Some time ago, Dennis Prager wrote a number of articles (such as this example) arguing that Judaism needs to shed its traditional reluctance to proselytize, and actively promote Judaism to the non-Jewish world. Traditional Judaism has historically dissuaded converts, for good and bad reasons. First, if the convert is not fully committed to Jewish law, conversion will end up being a net negative for his spiritual well-being; instead of only the Seven Noahide Laws that bind all of humanity, he will be liable for the laws of the entire Torah and be punished for their breach. Far better to remain a righteous non-Jew then to be an uncommitted convert.
Second, when you live among a society with another dominant religion, such as Christianity or Islam, actively seeking converts can be dangerous both for the convert and the entire community. Most Christian countries used to forbid Christians to convert to Judaism; Islam does likewise today, and there are many cases of former Muslims being attacked and murdered for daring to leave Islam. In such an atmosphere, it makes sense for proselytizing to be kept to a minimum. But surely America is a free country in which these concerns are minimal? Yes, but traditional Judaism is typically slow to change its behavior. (Not so with the more liberal branches, as will be discussed below.)
Third, and shamefully, some communities (certainly not all) are disdainful of converts, for reasons spanning excessive concern for family history to a pseudo-racialist mentality. Those who do so are grossly violating the Torah, which repeatedly commands the Jewish people to love the stranger. Moreover, those non-Jews who do end up converting despite the obstacles placed in their way are often shining examples of morality and commitment to Jewish law; to reject them because of their origins is disgraceful. But it does happen.
Prager's main reasons for encouraging proselytism are the following:
1. "If Jews do not seek converts, they must make peace with the fact that the rest of mankind will either remain where it is, adopt other religions, or invent new ones [i.e. inferior religions, given that we believe Judaism to be the true religion]… In order to influence the world, Jews can and must do two things: teach ethical monotheism and offer Judaism. Or the world will go its own unmerry way, and the Jews once again will be victims of a world they did nothing to influence."
2. "We lost one out of every three Jews during the Holocaust. Today we continue to lose about the same percentage to assimilation. Obviously, we are in terrible need of more Jews." (This is perhaps the great driving factor in the embrace by Reform, and to some degree Conserative, Judaism of dramatically lower standards for accepting converts; the more liberal Jewish movements are most affected by assimilation.)
3. It will lessen anti-semitism, both by reducing the resentment non-Jews feel at our insularity and clannishness, and by giving more people in society exposure to Jews and Judaism through the new converts.
4. More converts will improve Judaism by injecting their dynamism and vitality into our often inbred intellectual climate, and will better the world by spreading Jewish morality further than "Born Jews" could alone.
I tend to agree with Prager's larger argument, though I think that seeking out converts will increase anti-semitism and not decrease it, at least in the short term. This should be obvious; if we actually encroach on the turf of other religions instead of staying in our ghetto like good little Jews, they will fight back. In that light, America is perhaps best suited for a proselytizing movement, since there is less chance of a violent backlash.
But Prager's argument does not distinguish between Reform et al and Observant Judaism, which is unfortunate since they are based on very different philosophies of the world, even though they both rely on the Torah as a source text. (Though for Reform, "rely" is too strong a word, which is part of the problem.) Given that Reform et al do not actually observe Jewish law with any stringency, converts into those movements should for our purposes be thought of as Noahides, if that.
I am more concerned with conversion into Observant Judaism. This is both because we actually keep to Jewish law and philosophy, and because we are most in need of the intellectual vitality that a transfusion of converts can provide. But can Observant Judaism find a ready audience in modern society? Judaism is based on disciplining the body's lusts and channeling them for a sacred purpose. Moreover, it is highly rigorous, with dramatic restrictions on what we can eat, mandated prayer for over an hour each day (and much more on holidays), a forced withdrawal from the technological world on the Sabbath, and many other laws and restrictions. Compared to how most Americans view religion, Observant Jews are warrior-monks (albeit with better sex).
Can there be a broad audience receptive to Observant Judaism? And is there such a compelling need for a proselytizing program for us to set aside our longstanding aversion to proselytizing?
I think the answer to both questions is yes. And this is demonstrated clearly by the rapid growth of Islam in the West.
Islam features an unbalanced version of the Jewish ethos. It features strict subordination to a law code called Shari'a which is comparable in several ways to halacha, the Jewish law. It is built around submission to the will of God, and requires its adherents to place Islam above all other duties. While much of Islam's growth is due to immigration, some is the result of conversion into Islam. This demonstrates that there is a population of people who are open to the idea of a disciplined life in the service of God.
But Islam also has several troubling aspects to it that contribute to the growth of Islamist violence. Chief among these are the many passages in the Qur'an that call for such violence. Unlike Christianity, which began as a pacifist religion and only developed militant ideas once it controlled governments, Islam began as a religion of war and invasion. Only once Islam was faced with large societies to manage was it forced to temper these qualities, and they remain in the Qur'an for any would-be fanatic to see. And unlike Judaism, which challenges us to be a "Light to the Nations" and does not require the world to embrace Judaism, Islam must ultimately be imposed upon the whole world, by the sword if not by the pen.
That being the case, I view it as imperative that we place Observant Judaism out in the religious marketplace, so that those who would otherwise turn to Islam can be given a better option. To do otherwise is to be incredibly short-sighted. After all, if we do have the true religion, what possible purpose is served by letting non-Jews who seek discipline and submission to the will of God blunder into a flawed religion instead?