Conversion History: Secularization of the Jewish Mission

While the early Reform movement presented selected universal, liberal moral teachings as the core of Judaism, the contemporary Reform movement is rediscovering many particularistic Jewish practices.

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In a sense, Reform Jewish thinkers secularized the messianic interpretations of the original Jewish mission. These thinkers, in rejecting chosenness, replaced it with the notion that each people on earth has a mission and the Jew's mission was a religious one: to advance the social conditions of humanity by making people adhere to the ideals of classical prophetic Judaism. Reform Jews saw their new Judaism as fully capable of being acceptable to the entire world while simultaneously saving that world.

Reform Notion of Universalism Lacks Jewish Character

The problem was that, based on a liberal rather than a Jewish universalism, the mission idea was not so much to bring gentiles to traditional Judaism as it was to bring gentiles to an already-accepted ethical system stipulated as normative Judaism. Of course, even liberal gentiles friendly to Jews already accepted those moral principles and were already willing to fight for the same social goals as Reform Jews. These liberal gentiles saw no need to call themselves by the name "Jewish." Ironically, because they were not offered the particularist elements of Judaism along with the universal, they saw no substantive distinction between Judaism and their own religion, and therefore did not even see an alternative to consider.

The misinterpretation of Jewish universalism and mission by the early reformers was important because their misinterpretations became the standard modern definitions of those concepts. This led to significant mistakes, such as the identification of "universalism" in Jewish life with liberal universalism rather than with Jewish universalism, the identification of "mission" with the reformist notion rather than the Jewish universalist notion, and the inaccurate identification of Jewish nationalism as antithetical to Jewish universalism.

Despite these misinterpretations, the Reform movement had made an extraordinary contribution to the reclamation of Jewish universalism.

Conversion by Reform Movement Successful in America

The Reform movement made its greatest headway in the new Golden Land. There had always been conversion to Judaism in the United States. Many of the early converts were black slaves, some of whose descendants formed Jewish congregations. American Jewry was changed after the 1848 revolution in Germany failed, bringing religiously liberal refugees to the United States. Some of the children of these refugees married Jews and wished to convert. Their fascinating stories were carefully traced in several Jewish periodicals such as The Occident (1843-1869) and The American Israelite (founded in 1854).

The most famous of early American converts was Warder Cresson (1798-1860), who was put on trial and charged with insanity after he converted to Judaism. Eventually, he was cleared and moved to the land of Israel.

Various American Reform rabbis emphasized conversion. Rabbi David Einhorn (1809-1879) so regularly admitted converts to his congregation, Har Sinai in Baltimore, that his prayer book included a specific service to accept converts. Einhorn fervently believed that Judaism would become universally accepted.

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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.