Shavout 5775
2015 S.H. Parker

When did the "Jewish religion" begin?-Month and year will do....

Virtually all Rabbis hold up the story of Ruth as the prototypical story of conversion (it got its own megillah, after all). Ruth is the prototypical proselyte. "Ruth" is the name taken by many female proselytes.

Ruth is not, of course, the first proselyte in Torah. Her story is not even the first reference to proselytization in Torah. The first proselytes are associated with the first patriarch, Abram.

And if, from this, you infer that proselytization is an ancient and honorable obligation of Jews, you'd be spot on. In Bereshit Rabbah, xxvii, we learn that the early Rabbis were expected to convert at least one person a year and more was better. In fact, early Rabbis held competitions in proselytization. It is only much later that the Rabbis banned proselytization.

How do we know Abram was an active proselytizer? We learn that when Abram journeys forth from Haran (Lech Le'cha):

  And Abram took Sarai, his wife, and Lot his brother’s son and all the wealth they had gathered and the souls they had made in Haran -- Bereshit 12:4 (emphasis added)

“And the souls they had made.” How did Abram make souls? Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz, in his commentary, tells us that

  The Rabbis take the word “souls” to mean the proselytes whom Abram made among the men, and Sarai among the women. These converts became subservient to God’s law and followed their master in his spiritual adventure.  

Significantly, we are not told how these "souls" converted. Certainly they did not go before a beit din; there were none as yet. Neither were they circumcised; circumcision isn’t the sign of the covenant until after Abram has arrived in Canaan, sent a large army to rescue Lot (14:14), Ishmael’s birth and had his name is changed to “Abraham.” In other words, Abraham does not know about circumcision for many more years.

There are many further references in Torah, if one reads with a sensitivity to the culture of the times, to new adherents joining the tribe.  

Three generations later, consider Asnat. Don't remember her? She is the wife of Yosef. How did she become Jewish, as we presume she did? (Or did she? At the time "Jewishness" followed the father and she, and the emahot as well, may well not have "been Jewish.")

We are not told because either it's irrelevant or we're assumed to know. It is, in fact, both irrelevant and well-known: In the world at that time one often adopted the gods of the household in which one lived (hence the term “household gods”), particularly if one had voluntarily allied themselves with that house (like a wife). That is, when you joined a household, you joined the household. That's how all the matriarchs become "Jews" (talk about a male-oriented society!)

In short, "Jewishness" followed the father; matrilineal decent is an adoption of a Roman custom in the third century CE. This change, however, served us well later, in the depredations of the Crusades, ensuring legal status of the children of crusader rape. Of course, changes are in the air by the time of Ezra when he required Israelite men to abandon their non-Israelite wives (Ezra 10:17 ff).

There is no record if this actually happened possibly the men simply left with their wives. But Ezra is over 1500 years after the patriarchs and the period we are talking about.

So, then, how did Ruth convert? This time, Torah does tell us.

She made a declaration, “Your people shall be my people and your G-d shall be my G-d” (note which allegiance is asserted first). She did not make this declaration publicly. She did not go through any educational process. No bet din.  No mikvah (the mikvah, too, is several centuries in the future). She was not vetted in any way. She simply disavowed paganism (I'm making a bit of a leap here) and declared her allegiance to am Yisrael. That’s it.

Conversion, as we know it today, appears to be an evolving Rabbinic response, as certain apoligists I have read claim, to address issues arising out of the substantial number of Roman proselytes (1st century C.E. -- according to some sources, perhaps as much as 10% of the Roman empire were Jewish or wanna-be’s) and, later, further requirements were added in the face of Christian proselytization (possibly, to ensure sincerity). But this bears no resemblance whatever to anything in either Torah or Tanakh and it certainly does not square with Israel's history of proselytization, active and once forceful proselytization.

So, current conversion practices are less than 1000 years old. Before this, foreswearing paganism, circumcision (where appropriate -- in fact, starting with the command to circumcise, circumcision by itself was all that was required, at least that's what the Torah itself says -- the forced conversion of the Idumaeans confirms this) and, later, public declaration (later still, in front of three competent witnesses) were sufficient.

The Military Historian, Gunther Rothenberg (late of Purdue University) once asserted that to be "Jewish" was, essentially, a political act. Given that a child born of a Jewish mother is Jewish regardless of religious profession and the most observant person born of a non-Jewish mother (and not converted) is not, Gunther is obviously correct. But by characterizing "Jewishness" in this way, he correctly, I think, reminds us of one of the essentials of Torah: Israel is a tribe, a kinship relation - granted a tribe that can be expanded by coventing, not strictly DNA-limited - but, before anything else, and in the final analysis, nothing else, Israel is a people.

... a people, who because of their perceived history of brutal treatment, of oppression, accepted the mission of spreading the word that each and every one of us is the divine image, that each life, human or animal, must be respected, the mission of spreading the word of "liberty, equality, brotherhood...."

When did the "Jewish religion" begin? Research "the Grand Sanhedrin;" the "Jewish religion" began in April, 1806 at the hand of Napoleon.