Conversion, Outreach and Proselytising

by Maskil on July 15, 2009

Sociological Conversion

Both in Israel and the Diaspora (and within different contexts and for entirely different reasons) a phenomenon known as “sociological conversion” is taking place. With religion as a whole seemingly in decline in the West (and Judaism being no exception), non-Jews are choosing (sometimes by default) to integrate into Israeli society or the Jewish community, but without adopting Judaism as a faith. In some cases the “Jewish community” could consist of a single family.

(The process of sociological conversion also probably has a lot more in common with how people “converted” to Judaism in Biblical times than the practice followed by most streams of Judaism today.)

Thinking about this phenomenon, I have to wonder whether we wouldn’t have greater success with our outreach efforts if we separated them into two distinct (albeit overlapping) streams; sociological and religious:

Sociological Outreach

This initiative would focus on welcoming and integrating those in inter-faith relationships and inter-faith families into the Jewish community. It should also be extended to include those on the periphery of the Jewish people, e.g. lapsed or unaffiliated Jews, Patrilineal Jews and crypto-Jews. It should focus on the need being expressed, i.e. the desire to be integrated into a congregation, community or tradition, or simply to form a cohesive family, without necessarily taking on the religious aspects of Judaism.

Religious Outreach

This initiative would focus on making resources available to those interested in a closer relationship with Judaism as a religious faith. While the “target market” for the programs would be almost identical to that for sociological outreach, the approach should be subtly different. Very broadly speaking, people are not open to having religion (of any form) “shoved in their faces”. Religious outreach must therefore wait for an invitation to open the dialogue.

Also included in the target market for religious outreach are those non-Jews with an interest in Judaism (but little or no sociological connection to Jewish society).

Proselytising

The boundary between religious outreach and out-and-out proselytising is a little indistinct. Simply put, the former focuses more on its “captive market” and waits for an invitation, while the latter goes out and knocks on doors (so to speak).

Gaining entirely new recruits for Judaism is a praiseworthy endeavour; something we do too little of. (In fact, almost nothing at all.)

Why don’t we put a greater emphasis on proselytising? Apart from historical reasons (the nasty Gentiles never allowed us to) and cultural reasons (Jews don’t proselytise because we don’t), most of us still tend to see our Judaism in the light of who we are (identity) and what we do (ritual and custom), rather than what we believe in (theology).

Those at the ultra-Orthodox end of the spectrum seem to regard non-Jews as not even worthy of being actively proselytised. For the most part, however, it’s easier for us to play the part we know best – that of being the “smallest of all the nations” – than to put our message out there, whether religious and political.

Or perhaps we have an inferiority complex about whether Judaism as a faith has anything to say to anyone who wasn’t born into it?

(This blog post originally began life as a comment on the InterfaithFamily.com website. I have expanded on it somewhat.)

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