Conversion History: Orthodox and Conservative Understandings

Orthodoxy maintains a strict legal approach to conversion, while Conservative Judaism has responded pragmatically rather than ideologically.

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

Stringent Approach to Conversion Prevails Among Orthodox

The Orthodox movement was split at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. One group permitted conversions of those who came for intermarriage and encouraged Jews to accept children of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers to convert to Judaism. This group consisted of such rabbis as Zvi Hirsch Kalishcher (also famous as a forerunner of Zionism), David Hoffmann, Marcus Horovitz, and the Imrei David, David Horowitz.

Another group of Orthodox rabbis was more stringent. The stringent view prevailed after the Second World War for a variety of reasons. Intermarriage had greatly increased, emphasizing to the stringent a continuing need for Jewish self-segregation so that Jews and gentiles could not meet and fall in love. Such self-segregation necessitated a decline in all interactions with Christians, including interactions that could lead to conversion to Judaism.

jewish mikvehAlso, the Conservative and Reform movements had continued to grow and promote policies that the Orthodox often found troubling. The Orthodox reaction against leniency in conversion can to some extent be seen as a reaction especially to the Reform movement. By being strict, the Orthodox presented themselves as refusing to have the same pro-conversionary views that were widely identified with the Reform movement. Indeed, more and more as [ultra-]Orthodoxy dismissed the religious legitimacy of the non-Orthodox, the moderating influences within halakhic [Jewish legal] discussions that once prevailed disappeared.

Orthodoxy has also engaged in self-correction. [Some camps within] Orthodoxy, once hostile to Zionism because the messiah had not arrived to lead Jews back to Zion, [are] now staunchly pro-Israel. But Orthodoxy has not fully overcome the traumas of Jewish history. It continues to believe Judaism must be kept apart from the non-Jewish world, privately following God's laws. Such a view, so vital to Jewish survival for so many centuries (making the reluctance to abandon it understandable), is not as useful for contemporary Jewish life. Orthodoxy continues to reject the universalist elements of Judaism, choosing instead to focus on the particularistic, especially the legal, aspects of Judaism.

Conservative Judaism Tries to Balance Particularism and Universalism

Conservative Jewry has had a continuous pro-Zionist stance and maintains a delicate balance between particularism and universalism within Jewish tradition. However, perhaps wary because the ideas of universalism and mission were reintroduced to the Jewish theological vocabulary by the Reform movement, Conservative Judaism has been reluctant to accept the missionary implications of Jewish universalism.

The Conservatives have welcomed converts as a means to combat intermarriage, but not as a means to perform a specific covenantal mission. In part this is also because Conservativism is a pragmatic movement rather than an ideological one, focusing on solutions to the problems of Jewish life rather than on defining a specifically Conservative worldview from which its views could be deduced. In part this is so because Conservative Judaism emerged as a reaction to Reform Judaism rather than from a definite ideology.

Conservatives saw themselves confronting a pragmatic, not a theological, problem: how to keep tradition but make modifications to fit the tradition to modernity. Because of this, it did not develop an ideology, but instead focused on what it perceived to be the central aspects of the Jewish tradition that cohered with modernity. Conservative Judaism saw Judaism as its ideology, so it sought no further clarification. Additionally, Conservatives are concerned, with some historical justification, that a clearly articulated ideology would do more to divide than to unite those who call themselves Conservative Jews.

In religious life, the Conservatives have often seen themselves as a middle course between Orthodoxy and Reform, judiciously steering their movement through the turbulent waters of American modernity. Such efforts require reacting to specific problems rather than operating out of a general ideology. Such an existential approach to life, however useful, leaves an ideological void, a void Conservatives only recently have come to recognize as limiting. Conservatives see that both Orthodoxy and Reform have much more clearly stated views and the clarity has helped them. Orthodoxy, once considered near extinction in America, has renewed vitality as does Reform, in part because each can offer its members a specific world view. As Conservative Judaism continues to define itself ideologically, it will find Jewish universalism more and more attractive.

There were individual voices in Conservative Jewry promoting conversion. Dr. Solomon Goldman in his 1938 experimental prayerbook wrote, "Judaism means to convert the world, not to convert itself... It hopes and prays and waits patiently for the Great Day when the world will be ripe for its acceptance."

Robert Gordis also focused on conversion in several writings, but most explicitly in a 1958 article in the National Jewish Monthly forthrightly titled "Has the Time Arrived for Jewish Missionaries?" In the article, Dr. Gordis advocated a pilot missionary program for Japan and the establishment of Jewish information centers in the United States.

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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.