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Torah Sparks

December 13, 2003 - 5764

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Annual Cycle: Genesis 32:4-36:43 - Hertz, p. 122; Etz Hayim, p. 198
Triennial Cycle 3: Genesis 35:16-36:43 - Hertz, p. 130; Etz Hayim, p. 214
Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1-21 - Hertz, p. 137; Etz Hayim, p. 221

Discussion Theme: Should we seek converts?

This, then, is the line of Esau, the ancestor of the Edomites, in the hill country of Seir.  These are the names of Esau’s sons: Eliphaz, the son of Esau’s wife Adah; Reuel, the son of Esau’s wife Ba’s’mat. The sons of Eliphaz were Teman, Omar Tspho, Gatam, and Kenaz. Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz… (Genesis 36:9-12)


  1. Why should the Torah trouble to tell us the name only of Eliphaz’s concubine (the women in the lives of the other men are not mentioned)? Why should Amalek, the archenemy of Israel have issued from that union? Timna is noteworthy because she was a member of the aristocracy, the sister of Lotan, a prince of the Horite nation (cf. Genesis 36:22). She was attracted to the faith of the Israelites and approached Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to convert. Each patriarch, however, rejected her. In despair, she finally settled to serve as the concubine of Esau’s son on the premise that it was preferable to be a maidservant in Israel than a princess of another people. Amalek emerged as their offspring in punishment for the patriarch’s unrelenting attitude. (Talmud Sanhedrin 99b)
  2. God exiled the Jews from their homeland for one reason: To increase the number of converts. (Talmud Pesachim 87b)
  3. The change to a more restrictive view on entry to Judaism came about when “it became increasingly dangerous to convert to Judaism” (due to Roman and Christian legislation to curb Jewish growth); Jewish law obliged by raising its own internal standards of admission. (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)
  4. Jews are urged to bring people beneath the wings of the divine presence exactly as Abraham and Sarah had done. (Avot DeRebbe Nathan (2ba))
  5. In a more vulgar fashion the idea of Jewish "carnal election" has filtered down to Jews who have no theological beliefs at all. You hear it from those biased against conversion "You cannot really convert a non-Jew to a Jew because Jewishness comes with a mother's milk," because "A Gentile remains a Gentile." In my judgment this bias is one of the blocks in preventing a national or international Jewish movement to educate, invite and embrace non-Jews into the fold. We are paying a terrible price for that prejudice. The importance of conversion to Judaism is not simply a matter of numbers, a strategy to stem the hemorrhage of intermarriage. The biological view of Judaism that opposes conversion affects our own Jewish thinking. It is important for Jewish self-understanding, pride and dignity to regain the rabbinic idea of Jewish mission. If Judaism is a world religion, as I believe it is, then it has something of invaluable import to offer the world. If we could open our synagogues, our temples and our universities to those non-Jews who seek knowledge and insight into Judaism, it would affect not only the Jews by choice but also those who are native born, Jews by birth alone. Attention to those potential converts outside the Jewish circle will change the way in which the inner circle thinks of itself. (Rabbi Harold Schulweiss)
  6. By all means you should pray 'Our God and God of our fathers' for in no respect is there a difference between you and us. Do not think little of your origin. If we trace our descent from Abraham Isaac and Jacob, your descent is from him by whose word the world was created. (Maimonides in his letter to Obadiah, the convert)
  7. Proactive conversion can revitalize the Jewish community… In order to rebuild and revitalize Judaism in this country we must rethink our religion as something both born Jews and converts must actively choose and stop blaming intermarriage for Judaism's decline… We must abandon the paradigm that our children and grandchildren may become Gentiles and promote the thought that America is filled with millions of potential Jews. However, the community does need to be clear that it strongly prefers that spouses become Jews at some point. The message should be, "We would like you to become Jewish because we would like to share our beliefs and our community with you. We believe it would be beneficial for you, your family, and the community to join and participate." This is a different message from "We will reject you if you reject us. We will condemn you if you say no; we consider you to be part of the problem, the disease of the Jewish community, if you do not convert." And we must mean what we say. We cannot be critical of those who choose not to convert. (Dr. Gary Tobin in Open the Gates)
  8. “Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the souls (nefesh) that they had made in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan.” Genesis 12:5 Abraham took them in under the wings of the Divine Presence. Abraham would convert the men and [his wife] Sarah would convert the women. Scripture thus considers it as if they 'made' them. (Genesis Rabbah 39:14)


Most Jews are uncomfortable with the idea of missionizing to non-Jews. The question is why? If we truly believe the world would be a better place if more people were to adopt the values and ethics of Judaism, why shouldn’t we actively seek converts? The sources above clearly offer examples to support the notion of proactive conversion.

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