Zoroastrians, Jews, Conversion, and Intermarriage

This article from yesterday's New York Times was interesting, and sad. I didn't know much about Zoroastrianism until I read the article this morning, but it seems like a cool religion as religions go. The article was about how the population of Zoroastrians is dwindling worldwide, such that one Zoroastrian priest asserts that there won't be any more Zoroastrians in a hundred years. It sounded a lot like the doomsday predictions that are made about North American Jewry every few years, but they have different issues than the Jews. There seem to be a few main causes for the dwindling population of Zoroastrians:
  1. They don't proselytize at all, and there is even a dispute over whether one can choose to convert to Zoroastrianism, because some feel that it is an ethnic religion rather than a universal religion.

  2. There seems to be no real social pressure within the Zoroastrian community not to intermarry, and because conversion isn't encouraged, and children of intermarried parents are not necessarily considered Zoroastrian, intermarriage = fewer Zoroastrians. The New York Times article said that, "some Zoroastrian priests refuse to accept converts or to perform initiation ceremonies for adopted children or the children of intermarried couples, especially when the father is not Zoroastrian." Intermarriage is particularly an issue now that Zoroastrians live dispersed all over the world, and are not concentrated in parts of India and Persia (Iran) as they once were.

  3. Zoroastrianism believes in gender equality and full education for women, so many Zoroastrian women become very accomplished professionally, and have fewer children.
This is all interesting in and of itself, but it is also interesting to compare it to Judaism, and the fears about Judaism being assimilated out of existence, at least in North America. It is clear that Judaism is in much better shape than Zoroastrianism, at least on a few counts.
  1. The first is that while Judaism doesn't proselytize, it certainly accepts converts. The method of conversion may be in dispute, but there is no doubt that Judaism is both a nationality and a religion, and that you can become part of the "ethnic" (transmitted through birth parents) nation by accepting the religion in one form or another.

  2. The second is that there is social pressure not to intermarry in at least parts of the North American Jewish community, although if one doesn't adhere to the religion, it is hard to see the value behind marrying a Jew. I don't think that some sort of vague guilt is a strong enough inducement against intermarriage to last for more than a generation or two. There also seem to be a lot more Jews around than Zoroastrians, and they might be concentrated more in a few urban areas, so it is probably easier not to intermarry if you'd rather not and you're Jewish. (Not that there aren't Jews spread far and wide in the US and Canada, but if you wanted to marry a Jew, you could probably find a few marriageable ones in any decent-sized city in either country.)
    Also, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism believes that the child of a Jewish mother and any father is Jewish, while Reform Judaism accepts any child of at least one Jewish parent as Jewish as long as they are raised in the Jewish faith (and not, say, also receiving formal instruction in Christianity). While intermarriage can often lead to assimilation in Judaism, it doesn't need to as it does according to some Zoroastrians.

  3. On the third issue, that of birthrate, I think we North American Jews probably have the same problems as the Zoroastrians, although we do have some Jews who have a boatload of kids. Still, average Jews in North America probably have fewer kids than average Christians or average Muslims in North America. (According to the April 2005 report, "Jewish Distinctiveness in America: A Statistical Portrait":
  4. Despite having more stable marriages, Jews have smaller families than other groups do....They have fewer brothers and sisters than any other ethnic/racial or religious group (2.4 vs. an average of 3.8); they are tied with Italians for the lowest number of children ever born (1.6 compared to an average of 1.9), but do have more children than those with no religion (1.2) and Other Religions (1.4). They have the smallest current household size of any ethnic/racial or religious group (2.5 vs. an average of 2.9).
So what?

I guess what all of this makes me think is that it's both good to discourage intermarriage as a dilution of the faith, and to encourage conversion and adoption of Judaism as one's religion for those who want it. Doing the opposite, as the Zoroastrians are, is not a recipe for success. And that makes me sad.


David said...

I read this yesterday too. The impression the article gave was actually far more positive about the concept of conversion than the Zoroastrians I met were: it's a core tenet of their belief that the good God made everyone the way they should be - they're very deterministic and socially darwinistic in that way, and thus, conversion is right out.

accepting conversions in Zoroastrianism implies a change in the nature of the belief system akin to the difference between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism (i.e. radically different in beliefs and practices).

And the Jewish history on the subject isn't all rosy either - there's the Syrian community, which has a permanent ban on accepting converts, and certainly in some other sub-communities converts are looked down upon and/or shunned (often with a "oh, that's great, but I wouldn't want my daughter marrying one..." mentality)

Drew_Kaplan said...

in considering any similarities b/t Judaism & Zoroastrianism, it's important to consider that Zoroastrianism was the dominate (or one of the dominate) religions during the time of the amoraim while they were in Bavel....

ALG said...


Yeah, I know that there are some Jewish communities that don't accept converts. I should have mentioned that. And I'm sure all segments of the Jewish community could probably do a better job of welcoming converts.


I didn't know that until I read the Wikipedia article on Zoroastrianism and saw this. The idea that Jewish eschatology, angelogy, and demonology is really Zoroastrian doesn't really bother me, or even interest me that much. I am curious to know how all kinds of Jews/Jewish scholars deal with the claim (Wikipedia says "some also believe") that Jewish monotheism came from Zoroastrianism. Is this generally accepted in academic circles or not at all?

ALG said...

Sorry, in previous comment, "angelogy" should read "angelology."

Drew_Kaplan said...

Oh, I don't know anything about that side of the influence. I was just referencing the influence Zoroastrianism had during the amoraic and stammaitic periods of Jewish scholarship which is roughly equivalent to the Sassanid empire in Babylonia, upon which Prof. Elman has been doing a lot of work.

David said...

The bit in the wikipedia article about "deutero-Isaiah" is one of the scholarly claptraps which regularly surfaces, but has not a shred of actual evidence behind it (c.f the thoroughly discredited "documentary hypothesis").

As for inventing monotheism, "the LORD is one" appears in the Torah itself in several places, as does the second of the ten commandments - thus, the origin of the sentiment would be older than anything in Isaiah, and looking for a proof there is silly.

Now, this is not to say that Zoroastrianism hasn't influenced Judaism in HUGE ways: most of the discussions of olam ha-ba are post-Persian period, and have a substantial number of commonalities with the Zoroastrian Paradizia (paradise); the concept of moshiah [and at least some of the descriptors] seems to have a lot in common with the Peshotan - there are more influences, certainly, but claiming monotheism as a Zoroastrian invention is a hell of a stretch, especially as the Zoroastrianism actually practiced in the ancient world was very, very dualistic in nature - it has emphasized underlying monotheism more in the modern era (much the way Hinduism has), but the emphasis on the war between the good and evil powers is qualitatively different from Judaism embrace of a God who "forms light and darkness, who makes peace and creates evil."