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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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.