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Jewish Proselytism and Modern Rabbis
November 30, 2002 5:53 PM   Subscribe

Nu, These New Rabbis, What Chutzpah, Huh? Judaism has decried proselytism, at least since Rome officially adopted Christianity, but a new wave of showbizzy American rabbis seem to be wowing their audiences. Their logic, apparently, is that there's nothing wrong with preaching to the converted. The refusal to engage in propaganda [scroll down to "Jewish Propagandism"] and conversion campaigns (since, unlike the other two great monotheisms, there is no need to be a Jew to have a place in the world to come) is often seen as one of the most attractive features of Judaism [see Part III], although many think its implied exclusivity and indifference to the world at large (and its religions) may actually foster antisemitism. Are things about to change? Should they? Whatever your view, have a happy Hannukah!
posted by MiguelCardoso (15 comments total)

 
Jeez, this is such an interesting post...I have to put my kid to bed in ten minutes, so I had to speed-read the links...I was brought up by agnostic Christians in a community that was at least half Jewish.

The urge to convert has always been the least attractive feature of any cult...sorry, religion. "I know the way, you don't." Very aggressive. Insensitive.

I'm sure the Jews will never be like the Evangelical Christians. No way.
posted by kozad at 6:58 PM on November 30, 2002


I wish God had a Chosen Car for his Chosen People. Or like a Chosen Dessert. Something like God's Chosen Apertif. Would there be strong resentment against God's Chosen Haircut?, with zealots running around with desperate scissors? Pretty soon, people would come up with their own God and get a real haircut.
posted by the fire you left me at 8:22 PM on November 30, 2002


COME UP WITH YOUR OWN GOD.
AND GET A REAL HAIRCUT!

I can see the t-shirt now.
posted by donkeyschlong at 8:33 PM on November 30, 2002


The fire you left me:: There's always the Chosen Beer.

Miguel, nice post!

The fact that Judaism does not seek converts is a good thing. My Judaism is all about my Zionism, but I'm OK with others re-energizing the spirtual and "moral compass" aspects of Judaism. B'hatzlacha! (Good luck!)
posted by zpousman at 8:39 PM on November 30, 2002


What would the concept of chosen-ness be if you could decide to be chosen?

You can actually choose to be chosen, so to speak. Conversion to Judaism is not easy, and its not actively encouraged, but it is possible.
posted by kickingtheground at 8:44 PM on November 30, 2002


"You mean this is an interactive experience?"

LOFL!

(sorry, recently spent 20 minutes explaining Hanukkah, in all it's insignificance w/r/t Christmas to much loved goy relatives... thank you for a links that are worthy of further study on this U.S. Thanksgiving weekend...).
posted by dchase at 8:48 PM on November 30, 2002


Kickingtheground--that's right, conversion is not actively encouraged. The degree of difficulty of conversion also depends on which level you want to convert (i.e. Orthodox is more difficult than Reform). None of them make it easy, which in MHO is a good thing. It's also considered a "mitzvah" (good deed) for Jews to treat converted Jews as if they were born Jewish. Happy Hannukah, and Chai!
posted by RunsWithBandageScissors at 9:09 PM on November 30, 2002


I am technically Jewish (my mother's mother was a Jew) although I don't practice the religion and was raised in an atheist household.

I think Judaism has a lot of great features compared to other religions -- for example the value placed on learning, work, and seeking success in this world, not just looking to the hypothetical next.

But I think the chosen people stance is fairly offensive. The idea that some people are more favored by a deity than others solely by accident of birth is an obsolete tribal religion type of attitude. More modern religions like Christianity and Buddhism have moved beyond this tribal aspect and are truly universal in their stance.

An earlier poster commented that the diffuculty of converting to Judaism nowadays is a good thing, but I don't see why. On the one hand, it's true that adopting a set of religious beliefs is a serious step and should be given due consideration. But why should it be any more difficult for someone who has made a conscious choice to seek a particular path, than for someone born into it? Isn't it likely that the latter is just taking the easiest path? Should he or she face the same challenges to become a member of the faith?

Another earlier poster said that the fact that Judaism doesn't seem converts means there are no nominal Jews, but I think this is quite untrue. Isn't it easier to profess a religion without true belief if you are born into it, rather than choosing it? And indeed I've known quite a few people who went to Temple more because it was a way to belong to their social group than because of a true depth of religious belief.

Also, it's pretty obvious that Judaism must have been much more open to converts and to intermarriage in the past. Most Ashkenazic Jews don't look anything like the descendants of a Semitic tribe from the Middle East. Nor do Ethiopian Jews. Who are we kidding?

While proselytizing is indeed annoying, I think it would be a healthy thing for Judaism to welcome converts, and to decide that it's teachings are for everyone, not just a "chosen" few.
posted by maciej at 10:57 PM on November 30, 2002


Oy. Enough with the chosen people stuff.

The standard rabbinical view on "chosen people" is that this means "chosen to accept God's law". It's not a signifier of privilege. This commentary explains it - about halfway down the page. It has some interesting things to say about conversion too:

Some people are born non-Jewish and are therefore not Jewish, yet they carry within them some spark of a Jewish soul that demands and yearns to go back to being Jewish. Therefore, the person can't rest until he has converted. A person in this condition, who has the spark or dimension of a Jewish soul (not Jewish "qualities" that we think we can recognize, because Jewishness is a part of a Jewish soul and it's not visible), feels uncomfortable and his soul forces him to convert. That's why the traditional response to a would-be convert is to discourage him. We put him off and tell him it's difficult and not worth it, it's dangerous, and so forth. If he refuses to be discouraged, we know he is this kind of convert who is moved by some spark in his soul to become Jewish and it is irresistible - he himself cannot say no to it.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:14 PM on November 30, 2002


That very much reminds me of the traditional response to would-be monk trainees who showed up at Zen temples (you saw the nudge-and-wink version in Fight Club): let 'em stand at the door in the cold, wind and rain for three days. If they're still there on the fourth day, they're good to go. But you had to offer physical, visceral proof of your sincerity first.

I dunno about the prosletyzing thing. I have more ambivalent feelings about Judaism and Jewishness than most - genetically and ethnically I am 100% pure Hebrew, but the path has never had anything to offer me, and I declared myself an atheist and a nonbeliever at the ripe ol' age of three.

What's more, I've always felt disturbed, at the very least, by Zionism, and particularly by the way people fleeing the European Holocaust could stoop to inflicting the injustices they did and continue to (IMO) on the Palestinians.

I've had something of a reconsideration of late, fueled not (as you might suspect) by the advent of my mid-thirties, but by the repellent anti-Semitism it's once again permissible to voice openly in American culture. Two of my coworkers at Razorfish, on separate occasions, have sat across a table from me and told me how the Jews "run the media." (Two ex-girlfriends, Polish-American and Korean-American, once advanced similar positions.) These guys aren't stooges, or dummies, and they're not evil. They're my friends. And they believe this shit.

In this light, maybe a little Jewish "outreach" and explanation of basic stances, positions, and historical perspectives is in order. Not inna Williamsburgh stylee, but from the sane center.
posted by adamgreenfield at 12:56 AM on December 1, 2002


I wonder whether a resurgence in Jewish proselytism could have positive effects on the Middle East crisis. If Jewishness is not an exclusive quasi-ethnic category, but a category that all people can aspire to, then there might be less concern about whether Arabs outnumber the Jews or whether Jews have enough land to protect themselves from the Arabs. (For example, take a look at the comment of the Israeli interior minister who publicly wished that all non-Jews would leave Israel.) If Jews do not allow themselves proselytizing as a way to expand their numbers, then the maintenance of a Jewish state will depend on seizure of land or transfer of non-Jewish populations in order to maintain a Jewish majority. If proselytizing is an option for expanding Jewish populations, then Jewish-Muslim religious pluralism might actually be a possibility in the Middle East. I have a hard time seeing how pluralism could work in Israel simply on the basis of Jewish birth rates and immigration alone.
posted by jonp72 at 5:19 PM on December 1, 2002


"Most Ashkenazic Jews don't look anything like the descendants of a Semitic tribe from the Middle East."

Actually, the opposite is true.

Only a minority of Ashkenazi Jews look like indigenous central and eastern Europeans; most Ashkenazi Jews have preserved their Hebrew ethnic heritage and resemble Caucasians from the Middle East, i.e., Armenians, some Kurds, many coastal Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians, as well as some Jordanians.

According to genetic studies, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Jordanians, and all the major Jewish groups (Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, and Sephardic) come from the same ancestral population and are very similar biologically. In contrast, native central and eastern European contribution to the Jewish genepool has been minimal.
posted by Stumpy McGee at 2:50 AM on December 2, 2002


Only a minority of Ashkenazi Jews look like indigenous central and eastern Europeans; most Ashkenazi Jews have preserved their Hebrew ethnic heritage and resemble Caucasians from the Middle East, i.e., Armenians, some Kurds, many coastal Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians, as well as some Jordanians.

OK, I can't argue with genetic studies. A web search bears you out. Here's another interesting article written by a Christian refuting the "Jews are not Israelites" argument made by some white supremacists.

The rough consensus of recent genetic studies seems to be that the Ashkenazi Jewsish population started as a distinct population in Central Europe from a very small number of founders and has seen a high degree of endogamy since (although the level of intermarriage, while low, does seem to be enough to make a noticeable, if modest, genetic contribution).

However, I stand by my remarks as applied to Ethiopian Jews.
posted by maciej at 4:29 AM on December 2, 2002


joe's spleen: I've been noticing more remarks like what you heard too recently, but i don't know if it's a result of the holidays and middle east probs all happening at once or what...
posted by amberglow at 6:22 AM on December 2, 2002


"The rough consensus of recent genetic studies seems to be that the Ashkenazi Jewsish population started as a distinct population in Central Europe from a very small number of founders and has seen a high degree of endogamy since (although the level of intermarriage, while low, does seem to be enough to make a noticeable, if modest, genetic contribution)."

I would like to point out that even prior to the Diaspora there were various physical phenotypes present among the Jewish population of Palestine, including the type that modern anthropologists would call Nordic. It was not a predominant phenotype (the various eastern Mediterranean Caucasoid types were the predominant ones), but it was present nonetheless (due to the absorption of the Hivites and Amorites, both of which are described in historical documents (Egyptian, Babylonian, and Hebrew) as being blondish, fair-skinned, and blue-eyed).

"However, I stand by my remarks as applied to Ethiopian Jews."

Great link, and that is why I did not wish to debate the origins of Ethiopian Jews, my friend (because I was aware of the info given in the link that you provided).
posted by Stumpy McGee at 6:25 AM on December 2, 2002


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