For people in spiritual search, Judaism offers a great deal. We sometimes mute that reality, however, for fear of seeming “conversionary,” like the Christian missionaries who have hounded us through history. Judaism is certainly not that — we are anything but conversionary!
But we do welcome converts, and need, therefore, a more nuanced approach to conversion. A good beginning is our own stories that glorify making converts — as in the rabbinic reading of Genesis 37:1, where Jacob “settled in the land where his forebears dwelt.”
The word “dwelt” (“m’gurei”), from the Hebrew “gur,” reminds commentators of the word “ger” (convert), and evokes rabbinic traditions of Abraham and Sarah converting idolaters to Judaism. The midrash reads the verse creatively, as Jacob “settled in the land where his forebears made converts.” It then praises Jacob — and Isaac too — for following Abraham and Sarah’s example. Rabbinic Judaism was indeed conversionary back then.
This classical attitude reflects the rabbinic antipathy to paganism, both its idolatry and its cruelty — Roman gladiatorial combat, for example. We naturally saw virtue in converting pagans to a system that acknowledged God, preached justice and kindness, and heralded learning as the route to divinity.
Under Christian and Islamic rule, however, Jewish support for active conversion cooled. It was illegal, for one thing. But additionally, despite outbreaks of persecution here and there, Jews largely lived on reasonably good terms among neighbors who, they discovered, were monotheists like themselves. They did business with them, for example, without applying talmudic laws that forbade certain types of commerce with pagans.
The next step forward was modernity’s recognition that the various religions can be equal partners within a protective secular state. History did not have to move in that direction, but it did, necessitating a reevaluation of conversion today.
It is simply not our goal to convert the world. We do, however, strive to epitomize the Jewish way of life, which may (incidentally) prove desirable to those who have no religious home of their own, and who independently seek the spiritual and moral sustenance that Judaism offers.
And just how we are to display that spiritual and moral sustenance is suggested just two verses later (37:3).
Jacob loved Joseph especially, we hear, because he was “the son of his old age” (“ben z’kunim”). “Old age” (“z’kunim”), however, can imply the respected status of “elders” (“z’kenim”), and the Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) insists that “elderhood” is a matter not just of aging but of learning, too. Jacob ben Asher (13th century, Spain) thus thinks Jacob favored Joseph for being “the son of Jacob’s learning,” as if Jacob had studied in a yeshiva and then taught Joseph five of the six tractates that constitute the Mishnah — our earliest rabbinic code of Jewish conduct.
But why only five? Why omit the sixth tractate, Tohorot (“Purity”)? Because, says the chasidic commentary Imrei Aharon, purity cannot be learned through classroom study; it comes from within and requires lifelong practice.
Purity implies the effort to lead a stainless existence. It is a matter of personal integrity, respect for decency, and devotion to the Jewish value of “kavod” (honor) that is due to people (our community, human beings generally, even the dead), places (nature itself), times (Shabbat and festivals), and things (the Torah and books). It is a mark of character, the state of mind that deplores filthiness of speech and behavior (even if, strictly speaking, they are not illegal), because they tarnish communal well-being, sully people’s lives, and deface God’s universe.
Jews do not actively seek out converts. We do, however, exemplify two primal Jewish values: love of learning and the virtue of purity. If learning is the body of Judaism, purity is its soul. Outsiders to Judaism do not have to adopt the Jewish way of life; we respect them as they are. But we do have a way of life worth living. Those who are drawn to our Jewish way of learning and of purity should find us welcoming.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.