Conversion History: Talmudic Period

Conversion waxes and wanes, based on the historical and national circumstances of the Jews.

Print this page Print this page

Despite Difficulties, Conversion Continues

These conversions did not stop even after the loss of national sovereignty. In the second and third centuries, there continued to be a series of conversions, especially among the intellectuals. Both Raba and Rab Ashi, Babylonian scholars in the fourth century, vociferously advocated proselytism. It seems as though entire villages approached Rabbah ben Aboah to be converted, and the Talmud notes that Mahoza, a major Jewish community, had many proselytes. (Avodah Zarah 64a; Kiddushin 73a)

The post-Mishnaic minor tractate [of the Talmud] Gerim detailed a procedure for welcoming converts; provided regulations regarding circumcision, ritual baths, and sacrifices; defined the ger toshav; and reminded the Jews that they were to have a friendly attitude toward converts. M. Simon suggests that "the existence of Masseketh [Tractate] Gerim--a manual of the laws relating to converts--is in itself a substantiation" of a claim by George Foot Moore that all the persecutions did not prevent the Jews from persisting in vigorous missionary efforts.

With Rise of Christianity, Attitudes Change

Still, slowly, over time, the rabbinic attitude, and the Jewish peoples' attitude, changed. The rise of Christianity was one reason for the change. Christianity used the Jewish missionary zeal and methods, ultimately transforming the Jewish concept of conversion from an ideal into a requirement and transforming the means of effecting conversion from offering into intrusive missionary work. When such zeal was combined with a relaxation by Paul of existing conversionary obligations, especially circumcision, the Christians became very successful in attracting converts.

Indeed, many gentiles close to Judaism who had not formally converted chose instead to take the easier route and become Christians. The rabbis began to discourage would-be converts for fear that instead of becoming Jewish they would become Christian.

Another reason for the change was that the horrible defeats by the Romans had turned Jewish life inward, making it focus on religion and ritual observance rather than nationalism and militarism as a means of survival. The rabbis saw their mission increasingly as one of educating Jews about the Torah and making them follow religious laws. This mission, in brief, was one of survival; saving the world couldn't take place while the Jews first had to save themselves.

The rabbis were trapped and desperate. They had to preserve Judaism under the most trying circumstances but still felt the missionary obligation to welcome gentiles. The rabbis praised conversion, going so far as to put the praise in daily Jewish prayer. But fear of persecution and the need for self-preservation in the Diaspora was making the Jews a religious body segregated from the gentiles by both external legal authority and internal religious authority.

If seeking converts would endanger the very existence of the Jewish community, the Jewish leaders would take the prudential route of protecting the community. If the Godly mission was not to be allowed by contemporary history, rabbinic Judaism organized to protect and preserve the Jewish people for the day when that mission could be resumed.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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