Conversion History: Middle Ages

In the face of persecution and legal restriction, codifiers of Jewish law chose survival over proselytization.

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Medieval Jews were still considering the possibility of revival; they were encouraged by the conversion of the Khazars precisely because it illustrated for them the attractiveness of Judaism and because the conversion was an exemplification of the Jewish mission to offer itself. It is no accident that Judah Halevi (c. 1075-1141) grasped onto this story of the Khazars when he sought a framework within which to explain Judaism. His classic work, Sefer ha-Kuzari, sees in the act of conversion the essence of the Jewish message and the Jewish mission.

There are a large number of individual cases of conversion all through the Middle Ages. Many converts were made from among servants. Some of the converts to Judaism were even Christian clerics. These converts were often forced to flee for their safety to Muslim-controlled lands, where, of course, it was not illegal for Christians to convert to Judaism.

That even individual cases are recorded, that they occurred in each generation, and that non-Jewish authorities continued to argue and regulate against conversions indicate that such conversions did persist and that Jews continued, carefully, to accept converts, perhaps in larger numbers than we know. The Jews, restricted as they were, continued to prize converts and to welcome them when they could.

Autonomy Replaces Conversion in the Face of Persecution and Legal Restrictions

But it is clear that conversion was affected not only by the persecutions and restrictions and by the successes of Christianity and Islam in winning converts, but also by the changing attitudes internal to Judaism. An interpretation of Jewish life must fit Jewish reality and Jewish needs. As the Middle Ages progressed, the most realistic Jewish political conclusion was that segregation was beneficial. Inside their own communities, Jews maintained a high degree of autonomy, which they understood as power.

The value of this autonomy in providing religious--and to some extent other--freedom was such that competing interpretations that endangered it were discouraged. The need for self-segregation brought a justifying ideology that emphasized passivity and focused solely on obeying mitzvot and expectantly waiting for the messiah rather than obeying these particulars of Judaism but also offering their religion to the gentiles. Such a narrowing of Judaism's view was useful in providing both a justification for the current life of the Jews and a hope for their future life.

Additionally, the Christian persecutions provoked so much hostility that Jews became suspicious of all Christians, making it psychologically all the more difficult to offer Judaism to the very people who were identified with mocking Judaism and persecuting, forcibly converting, injuring, and even killing Jews. The idea of a mission to the gentiles became more and more repugnant.

Other reasons for Jewish universalism's decline included:

    1.        Jews were viewed by many gentiles as guilty of and disavowed by God for deicide, a dispersed people to be feared or abused or shunned, not joined;

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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.