Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner
March 2014
Guest Introduction from Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman      


Conversion into Judaism is a fascinating topic for research and reflection, because it shines a spotlight on Jewishness itself: Before one can determine how one becomes a Jew, one must have a working definition of what is a Jew. For most of Jewish history, "Jewishness" was a densely interwoven fabric of culture, religion, and ethnic-tribal ascription. In early Jewish societies from biblical through Second Temple times, geography also mattered: Jews were men who lived in tribal Israelite territories, and their wives and children. Like other women in the patriarchal, patrilineal societies of the Near East, when they married Jews women from outside the Jewish people took on the religious and ethnic identities of their husbands. Concepts of Jewishness--and protocols for joining the Jewish enterprise--changed after the destruction of the Second Temple. Jews redefined themselves into a portable nation that blended attributes of ethnic descent, religion, and culture. Protocols for formal conversion became firmly established by rabbinic Judaism in the first centuries of the Common Era as part of an evolving definition of Jewishness. Without a motherland, Jewish mothers--matrilineal descent--became the guarantors of Jewish identity. In pre-modern Diaspora Jewish communities, small numbers of non-Jews who associated closely with Jews pursued conversion, but most non-Jews were not interested in becoming Jewish, and in many historical communities, it was dangerous or illegal for non-Jews to convert into Judaism. Greater numbers of Jews pursued conversion into Islam or Christianity--although not as many as one might think, given the persecution that Jews endured. Jews marrying non-Jews typically adopted non-Jewish identity and faith.


Intermarriage and conversion as we think of them today--the marriage of two persons who come from different religious cultural backgrounds and have the choice of living in one, the other, both, or neither religions in neutral space--did not exist until relatively recently. Modernity not only created neutral or semi-neutral territory, it also often separated the elements of Jewish peoplehood, religion, and culture, which had been interwoven in pre-modern Jewish societies, into Jewishness as Judaism, a "confession" or religious faith, versus Jewishness as peoplehood, nationhood or tribal identity. 


Intermarriage today is indubitably at an all time high in the United States, as it is in most Diaspora countries. Rates of conversion into Judaism, in the meantime, have not risen along with rates of intermarriage. Conversion evokes strong feelings, both among individuals and families who are directly affected and among those who serve or study them. The BJPA Readers' Guide: Conversion gathers together more than 50 articles representing a full spectrum of opinions, learned studies, and policy recommendations from social scientists, rabbis, practitioners, and observers who locate themselves across Jewish denominational lines and beyond. Should the Jewish community advocate for conversion? Some urge "Proactive Conversion," while others caution that conversion is a "Rough Road," and "Conversion Is Not An Outreach Strategy." Is the Jewish community sufficiently welcoming to converts? Several articles--including one by a convert of color--warn that converts are "Not quite accepted." A number of articles cluster around the conversion approaches of particular wings of Judaism, especially the policy discussions of the Reform movement before, during, and after the Reform Patrilineal Descent decision in 1983, which declared that children of either a Jewish mother or a Jewish father would be presumed Jewish without necessitating the non-Jewish parent's or the child's conversion. Others document struggles within the State of Israel regarding conversion of numerous non-Jewish immigrants; there the most stringently Orthodox rabbis try to discourage conversion and argue that only those who commit to strict Orthodoxy should be allowed to enter the Jewish people--sometimes using conversion issues for political purposes. Conversions out of Judaism are not neglected. In the BJPA Readers' Guide: Conversion readers will find articles advocating for "New Paradigms," for more liberal, cultural, or secular conversions, suggesting "Conversion Shouldn't Be the Only Path to Joining the Jewish People," while others urge and emphasis on "Conversion and Mitzvot," and still others distinguish between conversion in Israel--where converts are embedded in a Hebrew speaking Jewish culture, and Diaspora communities, where they are surrounded by non-Jews. 


Conversion matters for many reasons, not least because it makes a substantial positive difference in the "religious narrative" of the household; conversionary households are more likely to be unambiguously Jewish. One might argue that the challenges, including the conversion crisis, facing contemporary Judaism are as fraught as the national crises which faced the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The articles in this Guide are our contribution to clarifying these critically important issues.





Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman  

Chair, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis






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