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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Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), who founded the central institutions of Reform Judaism in the United States, noted with satisfaction the increase in converts. In 1849 he wrote, "The mission of Israel was and still is to promulgate the sacred truths to all nations on earth; to diffuse the bright light that first shone on Sinai's sanctified summit all over the world."

On November 3-6, 1869, Reform rabbis held a conference in Philadelphia. They reaffirmed that the purpose of their exile was "to lead the nations to the true knowledge and worship of God."

At the 1885 Pittsburgh Conference, the Reform rabbis recognized the Bible as the "consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as the priest of the One God."

Other Reform leaders who supported the mission concept included Kaufmann Kohler, Samuel Schulman, and Leo Baeck (1873-1956), who wrote in his famous book The Essence of Judaism that "the Jewish religion is intended to become the religion of the whole world... Every presupposition and every aim of Judaism is directed towards the conversion of the world to itself."

It is important to note that over time the Reform movement has engaged in significant self-correction. It now sees Zionism as central to the Jewish enterprise. It has led the way in welcoming and integrating converts. If it is still to be faulted, that fault lies in the continuing fact that its universalism still does not sufficiently recognize the particularist Jewish elements that make up Jewish universalism; Reform's remains still more a liberal than a Jewish universalism, but may be moving in the direction of reforming itself on this issue as well. As Reform Judaism rediscovers the values of particularistic practices and grafts them onto the unique but modified insights of historical Reform, Jewish universalism will become an attractive ideology for the Reform movement.

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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.