari, in: ks, 13 (1936/37), 243–8). A Christian who visited Jerusalem in 1494–96 relates that he found there two monks "who had three years before gone over from the Christian faith to the Jewish religion" (Die Pilgerfahrt des Ritters Arnold von Harft (ed. by E.V. Groote (1860), 187). On the other hand, there is no real evidence to indicate attempts at actual conversion or proselytizing activity in the "Jewish heresy" (see *Judaizers) that was reported in the Orthodox Church in the principality of Moscow at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century.
Solomon Luria warned against receiving proselytes, and the Jewish councils of Lithuania and Moravia even threatened to impose severe penalties on anyone who began to proselytize or gave protection to converts. The reason for this in part stemmed from the fear of the consequences and dangers this activity entailed, since it was severely prohibited by the authorities. The Jewish communities in Poland and Lithuania were more than once obliged to clear themselves of the charge of proselytizing, and it is not always clear whether this was the result of a false accusation by agitators or of the prevalent public opinion in regard to actual occurrences.
When Lutheranism began to spread in Poland in the 16th century, many who inclined to "reforms" were accused by the Catholics of "Judaizing." In 1539 an old woman of 80, Catherine Weigel, the wife of a citizen of Cracow, was burned at the stake for having embraced Judaism; the clarification of her case took ten years. Before she perished she said: "God had neither wife nor son… we are His children and all who walk in His ways are His children." Jews were falsely accused of smuggling proselytes into Turkey, and an official investigation of this matter took place in Lithuania causing great harm to the Jews of that country. Nevertheless, it appears that most Jews not only refrained outwardly from engaging in proselytizing activities as the result of external pressures and penalties, but the attitude of Judaism itself in that period formed an important factor. The Jews increasingly withdrew from the outside world; the difference between Judaism and the other faiths was regarded as an inherent, radical distinction between two unbridgeable worlds with scarcely any points of contact. The general tendency of that entire period is expressed in the words of Solomon Luria: "Would that the seed of Israel continue to stand fast and hold its own among the nations throughout the days of our exile and no stranger be added to us who is not of our nation."
With the relative toleration that began to prevail in the ruling circles and among intellectuals in the 17th century, especially in Western Europe, the negative attitude to Christianity among Jews diminished. There was a growing tendency not to regard Christianity as an idolatrous religion but to look upon its adherents as Noachides who are absolved from the belief in absolute monotheism. Such a view left no room for conversion efforts to bring Christians under the wings of the Shekhinah. This abandonment of conversionary activity on the part of Jews was thus given a theoretical, intellectual basis. However, individual proselytes continued to find their way to Judaism by their own inner conviction. At the end of the 16th century a pious Christian who embraced Judaism on his own initiative is known (Moes Germanus). In 1716 two Christian women were put to death in Dubno because they became Jews; in 1738 the naval officer Alexander Voznitsyn was publicly burned to death in Russia for having become a Jew, together with the Jew, Baruch b. Leib, who persuaded him to take this step. The memory of the "Ger Ẓedek of Vilna," Count Valentine Potocki, who was allegedly burned in Vilna in 1746, is preserved in popular folklore. Another notable 18th-century proselyte was the English politician Lord George Gordon.
The Enlightenment strengthened this inclination to religious contraction. The slogan of religious toleration discouraged propaganda activities among the different faiths. The maskilim pointed with pride to the resemblance between the principles of Enlightenment and the aims of Judaism – which, in their opinion, were tolerance. Emphasis on Jewish tolerance and abandonment of all active proselytizing became a fixed principle in modern Jewish apologetics. This apologetical attitude even influenced study of the past, and historical accounts tended to ignore that active Jewish proselytizing had occurred, as if Judaism had never desired to make converts. There was no change from the psychological point of view in the self-defensive attitude of Judaism even after it had been granted a status of juridical equality with the other religions of the state. Even though no legal obstacles now prevent proselytizing little attempt has been made to propagate conversion.
A certain number of proselytes came from the sects of the Sabbath Observers in Russia (see *Judaizers; *Somrei Sabat), who adopted a number of Jewish customs and finally went over to Judaism completely. Others embraced Judaism because of an experience or religious conviction, but chiefly it was the result of unhampered social contacts that ended with intermarriage (see also *San Nicandro).
Whereas in some countries of the Diaspora, particularly England and South Africa, there was a distinct tendency to adopt more stringent regulations for the acceptance of proselytes in the Orthodox community, it was generally appreciated that a greater leniency could be permitted in the State of Israel, since the prospective proselytes, most of whom were either partners in, or the children of, mixed marriages, would become much more integrated in the Jewish people than would be likely in the Diaspora. Despite this the rabbinical authorities were slow to alleviate the difficulties in the way of applicants for proselytization. They normally insisted on a year's postponement of consideration after making application, and on the ability and undertaking of the candidate to adhere to the requirements of Orthodox Judaism. From 1948 to 1968, 2,288 proselytes were accepted by the rabbinical courts of Israel, out of a total of 4,010 who applied. A tendency toward leniency became more pronounced at the beginning of the 1970s as a result of two factors. One was the expectation of an increased immigration from Soviet Russia where, owing to prevailing circumstances, intermarriage had taken place on an unprecedented scale; and the other was the situation created by the amendment to the Law of Return adopted by the Knesset in 1970. Two provisions made the need for an acceleration of proselytization urgent. The first was that the law was extended to include the partners, children, and grandchildren of mixed marriages who were not Jews according to halakhah, and the second that, whereas in Israel only those converted in accordance with halakhah were registered as Jews, in the case of immigrants, conversion by Reform and Conservative rabbis was accepted by the civil authorities for these immigrants to be registered as Jews. The resulting anomaly, that these non-Orthodox proselytes were regarded as Jews by the civil authorities while their conversion was not accepted by the Orthodox rabbinate, which was the only legal body determining personal status, had to be reduced as much as possible. In 1971 the Ministry for Religious Affairs, for the first time, established schools for prospective proselytes in Israel, at the Orthodox kibbutzim of Sa'ad and Lavi, where candidates may undergo an intensive course in Judaism.
There have also been a number of instances of the conversion of Muslims to Judaism (see A. Rotem, in: Mahanayim, no. 92 (1964), 159).
In 1955 a World Union for the Propagation of Judaism was established in the belief that the time had come for Jews to undertake conversionist activity, and it published a brochure, Jedion. There was, however, little response to this suggestion from the public, and some of the steps taken in that direction, particularly among the Chuetas, proved abortive.
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
In the U.S.
In 17th-century colonial America Jewish slaveholders, following ancient custom, converted their slaves to Judaism. A number of Black Jewish congregations in the United States are made up, in part, of the descendants of these early proselytes. During the first quarter of the 18th century a community of German Baptists, in what is now Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, voluntarily "Judaized." They observed dietary laws and the Sabbath, built a "schul" and a home for their hazzan from rough logs, and in 1732 laid out a cemetery. The community lasted from about 1720 to 1745. The cemetery – now destroyed – was still intact in 1885; the home of the hazzan still stood in 1926 but was destroyed later. Whether or not these "Judaizers" actually became Jewish proselytes is uncertain.
The earliest well-known U.S. proselyte was a Quaker, Warder Cresson, who became U.S. consul in Jerusalem in 1844. There, in 1848, he converted and assumed the name of Michael Cresson Boaz Israel. His American wife divorced him and he then married a Palestinian Jewess. He was a prominent member of the Jerusalem Sephardi community and is buried on the Mount of Olives.
The first incorporated Jewish missionary society in modern times, the United Israel World Union (uiwu), was established in New York City in 1944 by the journalist David Horowitz. Groups of uiwu proselytes have their own congregations in Wilbur, West Virginia, and West Olive, Michigan. Another such missionary society, the Jewish Information Society of America, was founded in Chicago in 1962. U.S. Reform Judaism has maintained that Jews have an obligation to teach their religion to all mankind and to attract like-minded non-Jews into the Jewish community. This theoretical determination was followed by the establishment in 1951 of a Committee on the Unaffiliated, by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to develop "practical means for extending the influence and acceptance of the Jewish religion." The Conservative rabbinate declined to undertake such efforts, although it accepted prospective converts. The Orthodox remained extremely reluctant to accept converts, making stringent demands of all prospective candidates.
Reports from 785 U.S. congregational rabbis in 1954 regarding conversions to Judaism in the United States showed that approximately 3,000 persons were then being converted annually to Judaism. The number increased yearly. In 95 percent of the conversions, an impending or existing marriage to a Jew was involved; female proselytes outnumbered males five to one.
[David Max Eichhorn]
Reform rabbis have insisted upon instruction in Judaism and study of selected books as prerequisites for conversion. However, in conflict with the traditional Jewish attitude they have stressed the importance of the declaration of faith by the convert, disregarding the ritual aspects of conversion to Judaism (tevilah, and in the case of male converts, circumcision). In 1892 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (ccar) decided that any Reform rabbi in conjunction with two colleagues could accept as a convert any person without any initiatory rite, and also published manuals for guiding their rabbis in regard to conversion. Nor did Reform follow the halakhah with regard to children – children of converted parents born prior to their conversion are considered Jews if the parents declare they will raise them as Jews. With regard to children of school age their confirmation at the end of their schooling is considered the ceremony of their official entry into Judaism. Children past confirmation age are considered adults, and have to undergo instruction prior to conversion. However, attitudes were changing at the beginning of the 21st century. In 2001, the Central Conference of American Rabbis approved new guidelines recommending that all Reform rabbis require bet din, tevilah for all converts, and a symbolic circumcision for male converts.
The Conservative movement has always officially upheld the halakhah as regards the ceremonies of conversion. They demand that three rabbis be present, but they emphasize the preparation of the proselyte in Jewish sources and texts on Jewish history and customs. In 1970 the Rabbinical Assembly committee on Jewish Law and standards reaffirmed that its members "may not conduct a conversion ab initio without tevilah."
J. Bamberger, Proselytism in the Talmudic Period (19682); W.G. Braude, Jewish Proselytizing in the First Five Centuries (1940); D.M. Eichhorn (ed.), Conversion to Judaism: A History and Analysis (1965); jsos, 16 (1954), 299–318. H. Graetz, Die juedischen Proselyten im Roemerreiche… (1884); A. Bertholet, Die Stellung der Israeliten und der Juden zu den Fremden (1896); I. lmvy, in: rej, 50 (1905), 1–9; 51 (1906), 1–31; Juster, Juifs, 1 (1914), 253–90; A.S. Herschberg, in: Ha-Tekufah, 12 (1920/21), 129–48; 13 (1921/22), 189–210; I. lmvy, in: Ha-Goren, 9 (1922), 5–30; G. Rosen, Juden und Phoenizier… (1926); M. Guttmann, Das Judentum und seine Umwelt, 1 (1927), 43–97; S. Bialoblocki, Die Beziehungen des Judentums zu Proselyten und Proselytentum (1930); Z. Kasdai, Ha-Mityahadim (19302); A.Z. Markus, Le-Toledot Dat Nazerat (1937, 19502), pt. 1: Gerin; G. Alon, in: ks, 23 (1946/47), 37–42; A.M. Habermann, Sefer Gezerot Ashkenaz ve-Zarefat (1945), 186–90; S. Assaf, Mekorot u-Mehkarim be-To-ledot Yisrael (1946), 143–54; I.A. Seligmann, in: em, 2 (1954), 546–9; et, 6 (1954), 21–32, 253–304, 426–49; A. Scheiber, in: ks, 30 (1954/55), 93–98; E.E. Urbach, Ba'alei ha-Tosafot (1955), 112, 180, 193f., 265, 388; J. Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance (1961, repr. 1969). add. bibliography: S.J.G. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness (2001); G.G. Porton, The Stranger Within Your Gates (1994).
"Proselytes." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/proselytes
"Proselytes." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved April 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/proselytes
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.