Jewish "Conversion" Revisited: Getting Past Jewish Gatekeeping

 by Rabbi Bruce Diamond

I prefer the biblical views on joining the People of Israel over the "gate keeping" rules rabbis came up with 1900 years ago.

Before the catastrophic Jewish uprisings against the Romans in last part of the 1st Century and first half of the 2nd Century C.E., we Jews had a rather relaxed and informal way of welcoming those who would join us. Ruth and Jethro's simple declarations of faith and loyalty to the God of Israel were enough to be regarded as the paradigmatic coverts.

Those who would join us were accepted among  without the interrogation of rabbinic court panels  and compulsory naked immersion in a miqveh  or other natural body of water in the presence of 2 witnesses, compelled circumcision, or the ritual of drawing a drop from a circumcised penis to symbolically reenact the Brit Milah - all post-biblical requirements of the rabbis.

It has been argued that the rabbis formalized conversion to the "religion of Moses and Israel" as way of restricting access to Gentile followers of Paul who taught that you could be a spiritual "Child of Abraham" without adhering to the bulk of Jewish law. Others put forward the idea that these barriers were erected to filter out Roman spies.

 In any event, like many other aspects of Jewish life after the failed revolts and the destruction of the Temple and its sacrificial cult, there was a sea change in the approach to what it meant to be a Jew. Rules and regulations took the place of bringing pious offerings as the rabbis supplanted the Kohanim, our sacred priesthood that claimed  descendance  from Aaron,  the bother of Moses.

Before those rabbis erected their barriers, those who came to be part of us were called Gerim (sojourners). They were expected  to put away their idols, accept the God of Israel, and conform to the customs and practices of the People of Israel. Gentile women who married Jewish men were de facto regarded as Jews. Gentile men had to agree to be circumcised, although there was no rabbinic court overseeing it or any other aspect of their assimilation into our people. Children of Jewish men and Gentile women were considered Jewish, in some measure because their mothers were now considered Jewish by marriage.

There apparently was also a category besides Gerim called Nilvim- those who "accompany" us in the "Way of the Lord." They did not have to be married to Jews,  nor did the males require circumcision. The Book f Isaiah refers to them:

Also the sons of the foreigner ,Who join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, And to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants—Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, And holds fast  to My covenant.  Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices Will be accepted on My altar; For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says, “Yet I will gather to him others besides those who are gathered to him.”  (56:6-8)

In fact,  sacrificial offerings were accepted from these Nilvim on the Temple altar in Jerusalem, and one of the areas of Temple was even called "The Courtyard of the Gentiles".

In my synagogue we have some Gerim who elected to formally convert, and several wonderful Nilvim who faithfully join in prayer and study.  I regard the process of becoming  a "child of Israel" as a kind of naturalization  - becoming familiar and comfortable in our ways  and identifying with us rather than with any other religion, not having to jump through artificial hoops.

Frankly, it makes no sense whatsoever to me to  count as one of us a "Jew by birth" who has no feeling for our heritage, does nothing to identify with us, and raises "Jewishly indifferent" children, while excluding  those who have a  passionate connection to the our people and our God, but don't conform to the rules of atavistic rabbis. To me turning away those good people smacks of racism, where your biology is more important that your convictions. We all know who else thought that way in the 20th Century!

It's no wonder so many "Millennials" regard being Jewish as ethnic rather than religious. That's the same misbegotten thinking that is implicit in the classical rabbis'  "who is a Jew" rules that might have made sense in their day, but are irrelevant and even counterproductive in ours!