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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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.