The Book of Jonah has a central theme of other peoples recognizing the power of the God of Israel as being supreme. Indeed a central theme repeated in many books of the Bible is that eventually all people will come to recognize the God of Israel as the One all-powerful God of the universe. The prophet Isaiah describes the “end of days” in these words:
And it shall come to pass at the end of days that the Mount of Hashem’s (= the Lord’s) House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills; and all the nations shall gaze on it with joy. And the many peoples shall go and say: “Come, let us go up to the Mount of Hashem that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in his paths.” For Instruction (Torah) shall come forth from Zion and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem. And he will judge among the nations and arbitrate for the many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; they shall never again know war. (Isaiah 2:2-4)
The special prayers recited on Rosh Hashana also stress this theme, quoting frequently many biblical verses to that effect. We pray: “Let Your glorious majesty be perceived by all inhabitants of the world, so that every being will know that You activated him/her, and every creature will realize that You have created him/her, and every breathing thing will proclaim, ‘Hashem, the God of Israel is King, and [God’s] Kingdom rules over all jurisdictions.”
None of this implies, though, that all people will become Jews at that time (or before then). All that non-Jews are required to do in order to gain their share in the world to come (see my posting on this topic elsewhere on the JVO website) is to fulfill the seven universal commandments God gave to Noah and his descendants after the flood (Talmud Sanhedrin 105a; see also Mishnah Avot 4:1 and Mishnah Peah 1:1): 1) Recognizing Hashem as the One God and rejecting idolatry; 2) refraining from cursing God; 3) refraining from the sexual relationships forbidden in Leviticus, chapter 18; 4) refraining from murder; 5) refraining from stealing; 6) refraining from eating a part of an animal while the animal is still alive; and 7) establishing a system of justice. (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a)
Isaiah’s prophecy is thus understood as meaning that all people will come to recognize God and follow in his paths to establish justice throughout the world (see Genesis 18:19) by learning Torah from Zion, but not that they will become Jews and take upon themselves all 613 commandments of the Torah, although some of them undoubtedly will fully join the Jewish people and will be welcomed with open arms, as stated in another prophecy which is highlighted in services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur:
[As for the foreign-born who attach themselves to Hashem … all who keep the sabbath and do not profane it and who hold fast to My Covenant,] I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56:7)
When God gave Torah to the people of Israel, he announced that by accepting the extra commandments of Torah, they would become a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19:6). Just as the kohanim, the priests who served in God’s sanctuary, were given extra commandments above and beyond those of other Jews, and through these extra commandments they attained a higher level of holiness in order to help the rest of the people perceive God’s commanding presence in their lives, so too all Jews are given extra commandments beyond those given to the rest of humanity in order to help the rest of humanity perceive God’s presence which commands justice and righteousness.
Observe them (the laws and statutes which God commanded to the people of Israel) and practice them, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is Hashem our God whenever we call upon him. And what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Instruction (Torah) that I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:6-8)
We gladly accept converts who sincerely want to take on this priestly mission by accepting the extra obligations of the 613 commandments of our Torah, but there is significant concern that one who converts to Judaism may not be fully ready to take on all of these obligations, and, even if sincere, might subsequently find them too burdensome and decide to leave. Once a person has converted to Judaism, s/he is held responsible for violations of all of those additional obligations taken on, to detriment of that person’s ultimate disposition in world to come. So the practice is not to overly encourage conversion to Judaism, to initially discourage conversion until it becomes clear that the person expressing interest is sincere in wanting to fulfill the special commandments given to the Jewish people and has sufficient understanding in practice of what those obligations entail that we consider it likely that joining the Jewish people and its priestly mission will be in that person’s best long-term interest.
There was a time during the second temple period when Jews actively engaged in proselytizing (“evangelize” is a term specific to promoting Christianity) – Judaism was the only non-idolatrous nation at the time, and other geo-political and religious considerations of the Hasmonean (descendants of Simon the Maccabee) kings, who simultaneously served as High Priests, led them to pursue a policy of actively seeking the conversion to Judaism of non-Jewish inhabitants of territories they conquered, sometimes under duress. The perceived problems caused by the numbers of less than fully sincere and committed coverts which was the result of that level of proselytizing is expressed in the context of the Talmud’s (Yebamot 47a) discussion of the process of conversion as a word play on Isaiah 14:1, “Converts are as hard on Israel as a scab [on the skin].” The fact that the Jewish people have since suffered a long period of extreme oppression, during which Christian and Islamic governments forbade Jews from promoting their religion among their peoples, made rabbis even more fearful and likely to discourage potential converts more forcefully.
The Book of Jonah includes a number of themes but evangelizing is not one of them. Jonah is not asked to convert the residents of Nineveh to Judaism but only in saving them from punishment if they fail to repent from their sins. This corresponds to the Jewish attitude that salvation is achieved through noble action rather than through the acceptance of a particular religious doctrine. This idea finds its classical expression in the Talmudic statement that asserts that all the righteous - whether Jews or non-Jews – have a share in the World to Come. The litmus test for salvation is not religious homogeneity but virtue. Accordingly, there is no need to actively convert non-Jews to Judaism. The prophet Zekhariah, likewise, imagines a future time when all people will come to acknowledge the One God, but that does not necessarily entail the practice of Judaism. In sum, Judaism wants the world to be good and does not need the world to be Jewish.
Question: “Typically, why don't Jews evangelize? That's what the book of Jonah and so many other books and events in the bible are about (in the questioner's reading of them)”.
I am glad you asked this question, though I would certainly differ on your interpretation of the specific biblical reference that you made. (More on that later.)
This is a question for which there is no one, authoritative answer. Judaism has, in the distant past, been quite a proselytizing religion, but this occurred primarily in the first millennium of the Common Era, and then the activity seemed to have died out. A Jewish historian of the early First Century, Flavius Josephus, noted the desire for Jewish expansion; the Mishnah and Talmud explicitly permit conversions into Judaism; and the Roman writers Horace, Seneca, Juvenal and Tacitus were among those who seem to have been afraid of it. (A web search might yield pages such as this one: http://mondediplo.com/2008/09/07israel, which should only be the beginning of one’s study on this topic.)
In this era, at a time when other religions have long histories of forced conversions, Judaism has stopped all activity for active outreach to non-Jews who are not connected in some way with the Jewish community. Why this is so is connected with the pure act of evangelism as practiced by Christians today and in years gone by.
The word “evangelist” means the “bringer of good news’, and referred specifically – at first – to the four Christian Gospel writers who composed their stories about the ministries of Jesus and tales of the the goodness that he brought to the world. The further implication of this term, especially in modern times, is that one who evangelizes brings ‘good news’ of salvation that comes from belief in Jesus’ saving power, a uniquely Christian viewpoint. This ‘salvation’ is from eternal damnation that would come to those who do not believe in Jesus’ salvation.
Since the philosophy of Judaism essentially excludes the belief in eternal torment for sinners, and instead believes (1) that sinners can successfully repent if they’re sincere and (2) that everyone will benefit in the “world to come”, there is no need to “save” others by converting them to Judaism.
This is the issue that I take with the implication of your question. The book of Jonah cannot be read as referring to Jonah’s mission being one of conversion of the people of Nineveh. Rather, it was one of returning sinners to Godly and goodly ways, not of turning Ninevites into Jews. That was not in Jonah’s mission papers.
If you check out Jonah 1:2 and 3:1-4, you will not find “conversion” in Jonah’s orders. You will find a direction from God to seek repentance from the residents of Nineveh. If they did not repent within 40 days, God would destroy the city. The Ninevites repented within one day, following the lead of the King of the city. Jonah was successful in his task, even though he was reluctant at the start, because, he complains to God, he knew that God was compassionate and God would forgive without the effort that Jonah put forth. (You can ask a further question about the message of the book of Jonah if you choose.)
The “other books and events in the bible” certainly contain the message of Israelite dominance over the original inhabitants of the land of Canaan (today Israel), but there is doubt over the historicity of the events of the Bible in any case, and these “events” may have been recorded as polemical arguments rather than historical fact. But this, too, is the subject for another question.
If there were to be modern-day proselytism of Jews toward non-Jews, I would presume that it would be for the purpose of strengthening the Jewish people, still feeling decimated in the century following the Holocaust. But Jews do not desire to force people to their religion, but rather teach patiently and accept sincere converts when they present themselves.
For different motivations, perhaps, the American Reform movement leadership, in the past 15 to 20 years, has initiated Jewish educational programs toward those non-Jews who are married or partnered to Jewish members of synagogues. Synagogue leaders are encouraged by national leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism to suggest – gently – conversion to the non-Jews in their midst who seem to support the programs, worship services, and philosophies of Judaism.
Jews, largely, do not feel the need to “witness” to others, as do others in the world marketplace of ideas today. There is a need to replenish the numbers of Jews following the loss of the Six Million, but this will occur over time with the remnant that remains. And even among those Jews who feel keenly the loss of people following World War II, they are content to bring Judaism and strengthen Jewish identity among those already attached to the people of Israel.
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