The Jehovah’s Witnesses hadn’t come to our front door in quite some time, but they showed up the other week coincidentally just as I was sitting at my writing desk reading yet another pamphlet I received in the mail encouraging me to think that the “real” solution to our dwindling Jewish numbers is to abandon our traditional distaste for missionary work and to get to work converting large numbers of outsiders to our faith and our way of life. (I refer to our dwindling numbers in passing as though that were a given. But who knows where the truth really lies? Every successive study I read offers different statistics that point the reader to almost diametrically opposing conclusions. For example, the World Jewish Population Survey of 2002 concluded that the world Jewish population grew by about 44,000 in the same year that the Jewish Agency concluded that our numbers were down by about 50,000. You see what I mean. But even if we aren’t truly dwindling, we are still a tiny people in a huge world—something like fourteen and a half million Jews out of roughly six and a half billion people living on the planet. So adding that reality to our endemic, slightly neurotic certainty that we could disappear at any moment—a mishigas not entirely peculiar to the Jewish people but surely one we have perfected almost to the level of an art form—only creates more of a context for pondering our population statistics dolefully and wondering if we may not seriously have missed the boat by making a virtue out of our disinclination to drum up new business by actively seeking out fresh converts to our faith.)
There are, I suppose, lots of reasons for our general lack of interest in missionary work among the nations. One surely has to do with the word “missionary” itself, a word that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of so many of us after all these centuries of concerted activity by so many different Christian missionary groups to talk Jews into abandoning their Jewishness. (The twist on that well-worn theme put forward by groups like the Jews for Jesus to the effect that Jews would actually be affirming their Judaism by abandoning their faith and adopting someone else’s would be just silly if there weren’t people out there gullible and trusting enough actually to swallow that kind of pap without choking on it.) And another surely has to do with the general assumption, repeated so often as almost to sound axiomatic, that Judaism is not a missionary faith, that knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets is what Mormons do, and so many others too, but not what we ourselves would ever do to plump up our numbers. Indeed, the oft-cited custom that calls upon a rabbi who actually is approached by a potential convert not to welcome that individual warmly at first but rather to be discouraging even to the point of turning him or her away not once or twice but on three separate occasions—that seems to most Jewish people what our response should be to the suggestion that we not only stop discouraging potential converts, but that we actually go out to find people who might be interested in considering conversion if we present our faith in a positive and welcoming enough light.
So it was with great interest that I bought and read a book by one Michael F. Bird entitled Crossing Over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period, published last month by Hendrickson Publishers in Peabody, Massachusetts. The author, an Australian scholar who teaches at the Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland, takes his title from a passage from the New Testament that will be unfamiliar to most of my readers but that is absolutely worth our careful consideration. There, in the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the text recounts a long list of bitter, angry remarks Jesus made about the Pharisees toward the end of his life. (Among other things, the text features Jesus calling the Pharisees hypocrites, snakes, blind guides, sons of murderers, and criminals.) And it is in the context of that kind of vicious language that he also says this: “Alas for you, lawyers and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over sea and land to win one convert; and when you have won him you make him twice as fit for hell as you yourselves are.” Obviously, this is meant as an insult. But is it an insult because the Pharisees—the spiritual leaders of Jewish Palestine under the Romans—actually did go out as missionaries into the world to find converts to Judaism or is it just an example of vituperative rhetoric absent any specific basis in reality? That is the question that Michael Bird set himself to researching.
The results are fascinating. Bird first reviews the evidence, meticulously going through relevant comments made by Greek and Roman authors, plus evidence from rabbinic and early Christian literature. He dwells at length on Josephus’ account of how the entire kingdom of Adiabene (in what is today northern Iraq near the city of Arbil) converted to Judaism in the first century. And he considers all sorts of other evidence, including many different texts that purport to tell the stories of Romans, including some situated at the highest levels of Roman society, who became attracted to Judaism in different ways and for different reasons. But for all the many references to Gentile conversion to Judaism in ancient times, Bird cannot find any unequivocal evidence of actual missionary work undertaken by Jews for the express purpose of finding would-be converts and then talking them, so to speak, into taking the plunge. Even apparently clear texts, he shows, can be interpreted other than how they read at first blush. The Roman historian Dio Cassius, for example, explains the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in the year 19 CE under the reign of the emperor Tiberius with this brief remark: “As the Jews flocked to Rome in great numbers and were converting many of the natives to their ways, Tiberius banished most of them.” That sounds clear enough, but only at first. Does that text really imply missionary work or could it be read merely to be saying that the Jewish population allowed interested Gentiles to convert to Judaism if they arrived under their own steam? The same incident is referenced the works of other noted Roman authors such as Suetonius and Tacitus, but neither has anything at all to say about conversion to Judaism as one of the causes of the expulsion. Nor does Josephus suggest that the expulsion was triggered by the emperor becoming increasingly unnerved by the numbers of his citizens converting to Judaism. And so what sounded possibly to be about missionary work turns out to be a lone reference to conversion on a large scale, but not necessarily about missionary work at all.
In the end, all the sources Bird proposes for study point to the same conclusion. Conversion was a fact of life in ancient times. Lots of inscriptions that have survived from Jewish antiquity attest to that fact, as do many different texts with all sorts of different provenances. In the end, Bird endorses the comment of my own teacher and doctoral advisor, Shaye J.D. Cohen (then of JTS and now of Harvard University) who described the passage quoted above from Matthew as being the “only ancient source that explicitly ascribes a missionary policy to a Jewish group.” And that, barring the discovery of new evidence to the contrary, appears to be the final word on the matter.
What drew ancient Gentiles to embrace Judaism in serious numbers? Bird organizes the data and offers seven specific answers. First, Romans were predisposed to find ancient Eastern religions fascinating and there are many other examples of religions and cults of various sorts from the eastern part of the empire gaining a foothold in Rome among the citizenry. Second, Romans were always inclined to respect ancient religions and the more reasonably a religion could claim the mantle of antiquity the more likely it was to appeal to the masses. Third, the Romans were totally at home with ritual and so found Judaism to be an entirely natural way to express religious sentiment. Fourth, it was widely believed that embracing Judaism was an effective first step in petitioning God for healing and relief from suffering. Fifth, the exaltation of the monotheistic ideal would certainly have appealed to a certain segment of Roman society trained by their native philosophers to find the belief in many gods to be primitive and the belief in one God to represent a higher level of religious thinking. Sixth—and most surprising to me personally—Bird adduces lots of evidence that there were financial and social advantages to embracing Judaism. (He mentions, for example, that Jews were exempted by Julius Caesar himself from military service.) Seventh, Bird writes about the way the way Judaism blends ethical behavior with ritual activity would have appealed to Romans used to thinking about morality and cult as two entirely separate entities. And finally, eighth, he suggests that the fraternal bonds between wide-spread Jewish communities would have seemed especially attractive to Romans used to living in a disconnected world of unrelated and mutually suspicious peoples. For all these reasons then ancient Gentiles were drawn to Judaism and, although some chose to remain mere sympathizers, others actually chose to become Jews by undertaking formal conversion.
I think there’s plenty here for moderns to consider. That we seem as a people to have no interest in beating the bushes to find perspective converts is not a modern peculiarity, it turns out, but an ancient attitude that has survived all these years and is with us still. That we find no profound contradiction between thinking of ourselves a blood group linked by a common genetic heritage and accepting converts as full members of the House of Israel also turns out not to be a mere instance of our modern inclination to accommodate incongruent ideas for the sake of some greater good, but part and parcel of our attitudinal history going back all the way to late antiquity. If we are going to increase our numbers through conversion, then, the route will not involve trips to the front doors of strangers armed with tracts and (I shudder to write this) fridge magnets, but to a renewed resolve to make our synagogues welcoming to strangers and to open our courses of study to interested outsiders without setting up all kinds of off-putting preconditions guaranteed to discourage all but the most passionate would-be students.
We are not doing a very good job of any of this. In my almost eight years at Shelter Rock, I have supervised the conversion of exactly two people, both of whom approached me on their own. I don’t see myself heading into the street to introduce myself to strangers and see if I can find someone whom I can talk into studying our faith, but I also doubt we’re doing our best—and I speak of the larger Jewish community here, not just of my own congregation—I doubt we’re doing what we could to make people who are naturally drawn to Judaism feel unselfconscious about making inquiries into the conversion process or to make such people fully and unambiguously welcome when they eventually do find the courage to cross the threshold and visit us for the first time. Our numbers, even if not actually shrinking the way we all assume they must be, are small. We can only benefit from the presence of righteous converts in our midst. Perhaps if we work together and think this through seriously we’ll find a middle path forwards, one that will not veer off into the kind of missionary work most of us find unappealing at the same time it keeps us clear of the unfriendliness that so often characterizes the face we show to people who are only not interested in conversion yet.