Controversy regarding conversion to Judaism seems like an ever-present discussion when it comes to the modern State of Israel and Jews in the Diaspora. Every few weeks or so an article appears in a Jewish online newspaper or an Israeli news site discussing a disagreement usually between the Orthodox Jewish establishment in the State of Israel and non-Orthodox groups. Jewish denominations such as Reform or Conservative are struggling for what they believe are rights to equal religious expression.
The disagreements often focus on whether converts to Judaism who did so under the auspices of non-Orthodox movements can or should receive the same recognition that converts to Orthodox Judaism do in the State of Israel. This controversy has consequently spread to other countries with significant Jewish populations and is not limited to converts to non-Orthodox forms of Judaism.
The reality is, that despite the intensification of these issues lately, converts have often encountered challenges after their decision to join the Jewish people. These challenges often entailed the struggle of family and society especially in the ancient world.
The topic of conversion is one of the specialties of Dr. Gary Porton, one of the doctoral students of Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner. Dr. Porton taught at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership and I was privileged to take several courses with him on the literature of the Second Temple period as well as class on Mishnah and Tosefta.
Dr. Porton authored the work titled, The Stranger within Your Gates: Converts and Conversion in Rabbinic Literature and another critical resource for the period is Sacha Stern's , Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings.
If the People of Israel understood themselves to share a common ancestry as well as a common religion, how could a convert to their faith who did not share their ethnicity fit into the ancient Israelite community? While it is comparatively simple to declare religious beliefs, it is much more difficult to enter a group whose membership is defined in ethnic terms. In showing how the rabbis struggled continually with the dual nature of the Israelite community and the dilemma posed by converts, Gary G. Porton explains aspects of their debates which previous scholars have either ignored or minimized.
The Stranger within Your Gates analyzes virtually every reference to converts in the full corpus of rabbinic literature. The intellectual dilemma that converts posed for classical Judaism played itself out in discussions of marriage, religious practice, inheritance of property, and much else. Reviewing the rabbinic literature text by text, Porton exposes the rabbis' frequently ambivalent and ambiguous views.
The Stranger within Your Gates is the only examination of conversion in rabbinic literature to draw upon the full scope of contemporary anthropological and sociological studies of conversion. It is also unique in its focus on the opinions of the community into which the convert enters, rather than on the testimony of the convert.
By approaching data with new methods, Porton heightens our understanding of conversion and the nature of the People of Israel in rabbinic literature.
Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of Yeshivat Meor Enaim. He is the author of The Converso Dilemma: Halakhic Responsa and the Status of Forced Converts and 19 additional books on various Jewish topics.