Conversion History: Ancient Period

The evolution of Israel as a nation into Judaism as a religion was paralleled by a move from assimilation of strangers to a more formal idea of conversion.

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Reprinted with permission from The Theory and Practice of Welcoming Converts to Judaism (The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.).

The Biblical Israelites had no concept of religious conversion because the notion of a religion as separate from a nationality was incoherent. The words "Jews" and "Judaism" did not exist. Abraham was called an ivri, a Hebrew, and his descendants were known either as Hebrews, Israelites (the children of Israel), or Judeans. These words are nationalistic terms that also imply the worship of the God of Abraham. 

Earliest Form of "Conversion" was Assimilation

While there were no "conversions," many non-Israelites joined the Israelite community, often through marriage or acceptance of the beliefs and practices of the community. In this sense, assimilation is the earliest form of conversion. Abraham and his descendants absorbed many pagans and servants into their group, greatly increasing the size of the Israelite people.

After their journey into Egypt, their Exodus with the "mixed multitude" [non-Israelites who joined the nation as it left Egypt], and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Israelites returned to the land of Israel. Once again, they increased their numbers from among non-Israelite peoples, both those who lived in Canaan (such as the Hittites, Hivvites, Girgashites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and others) and those who entered the land.

Some of these foreigners, the nokhri, remained apart from Israelite society, apart from the ezrach, the native Israelite. Some nokhri, though, wished to join the Israelites. Such people were given a new status, as gerim (Hebrew for "strangers"). A ger would be taken to the holy mountain and there render the necessary sacrifices.

Gerim often assimilated into the Israelite people by intermarriage. For instance, pagan women who married Jewish men automatically adopted their clan, and thus their religious views. The marriages that resulted were seen as positive because pagans would turn from idolatry to God through such marriages.

The gerim were permanent residents, but did not own land. All non-Israelites who joined a family or tribe were to be given equal rights and equal responsibilities, although the participation in religious rituals developed in stages. The Israelites were enjoined to love the gerim, for the Israelites had been gerim in Egypt.

As Judaism attracted adherents, it became both useful and necessary to explain the relationship between Jews and gentiles within Jewish thought. For a full theory of Jewish universalism [that is, a Jewish approach to conversion and proselytization] to develop, the central Jewish understanding of God had to undergo maturation.

God was conceived in very early Jewish thought as a national deity, protecting the Israelites in their land, aiding them in their fights, freeing them from hunger, and generally providing for the nation's sustenance. Misfortune--bad crops, illness--could be overcome by offering a sacrifice to God. God was seen as the exclusive Lord of the Israelites; they could worship no other deity and God would protect no other people.

Israel Becomes "Religion" with Move to Universal God

The concept began to change in the 800s BCE. The Assyrians, desiring hegemony over the world, gave impetus to the very idea of a single, unified world, an idea that transplanted itself into an emerging Israel and was transformed into a spiritual concept. It was such an idea that the prophet Amos (c. 751 BCE) adapted when he asserted that God was not just the God of the Israelites, but of all people, of the whole world. Amos concluded that if the Jews were faithless, God could rescind the covenant made with the Jews and give it to another people, assuming the other people accepted God's commandments. Amos, of course, preached a fidelity to the covenant that would ensure God's continuing favor. The startled Israelites heard from the prophet that their God was independent of them and could exist without them if they did not adhere to God's commandments.

Amos, the first universalist, could not fully comprehend the implications of his own interpretation. He believed God could enter into only one covenant at a time rather than entering simultaneous covenants. Also, Amos could not conceive of Israel worshipping God outside the land of Israel.

Amos's disciple Isaiah (c. 740-700 BCE), also noting Assyrian power, concluded that it, like Israel, was susceptible to God's ethical teachings. This was a vital step for Jewish universalism, for a critical connection had been made. Isaiah concluded that if God is God of the whole world, not just Israel, and if God had revealed divine laws at Mount Sinai, then it follows that those laws must apply not just to Israel, but to the whole world.

One of the defining moments of Jewish history was the exile of Jews from the land of Israel in 586 BCE. The exile had many significant effects. It destroyed the tribal structure of the Israelites. The severing of national identity from the overall identity of the people made the religious elements of the people paramount. The rabbinate based on scholarship replaced the priesthood based on lineage; synagogues and academies replaced the Temple; and Torah study and prayer replaced sacrifices. The Israelites, a national people, became Jews, the followers of a religion.

Portable God Means Gentiles Outside of Israel Can Adopt Jewish Religion

At some point, the prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to the Babylonian exiles telling them to pray for the welfare of their settlement in Babylon. The revolutionary theological change was that Jeremiah, altering the views of Amos and Hosea, argued that God could be worshipped outside the land of Israel.

Such an insight about God transformed not only the theological views of the Israelites, but their view of gentiles living outside the Holy Land. Just as the concept of a "portable God" made it possible for Israelites to retain their identity outside their promised land, so, too, did such a concept of God allow for gentiles living outside the land to join the people, not by moving to the land of Israel, but by adopting the religious views of the Jews. Non-Jews could join the Jewish people by worshipping God, by renouncing their pagan ways, and by accepting new beliefs.

Return to Land Diminishes Universalism

The return of Ezra in 458 BCE and Nehemiah in 444 BCE [to Israel] brought back the particularist strand of Jewish thought. Proselytism was halted. Opposition to this isolation was expressed in Ruth and Jonah, but the particularists won for three-quarters of a century as Jews regrouped and focused only on battling significant internal problems such as intermarriage.

But the Jewish universalism that developed in the fourth and third centuries BCE, a careful blending of particularism and universalism, did not die. It was passed on to and interpreted by the Pharisees [a Jewish sect of the Second Temple period who believed in the oral tradition and interpretation of Torah and gave us the rabbinic Judaism we know today].

The emergence of the Pharisees was important because their theological views buttressed the pro-conversionary views widely held by Jews. The Pharisees believed that a universal messianic future would eventually occur, and that salvation was not a matter of birth, but of keeping the Torah. This democratization of salvation was important, for it theoretically made Judaism available to everyone in the world. The Pharisaic emphasis on social ethics included the notion that loving your neighbor as yourself meant making the Torah available to that neighbor. The Pharisees also believed in chosenness, with its sense of mission.

In some sense, though, the pro-conversionary views of the Pharisees were mixed. The Second Commonwealth had inherited the social divisions of the earlier kingdom. The urban plebians (e.g., Hillel and Joshua ben Hananya) were very much in favor of active proselytizing. Another segment of society, the provincials (e.g., Shammai and Eliezer ben Hyrcanus), opposed proselytizing, believing that a person was born into Judaism and could not join it. This struggle allowed for the eventual triumph of the provincials, but only after a long period of plebian success at convincing Jews that proselytization was central to their religion.

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Lawrence J. Epstein is the author of numerous books, including Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook and Readings on Conversion to Judaism.