In his review in the Jewish Daily Forward of a new book on the “genetic history” of the Jews, Jon Entine writes, “‘Who is a Jew?’ has been a poignant question for Jews throughout our history.”  It is a question that has been very much in the news of late, not primarily for reasons of genetics but of conversion.  As has been extensively reported, there is a simmering debate, particularly in Israel, about whether Jewish conversions can be retroactively annulled. This issue has itself grown from an increasingly rigorous and hard-line position on the requirements for Orthodox conversion.

Yet while “Who is a Jew?” has been an important and controversial question throughout my lifetime, I suspect that it has actually not been very important throughout most of Jewish history.  For most Jewish communities, at most times and places, whether one was a Jew was rather obvious.  A rare exceptional incident might raise the issue (e..g, whether Jews in the Middle Ages who were forced to convert to Islam remained “good” Jews, as discussed by Maimonides), but for the most part the question of “Who is a Jew?” was far less poignant than we imagine.

I recently had occasion to revisit the classic rabbinic text on conversions, found in the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47a-b.  Classical rabbinic literature actually has surprisingly little to say about conversion to Judaism, articulating a procedure for it only here:

A.  Our rabbis taught:  One who comes to convert in this time, they say to him, “What do you see that you come to convert?  Don’t you know that Israel at this time is broken, oppressed, swept around, and torn, and afflictions come on them?”  If he says, “I know and I am not worthy,” they accept him immediately.

B.  And they inform him some of the light mitzvot and some of the more serious mitzvot.  They inform him of the sin [of neglect of] the laws of gleanings, forgotten sheaths, pe’ah [leaving the corners of the field for the poor], and the poor tithe.  They [then] inform him of the punishments of the mitzvot, saying to him, “Know that until you reach this state, if you ate the forbidden fat you would not have received the punishment of extirpation, and if you had violated the Sabbath you would not have received the punishment of stoning.  Now, if you eat the forbidden fat you are liable for extirpation, and if you violate the Sabbath you are liable for stoning.”  And thus they inform him of the rewards….and they don’t draw it out and are not exacting with him.

C.  If he accepts, they circumcise him immediately….

D.  When he is healed, they immerse him immediately and two sages stand by him and inform him of a few of the light mitzvot and few of the more serious mitzvot.  He immerses and emerges and behold, he is like an Israelite in every respect.

In his book, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, Shaye J. D. Cohen has extensively analyzed this tradition (pp. 198-238).  He is undoubtedly correct that this was a rabbinic attempt to bring some order to what was otherwise a chaotic understanding of Jewish identity.  It is not at all clear that in their time they succeeded, although this tradition would later serve as the template for a relatively consistent procedure for conversion.

In revisiting both the tradition and Cohen’s essay, two things really stood out to me.  First, in light of the increasing requirements for conversion, is actually how little the Talmudic rabbis required.  Steps A-C would take no more than a couple of hours.  The educational requirement is extremely minimal (and continues for a few minutes in D), and no proof of commitment or Jewish living is necessary.  Talk about a quickie conversion!

The second aspect relates to my current research on the patterns of Jewish giving in antiquity and their relationship to piety: how did Jews (and not just rabbis) understand the gifts that they made to the synagogues, poor, and priests and Levites?  In this tradition, of all the mitzvot in which the rabbis could have instructed the potential convert, they chose the laws dealing with support of the poor.  This – not the ritual obligations or the educating of Jewish children in holy texts – was the essence.  Curiously, the Talmud itself understands this (presumably earlier) tradition as a way to deter non-Jews from converting (their money is too important to them), but that I think reflects the more general ambivalence toward converts found in the Babylonian Talmud.  For the framers of this ceremony, though, it is support of the poor that stands at the center of their understanding of what it is to be/come a Jew.