The Notion of Conversion in Antiquity and Beyond

Richard Nichol has made strong arguments for why Messianic Judaism should offer conversion to non-Jews. His plea is thoughtful and represents a deep awareness of the theological issues involved. However, his most urgent expressions about the issue arise out of sociological, not theological, concerns. Nichol appeals to a pressing need “to clarify the identities of men and women, boys and girls in our synagogues” (Refer back to page 10). The question of anxiety about social location is indeed an urgent and significant concern—one that is too often overlooked in favor of exclusive appeals to theological arguments. My approach in this response may seem contradictory at first, but I trust that my conclusions will be coherent in the end. When we approach the question of conversion on grounds of biblical interpretation and of precedent in the early Yeshua-movements, I will demonstrate that there is nothing in either set of traditions that excludes the kind of conversion that Dr. Nichol is proposing. But those who evaluate this proposal must take into account larger issues, including the developments of Christianity and Judaism in subsequent centuries. Theology itself comes out of reflection on scripture and revelation in light of tradition. As such, the category of tradition introduces new sociological elements into the mix. It is with a plea to tradition and sociology that I ultimately see conversion to be counterproductive at this period in the development of Messianic Judaism. Although scriptural and historical evidence shows that ancient Yeshua-communities did not oppose (and, in many cases, even encouraged, given the right set of motivations) non-Jews’ converting to Judaism once they joined those groups, Nichol is proposing a ritual to be carried out in the Twenty-first Century in response to Twenty-first Century traditions, needs, and values. On this basis, conversion is a ritual that would be deeply troublesome for Messianic Judaism at its present stage of development.

It is clear that in Sha’ul’s letters both to the Romans and to the Galatians, he was vehemently against Gentile followers of Yeshua becoming circumcised, a ritual practice that most of our evidence shows to be the primary signifier for joining the people of Israel in the First Century Mediterranean world. To be sure, we do not have evidence of a formal conversion ceremony until the rabbinic period (circa 200 C. E.); however, the sociological act of moving into Jewish space, whether geographical or cultural, can be traced to periods that predate Sha’ul (Cohen 1999, 3) despite the lack of evidence for a formal ceremony. While there are some texts that might indicate otherwise, most of the ancient sources show that, for males, circumcision was the sine qua non of the proselyte’s experience in the first century, its importance eclipsing all other identity markers (Cohen, 39; Sanders 1983, 19). Thus, it is appropriate, when evaluating conversion in the ancient Mediterranean, to take a serious look at the debates about circumcision itself.

Sha’ul’s arguments against circumcision did not address global and universal concerns about the practice but were specific to certain problems and occasions that he faced in addressing largely Gentile assemblies. Thus, for instance, Sha’ul did not take issue with circumcision because it introduced distinction between Jews and Gentiles. If that were the case, he could not have written his famous words in Romans 3:1: “Then what advantage does the Jew have? Or what is the advantage of circumcision? Much in every way!” (all Bible translations and paraphrases are my own). To be sure, he made a claim for “no distinction,” but that was regarding status as members of the people of God. There was a clear distinction for him with respect to Israel’s unique calling, gifts, and identity (Rom. 3:1-2, 30; 9:4-5; 10:12; 11:2-29; Gal. 2:7-9; cf. Donaldson 1997, 184). Nor did Sha’ul see the Torah itself in any way as an obstacle to the gospel. “May it never be!” he burst out when presented with such an idea. Rather, Torah, and, by extension, circumcision which signifies it, were never meant for the purpose of giving life in the first place, he claimed (Gal. 3:21). “We Jews,” he wrote, “already know that it is faith that sets us right and not what we do” (Gal. 2:15-16). Therefore, circumcision per se was not problematic for Sha’ul. His problem was with those who looked to circumcision in itself as the avenue through which they would gain access to the promises of Israel or the life that accompanied those promises. He wanted to ensure that non-Jews understood that it was God’s promise that was the pathway to joining the people of God, not the Torah, which followed the promise. Sha’ul also argued that only Yeshua had the cosmic “clout” to vanquish the forces of sin and death (Rom. 7:24-25). Sha’ul’s problem with the Torah and its signifier, circumcision, then, was twofold: 1) only God’s promise, accessed through Yeshua, was the vehicle for entry into God’s people and the life available to them; 2) Only Yeshua, and not Torah, had the power to overcome sin and death. It follows that any male who underwent circumcision keeping in mind these two conditions would not pose a problem for Sha’ul.

The history of the early Yeshua-communities bears this out as well. Large numbers of Jewish believers and non-Jewish adherents continued to operate within the framework of Jewish polity and practice well into the Fourth Century and beyond. Earlier leaders of the Christian Church, such as Justin and Origen, acknowledged their validity and did not ostracize them. Others, however, such as Ignatius, Jerome and John Chrysostom, railed against them as heretics and as threats to the stability of the church. The viciousness of John Chrysostom’s diatribes against them in his fourth century Homilies against the Jews indicates that the very practices he condemned were widespread, popular, and well-accepted among the people of the eastern Mediterranean regions. The evidence shows, then, that in many communities of the east, where Jews were more numerous, both Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Yeshua continued to live together in a Torah observant manner. The non-Jews, operating in such heavily Jewish environments, would be expected to follow the practices of the Jewish majorities in those communities. While we do not know of specific rituals of conversion, those non-Jews are known to have practiced circumcision, ritual bathing, and, during the Temple period, sacrifice—all elements of later conversion ceremonies. These groups, however, became increasingly marginalized when the Christianity gained power in the Gentile world; nevertheless, they were strong and vital enough to persist for centuries in the Semitic east. Thus, neither biblical nor historical precedent would have deterred a believing non-Jew who lived in the ancient Jewish world from pursuing conversion within the constraints argued for above.

Nevertheless, Nichol’s appeal to sociological anxieties invites a sociological response. In this vein, I see three concerns as worth discussing, although they certainly are not equally valid. Many Messianic Jews share with other contemporary Jews a deeply inculcated aversion to the idea of non-Jews converting to Judaism. This concern should not be decisive in any decisions on this matter. Dana Evan Kaplan has studied the phenomenon of this aversion within American Jewry and traces it to the earliest Sephardi Jewish communities in America, who strongly opposed conversion because of their own catastrophic history in pre- and post-exilic Spain (Kaplan 1999, 264). Related to this is the fear of the cultural dissolution of the community that new converts might bring. Harold Schulweis, a Conservative rabbi who has championed conversion in his Los Angeles-area synagogue, criticizes this social resistance by those who, in buttressing their arguments against conversion, mostly:

refer to culinary matters, the joys of lox and bagels, of knishes and kugel, and a smidgen of Yinglish and Hebronics. But I know their children. They exhibit no proclivity toward gefilte fish or lox and bagels. Maimonides himself ate neither cholent nor tzimis, nor understood “mame-loshen.” Did that bar him and his descendants from Jewish identity and loyalty? Neither ethnic culture or identity is innate. They can and are cultivated through the programs of Keruv (Schulweis 1999, 4).

Schulweis decries an “inherent racism” that he sees among those who resist accepting others on these grounds (Schulweis, 2). These reasons are not sufficient grounds to deny conversion.

But here we come to a concern that, in my view, is sufficient to give pause. This call for acceptance of the practice of conversion in Messianic Jewish congregations might be a by-product of completely mistaken social categories. The fluidity surrounding Jewish identity makes for lively debates as to whether “Jewish” is a social, cultural, ethnic, racial, geographic, religious, or mythic category, or some combination of all of the above. It is very likely, then, that conversion will not alleviate the anxiety at all. It may actually increase the converts’ social anxiety by heightening their sense of marginality vis-à-vis some perceived, monolithic, ontologically Jewish world that is, instead, a social construct and hence intangible and fluid. They may be expecting that, by undergoing conversion, they will join a cohesive group that has a clearly marked identity. Those converts, then, expecting to land on solid, secure ground, may instead find themselves thrust upon the waves of a stormy and blustery sea. While riding those waves may be exhilarating to others, it is not likely to comfort those who are seeking relief from social instability.

Finally, Messianic Jews have yet to gain consensus and to articulate, as a movement, what it is that proselytes are converting from, and, even more importantly, what they are converting to. Despite protestations to the contrary, Messianic Judaism, as it is practiced in many regions of the world today, is not a Judaism. In many, if not most, cases, it is a judaized form of Protestant Christianity. The world to which many in the movement continue to gaze for their vision, their direction, and their theology is the world of late Twentieth Century Christian revivalism. To be sure, that world has much to offer. Many Messianic Jews owe their lives in Yeshua to Christian revivalists. But Christian revivalism is not a Judaism (I do not say this in a critical manner; I say it so that we may be precise in the terminology and categories that we use). While I have argued above that Jewishness itself is a notoriously fluid category, when it comes to the definition of a Judaism, there is general consensus, and Christian revivalism isn’t one.

If Messianic Jewish congregations begin carrying out conversions before there is consensus on what they are converting people to, the conversions will have vastly different meanings from one synagogue to the next. Nichol assures us, and I believe him, that such conversions will be extremely rare in his synagogue. Nevertheless, once the precedent is set, he has no control over assuring rarity of practice in synagogues elsewhere in the world or over how those synagogues define the Judaism to which they are converting people.

As such, while conversion may indeed have been consistent with scripture and past history and even may possibly (although not likely) serve in the short run to alleviate some social anxieties, those reasons alone do not make it advisable. The desire to alleviate these anxieties is laudable and understandable. However, it will ultimately harm rather than help Messianic Judaism. A more effective strategy would be for Messianic Jews to go about defining themselves in a purposefully ethical manner, without doing so in ways that can harm those who occupy the in-between spaces of their social and theological worlds. There are other ethical ways to resolve the tensions, such as encouraging conversion to Judaism through other avenues for those extremely rare cases in which the lack of a ceremony poses a singular hardship for individuals or for introducing liturgical practices that more fully enfranchise non-Jews qua non-Jews. Nevertheless, if the purpose of Messianic conversion is to alleviate social pain, as Nichol avers, that purpose will not be served by such a ritual. Instead, the anxiety and social instability will just shift to a new site and may, indeed, affect and destabilize a much larger group of people.

Yes, conversion would have made sense in many cases in the past—but not in the case of the contemporary Messianic Judaism. It is crucial that Messianic Jewish communities first be about clarifying their own call and purpose. In the meantime, Messianic Jews would do well to create ethical and sensitive practices to enfranchise, educate, and embrace all the faithful, steadfast, non-Jewish Messianic believers in their midst.

Works Cited

• Cohen, Shaye. The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

• Donaldson, Terence. Paul and the Gentiles: Remapping the Apostle’s