Conversion is not the answer
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 17, 2005
The pre-Shavuos papers were filled with the usual stories of converts to Judaism – none more so than the Jerusalem Post, long Israel's leading proponent of a more "welcoming" attitude to converts.
I once participated in the production of a documentary on geirei tzedek (righteous converts) for Israel TV. And my own life as a Jew has been greatly enriched by the geirim I have known, beginning with a brilliant philosophy major at the University of Chicago. Her Orthodox conversion forced me to consider the possibility that there might be something worth looking into seriously about my religion.
The extraordinary commitment required to sever ties with one's former life and accept Judaism's rigorous commandments cannot help but inspire. But, by definition, the extraordinary can never be common or mass produced.
Calls for a more "welcoming" attitude towards converts – translate, large-scale efforts to encourage conversion – invariably begin by noting the demographic disappearance of world Jewry and its consequences, such as the declining pro-Israel political clout of American Jewry.
But accounting tricks to increase the number of American Jews will neither help Israel’s cause, nor are they necessary.
As American Jews show less and less interest in their Judaism, they also concern themselves less with their fellow Jews in Israel. Easily obtained abortions rank above Israel on American Jewry's list of priorities. American Jews have plighted their troth to a political party that, like them, is in rapid demographic decline – President Bush won 97 out of 100 of the fastest growing counties – and whose core constituencies increasingly resemble European elites in their attitudes towards Israel.
Fortunately, the core support for Israel in Americ does not come from Jews, bur far more numerous evangelical Christians. As Richard Baehr points out in The American Thinker, those fast-growing counties captured by the Republicans in 2004 constitute the core of Christian Zionism in America. Jews are concentrated in less than 50 congressional districts, but 375 U.S. congressman can be classified as strong supporters of Israel.
Efforts to encourage mass conversion put the cart before the horse. Large and numerous are not Jewish terms of measure; purity is the Jewish standard. Long ago, the Torah foresaw that we would be the smallest of the nations. An intense core can generate numbers – less than 10,000 Ashkenazi Jews in Rashi's time grew to 13 million by the Holocaust. But numbers will not generate purity.
The real problem facing world Jewry is that Judaism has ceased to be meaningful for the vast majority of those born Jewish. Without addressing that fact directly all hopes of reversing Jewish population decline are doomed to fail.
How can a religion that cannot even inspire in its young the basic commitment to marry another Jew and raise Jewish children hope to attract others to its banner? Two out of every three marriages involving a Jew in America today are intermarriages, and the situation is worse elsewhere in the Diaspora. At the same time, Jewish birthrates are among the lowest for any group in America. A religion that is manifestly failing to provide its members with spiritual sustenance, and is seen by its adherents as little more than a certain political position and cultural attitude, has little to offer others.
Anyone can obtain a "conversion" in America that involves nothing more than reading a book or two or learning the first verse of Shema. Yet the rate of "conversion" for non-Jewish partners in mixed couples is dropping. That statistic shows why "conversion" on easy terms only increases the core problem facing world Jewry – the perception of Judaism as something trivial.
By constantly opening our arms wider to embrace non-Jewish partners, we reinforce the impression of those born Jewish and non-Jews alike that Judaism does not take itself seriously. The rules of chess and baseball are inviolable because chess and baseball are important. Meanwhile in Judaism all the rules are up for discussion. No wonder our young view their Judaism as irrelevant.
Advocates of large-scale conversion inevitably exacerbate the problem by blurring the meaning of Judaism. They would make the positive activities that many Jews engage in – e.g., service in the IDF, or opposition to anti-Semitism – the standard for Judaism itself. In the process, they further sever the tie between Jewish nationhood and a particular spiritual mission and commitment.
Easing the requirements of conversion will further diminish any remaining sense of a unified Jewish community to which Jews or non-Jews can attach themselves. The Reform movement's acceptance of patrilineal descent has already resulted in vast numbers of "Jews" not recognized as such by Conservative and Orthodox Jews, as well as the Reform movement’s declassification as "Jews" of many offspring of Jewish mothers. Vastly increasing the number of "converts" who are not recognized by large segments of the Jewish people can only undermine further the concept of Jewish nationhood and set the stage for countless personal tragedies.
The only result of a more "welcoming" attitude towards converts will be to put off confronting directly the real issue – the loss of Jewish meaning for the vast majority of those born Jewish.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity, Pluralism
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