Two thousand, one hundred, and thirty-five years ago, the Greeks of old attempted to convert the Jews to Hellenism. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which continues through Thursday, celebrates the Jews' victory over that attempt.
Many religions believe that individuals who are not members must convert to go to heaven. That belief is a flagrant display of theological racism. Judaism, on the other hand, does not engage in such racism and does not actively seek out potential converts, despite recent news reports to the contrary. Let me explain.
The first Jew was Abraham. Recognized by Jews, Christians and Muslims as the father of monotheism, Abraham was the Johnny Appleseed of the belief in a single God who created the universe. During his lifetime, Abraham taught this lesson to an otherwise pagan world. What happened to his students? Did they convert to Judaism, or did they go their separate ways, integrating what Abraham had taught them into their own lives? In fact, none of them converted to Judaism. All of Abraham's students imbibed the truths of his teachings and went forward to realize their independent destinies.
Judaism is vastly different from Christianity or Islam. We do not believe that non-Jews must become Jewish to "be saved" or find inner peace. The Jewish people see themselves as teachers, chosen to carry on the work of Abraham. Jews have the responsibility to teach about God to all people, but there is no reason why all people must become Jewish. For those who desire a more intense and demanding relationship with God, there is the possibility of conversion. However, the process is far more comprehensive than a dip in the ritual pool or a circumcision. It's more than just switching the synagogue on Saturday for church on Sunday or the Christmas tree for a Hanukkah menorah. Conversion is a total life make-over!
In a recent Times article, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom urged Jews to seek converts to Judaism. He was quoted as saying that Jews haven't engaged in proselytizing because there is bias against religiously embracing outsiders. He said that there are those who maintain "Jewishness comes from mother's milk" and "a Gentile remains a Gentile." Schulweis is wrong! We do not proselytize because it isn't necessary for the Gentile to become Jewish. Schulweis' statements were a misrepresentation of how traditional Judaism views itself. His call for Jews to seek converts is a fundamental denial of Judaism's mandate and a blatant form of theological racism.
We Jews do not have an exclusive on God or salvation. He belongs to everyone, and everyone belongs to Him. In fact, Judaism is the only religion that offers specific commandments for nonmembers. Following the story of the Great Flood, God commanded Noah and his sons to keep seven basic laws. Judaism believes that any Gentile who keeps those laws is righteous and will go to heaven.
As we light the Hanukkah candles that commemorate the Jews' victory over forced conversion, let us remember that the Jew and the Gentile are intended to live together in harmony and brotherhood. Judaism embraces those differences that exist between people and challenges each of God's children to become the best they can be. Together we compose the children of God and the human family. As Jews, we are here to teach, not to convert.