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It is often asserted that up until the time of Constantine or so, Judaism was an actively proselytizing religion. This can be contrasted with the common practice today of rejecting potential converts until their utmost sincerity can be determined.

Some groups seek to restart what they see as the lost tradition of proselytizing to non-Jews.

Do traditional Jewish sources address this concept? Is it understood by Chazal that we did in fact seek out converts at one point in time?

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Only traditional sources?? What about Josephus, who describes John Hyrcanus (high priest and nephew to Judah "the Maccabee") converting all of the Idumeans (Edomites) to Judaism by the sword? You only want to know whether or not the rabbis mention it, not whether or not it happened? –  Shimon bM Jul 10 '12 at 23:41
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@ShimonbM if it happened, I would expect it to be addressed by traditional sources. Josephus is useful and interesting, and feel free to answer based on him, but I would not describe him as reliable in comparison to Chazal. –  yoel Jul 10 '12 at 23:47
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The Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Biah 13:14-16) writes that we did not accept converts during times when the Jews were in a position of authority and power, since it put the motivation of the conversion in question: beta.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/960661/jewish/… –  Menachem Oct 22 '12 at 4:10
    
If there was not a period of significant Jewish proselytizing how does one explain the obvious Slavic racial characteristics of European jews? –  sneakytree May 31 at 5:40
    
Historically speaking - Yes, there was periods when Jews actively sought out converts, such as the Late Second Temple era, if I remember correctly. I'll post an answer when I find more details. || Oh, you only want Chazal sources. Never mind. –  Shmuel Jun 1 at 4:36

3 Answers 3

This can be contrasted with the common practice today of rejecting potential converts until their utmost sincerity can be determined.

Judaism has always required that potential converts be rejected three times first. Rus Rabbah 1:16.

Therefore, even from the times of Rus ("shfot hashoftim"), Judaism has not been a proselytizing religion.

I later found in the Rambam (Isurei Biah 13:15) that the beis din of David and Shlomoh didn't accept converts. However, there were still converts.


I subsequently found something that would imply the opposite (Bereishis Rabbah 39:21): "Whoever converts an idol-worshiper is as if he created him." (The Torah Temimah (Bereishis 12:6 note 11) adds: "When permitted by the government.") This sort of adds to Dan's answer.

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I wouldn't normally use Medrish Aggadata as an answer for a history question. –  Double AA Jul 10 '12 at 22:10
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@DoubleAA It gives the halachah, and in history they had to follow the halachah. I know that gemara beats Midrash, but where does the gemara disagree? –  b a Jul 10 '12 at 22:11
    
It doesn't disagree. Which is what's most odd. If this was the mainstay of Jewish conversion policy for millenia, how did it not merit mention for thousands of years, including being omitted by the mishna, braitas, toseftas, both talmuds etc. It's also excluded by the Rambam, Tur and ShA for that matter. To me it sounds less of a formal halacha and more of a general statement about how קשים גרים לישראל כספחת which is exactly what I'd expect from aggadeta. –  Double AA Jul 10 '12 at 22:14
    
@DoubleAA There is also no source about how to make tefilin, Rashi or RT. That's how we have arguments in the later generations: None of the early sources covered such things. –  b a Jul 10 '12 at 22:19
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The order of the parshiyot? It's an explicit gemara in Menachot. There became different ways of understanding it, but that doesn't make it overlooked. –  Double AA Jul 10 '12 at 22:21

The gemara in pesachim 87b comments (translation and sumamry from dafyomi.co.il)

(R. Elazar): Hash-m exiled Yisrael among the nations in order that converts will added onto them - "U'Zratiha Li ba'Aretz" - one plants a Se'ah only because he expects to reap many Korim (a Kor is 30 Sa'im. See note in Appendix) (k) (R. Yochanan): We learn from "V'Richamti Es Lo Ruchamah [v'Omarti l'Lo Ami Ami Atah]" - people that were not My nation will become my nation.

I don't know if this describes what the actual practice was, but Avraham Avinu proselytized

This website uses sources from the christian bible to show that seeking converts to Judaism was a common practice. I read a reference to the avot d'rebbi natan which says that Abraham and Sarah were active proselytizers but I couldn't find the quote in the text.

Also, consider the final 3 paragraphs of this article which state that according to the mishna (though the site gives no source) it was the responsibility of all people to spread Abrhamic monotheism.

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Okay, I get that some people use a dash (or hyphen) in place of the o in God. But in place of the e in Hashem?? –  msh210 Jul 10 '12 at 21:43
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Note that spreading monotheism is not the same as trying to get people to be gerim. See judaism.stackexchange.com/a/7214. –  msh210 Jul 10 '12 at 21:45
    
@msh210 the dash was from the website i copied from. as to the final point, yes, understood, which is why i wrote "abrahamic monotheism". it was simply to help establish the contrast with post CE 313 practices. –  Danno Jul 10 '12 at 21:47
    
This is good information but I'm not sure that it addresses the question. –  yoel Jul 10 '12 at 22:23

Philo wrote many books proselytizing to the Gentiles of Alexandria that they should take on mitzvos. In Life of Moses 2.44, the Hellenistic Jew Philo believes that God did expect all the nations to observe the Torah, for Philo hoped that all the nations would recognize the wisdom of Israel’s law and join themselves to the Jewish people.

Overall, the view of rabbinic Judaism was quite different, for it held that Jews had to observe the entire Torah, whereas Gentiles only had to obey the seven Noachide commandments, which were against murder, idolatry, sexual immorality, eating blood, and other things. At the same time, there are times when rabbinic literature ascribes a universality to the Torah, asserting that it was the blueprint with which God created the universe, that God offered it to all the nations of the world (who rejected it) before he finally gave it to Israel, and that God revealed the Torah in a no-man’s land (the desert) so that no nation would be able to lay sole claim to it.

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