The Rabbinic Conversion of Judaism

The Unique Perspective of the Bavli on Conversion and the Construction of Jewish Identity


In this volume, Moshe Lavee offers an account of crucial internal developments in the rabbinic corpus, and shows how the Babylonian Talmud dramatically challenged and extended the rabbinic model of conversion to Judaism. The history of conversion to Judaism has long fascinated Jews along a broad ideological continuum. This book demonstrates the rabbis in Babylonia further reworked former traditions about conversion in ever more stringent direction, shifting the focus of identity demarcation towards genealogy and bodily perspectives. By applying a reading-strategy that emphasizes late Babylonian literary developments, Lavee sheds critical light on a broader discourse regarding the nature and boundaries of Jewish identity.

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Moshe Lavee, is a lecturer of Rabbinic Literature and chair of the Cairo Genizah center and Digital Humanities program at the University of Haifa. He has published various articles on identity, conversion and gender in rabbinic literature as well as the reception of aggadic midrash as reflected in the Cairo Genizah.
No one to my knowledge has unpacked as clearly or as convincingly the Bavli’s integrated and interlocking ideas about converts and conversion to Judaism as well as explaining how it created the impression that its new ideas really were not new. This is for this reason an important work about conversion to Judaism in late antiquity and an equally important example of the best of contemporary scholarship on the Babylonian Talmud.
Gary G. Porton, University of Illinois, Journal for the Study of Judaism, 2018

Introduction: Methods and Models

Part 1: “Like an Israelite in Every Respect”: The Conversion Procedure

1 The Babylonian “Mini-Tractate” of Conversion

2 The Invention of the Conversion Court

3 Immersion and Circumcision

4 Sinai as Conversion: Acceptance of the Commandments

Part 2: “Like a Scab”: Negative Attitudes toward Converts and Conversion

5 “Like a Scab”: A Babylonian Expression

6 Converting Missionary Images

7 Hillel and Shammai Revisited
 Appendix 7.1 Hillel and Shammai: Comparison Charts

Part 3: “Like a Newborn”: The Erasure of the Convert’s Past

8 Newborn: Conversion and the Severing of Kinship
 Appendix 8.1 The Severing of Maternal Relations in Palestinian Sources
 Appendix 8.2 A Palestinian Concept in a Geonic Text?

9 Newborn: From Forgiveness of Sins to a New Personality

Part 4: Contextualizing the Talmud “Against its Will”

10 Dominantization: The Rabbinic Conversion of Judaism

11 Legalization, Rabbinization and the Shift of Authority

12 Genealogical Anxiety and the Body: The Iranian Context

Conclusion—A Newborn, an Israelite, a Scab: The Babylonian Convert

Appendix—The Conversion Mini-Tractate: Annotated Texts
 1 The Preceding Narrative
 2 The first Baraita: The Requirement for Both Immersion and Circumcision
 3 The Second Baraita: The Case of Circumcision without Immersion
 4 The Third Baraita: Witnessed Conversion
 5 The Fourth Baraita: the Conversion Court
 6 The Fifth Baraita: The Procedure of Conversion
 7 The Sixth Baraita: A Theological Reflection on the Suffering of Converts
 8 The Meimrot of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba in the name of Rabbi Yohanan
 9 Conversion at Night and the Conversion Court
All interested in the study of Judaism in Late Antiquity, the formation of Rabbinic Literature in Babylonia and the Land of Israel, conversion and demarcation of Identity.
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