The story is told of a man who emerges from the subway in a Jewish neighborhood. Amazed and perplexed to see people running past him in apparent terror, he grabs one of them and asks, “What’s happening?” “Let me go,” begs the other man, “there’s a lion loose in the streets!” But the newcomer to the panic holds fast. “Tell me,” he implores, “is this good or bad for us Jews?”[1]

One smiles at the implausible situation described above but the rhetorical question illustrates how people tend to view things through a particular lens. As a minority people, we Jews can’t help but look at the implications of particular actions. And so when it comes to the subject of proselytizing, many would say “of course it’s bad for the Jews” when others try to tell us to believe something that is against our religion.

For example, Rabbi James Rudin, (the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious advisor and member of that organization’s board of governors) has said, “This [missionizing] is a spiritual attempt at genocide…. This is open season on Jews. After 1,900 years the Jews are weary and tired of both physical annihilation and attempts at spiritual annihilation.[2]

SOUL SNATCHING?

Israeli writer/artist Ellen Horowitz describes proselytizing as “soul snatching,” and says that Christians “should issue a clear, public, and unequivocal condemnation of such activity in Israel.” But, she adds, “I doubt that an Evangelical can condemn evangelism any more than a Palestinian can condemn terror.”[3]

While these sentiments are not uncommon, Rabbi Rudin and Ms. Horowitz are not the only opinions voiced on the subject. Some object to missionary activity out of loyalty to the God of Israel and the genuine belief that Christian teachings are false. Still others, like Hillel Halkin, contributing editor of The New York Sun, articulate Jewish concerns and fears based on past persecutions. Yet in writing about the mindset that led the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League to demand the Vatican change a prayer that petitions God to “enlighten their [Jewish] hearts to accept Jesus Christ,” Halkin urges his readers to avoid overreacting:

“In a democratic society, non-coercive proselytizing should be a perfectly acceptable activity,” he says. “Jews often talk about Christian missionary work in their midst as if it posed a mortal danger without realizing how self-demeaning this anxiety is…. Jews must have little confidence in themselves indeed if they have to live in fear of Christian soul snatchers.”[4]

Conservative Rabbi Leah Orlowick agrees:

Some Christians…would like to see all Jews eventually converted to Christianity. Where do we get off telling Christians that they can’t have that goal? And we Jews, too, have the equal right to believe that pagans, say, are wrong…that’s part of what it means to belong to a particular faith. The important question is what you do with those beliefs. You can’t impose your faith on anyone, you can’t deny the right of others to believe as they wish, but you don’t need to alter your own faith to make all faiths equal.[5]

Yet more often than not we hear the view that proselytism is a threat to Jewish survival (or as Rabbi Rudin has put it, “Does the success of his religion have to depend on the destruction of my religion?”[6]). Is that true or are there underlying issues that need to be addressed?

ACCUSATIONS

Philosopher Jay Newman, a Brooklyn-born philosopher, author and professor, presented a more intellectual form of protest in his book, Foundations of Religious Tolerance. He describes intolerance as “the most persistent and most insidious of all sources of hatred.”[7] And he says that most religious intolerance is caused by proselytizing, especially that done by Christians. Those who seek to convert others are “arrogant, ignorant, hypocritical, meddlesome.”[8]

Most see “proselytizing” as a negative activity. It denotes attempts to convince another to leave their religion and join yours. Yet proselytism was part and parcel of Jewish practice in biblical times and for millennia until the time of Constantine, only with the pejorative connotation missing.[9] Even the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who was not a proponent of proselytism, noted, “The duty to proselytize springs clearly from the idea that outside a certain belief there is no salvation.” [10]

Rabbis and Jewish philosophers are not the only ones who find such activity offensive. This Internet comment is typical of opinions many Jews and non-Jews express today: “I believe that proselytizing is one of the highest forms of disrespect anybody could have for another, regardless of whether the proselytizer is Christian, Atheist, or Scientologist.”[11]

A SEEMING CONTRADICTION

Then comes a seeming contradiction: “I’m not saying we can’t disagree…I’m not saying we can’t debate…challenge each other…point out what we feel to be flaws/errors/inconsistencies.”[12] Finally we read, “To forcibly remove someone from their spiritual station in life (or lack thereof) is, to me, unacceptable.”[13] The implication is that when people “proselytize,” their activities involve efforts or methodologies beyond what is considered acceptable.

Often such criticism is made with highly incendiary language and generalities, but without concrete examples to back them up. Proselytizers are accused of using “aggressive attacks on the beliefs of others” or “preying on the weak and vulnerable.” Yet how does one evaluate the difference between aggression and activism? Or ‘in your face’ and enthusiasm? Who determines a person’s vulnerability? Does being a college student make one vulnerable? What about a person going through a life crisis like divorce or loss of a job? Without concrete examples or a basis for evaluating the criticism, people may draw unfair, unsubstantiated conclusions.

Christian anti-Semitism has clouded the issue for many. Certainly the church bears the shame of forced conversions and baptisms. Grand Inquisitors, armed Crusaders and baptized SS officers perverted the Christian message of “good news.” These perpetrators of evil used the Bible, twisting passages[14] to justify their actions. Centuries later, we still feel the pain and outrage of their wickedness and cruelty.

Yet is it fair to say that anti-Semitism is inherent in Christianity? Those atrocities were as far from what Jesus taught as Torah hating is from the teachings of Moses. An examination of the New Testament and Hebrew Scriptures backs up this analogy.

The political correctness of “tolerance” has blurred the issue for others. One often hears the following: it is intolerant to proselytize, and intolerance leads to acts of hatred; therefore proselytizing is an act of hatred. As a syllogism, this is logical, but the equation assumes that proselytizing is intolerant behavior.

Which brings us to the next point.

THE MEANING OF WORDS

The objective meaning of tolerance can easily (and sometimes unintentionally) morph into a subjective concept with a far wider application. This may lead to unfair conclusions, which is why it is so important to keep in mind the true meaning of tolerance.

A website devoted to religious tolerance defines the term this way:

To extend religious freedom to people of all religious traditions, even though you may well disagree with their beliefs and/or practices. Having tolerance toward another religion does not require you to endorse that faith group’s beliefs; it simply indicates your respect for its right to exist and for its membership to hold different beliefs without being oppressed.

Religious tolerance does not require you:

To accept all religions as equally true.

Another part of the site on religious freedom states:

Religious freedom means that you can:

Without oppression, believe, worship and witness[15] (or practice freedom from belief, worship and witness), as you wish;

Change your beliefs or your religion; and/or

Associate with others to express your beliefs. [16]

These non-sectarian definitions form a reasonable basis for understanding and acting with tolerance, as well as respecting freedom of religion.

WHY DEFINITIONS MATTER

Definitions matter. The ambiguous use of “tolerance” and “religious freedom” fuels the misconception that proselytism is an act of disrespect, if not outright hostility. Few protestations made over proselytizing today have anything to do with real intolerance.

A similar ambiguity exists around the word “offensive.” Being offended is not the same as being oppressed or otherwise harmed. People can (and perhaps should) choose to be offended over any number of things. Taking offence is one way to define and assert our own values and ideas in the face of those with whom we disagree. Taking offence is a personal reaction to something or someone. When people label something as “offensive” they are stating their own (and often others’) feelings, perceptions or preferences, which they have every right to do.

However, calling for an end to “offensive practices” that do not restrict or oppress anyone can easily inhibit freedoms we cherish. That is a slippery slope that we Jews have carefully guarded against. When it comes to freedom of religion and/or expression, who should know better than we do that protection must extend to all, or it will ultimately be taken from most?

There are similar semantic problems with claims that proselytizing can destroy somebody else’s religion. People either practice a particular religion or they don’t. If a Jew believes the teachings of Jesus, it is true that he or she is differing from what traditional Jewish religious leaders teach. But that does not destroy the Jewish religion. Others are still free to believe the teachings of Judaism and to reject the teachings of Jesus.

Some people use angry rhetoric—including generalizations, ambiguous use of words and unfair associations—to cause or perpetuate fear and distrust. But is it necessary, or even healthy, to fear or distrust others for being open about their beliefs outside of their home or religious institution or even to hope to convince others?

Possibly some might see fear or distrust of other religions as an emotional tool that is necessary to the survival of the Jewish people. Then again, it is possible that reactions to proselytism are based on yet another issue, namely:

WHO ARE YOU TO SAY YOUR WAY IS BETTER?

For many, this is the real sore point. Resentment over evangelism often springs from the feeling that “they think their religion is better than mine” or “they think I have to think and be like them to be okay.” This might hit closer to the mark, because it’s not a matter of fear, but simply one of pride. But pride over one’s own particular point of view about God is misplaced. Because the truth about God and what he requires of us is not an extension or reflection of who we are, but a revelation of who He is. And the question is, do we honestly want a revelation of who God is—even if “who God is” does not fit our idea about how God should be, or how we should relate to Him?

Yeshua (Jesus) came because all people have in some way said to God, “Who are you to say your way is better?” Sadly, it is simply our nature to prefer to do things our own way. We include God in the equation when it suits our purposes and overlook His direction when it does not. That is called sin. Sin alienates us from God, so that some sort of reconciliation is necessary in order for us to have a relationship with Him.

If Jesus is the way to be reconciled to God, it’s not because “the Christians believe it.” And if he’s not, it isn’t because “the Jews don’t believe it.” God exists independently from us, and the truth about how to know Him does not depend on what any of us do or do not believe.

OUR MANDATE

The Jewish people were called into existence to belong to God, to be in relationship with Him and to be a light that leads others into a relationship with Him. And that required us to remain not only distinct as a people, different from others (see Genesis 12:1–3; Exodus 19:5–6; Deuteronomy 28:9), but it also required us to proselytize. It is no coincidence that Jesus told his Jewish followers to be a light to the world. In other words, bring the light of the one true God to the goyim (the nations). All that he said, did, and told his followers to carry on, is in keeping with God’s original mandate to the first Jew, Abraham,

I will make you into a great nation

and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

And you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,

And whoever curses you I will curse;
And all peoples [goyim] on earth
Will be blessed through you.

(Genesis 12:2-3)

So, is proselytizing (presenting the “good news”) bad for the Jews? The answer to that question goes beyond agreeing on the meaning of words, concern for Jewish survival or coming to conclusions based on the misdeeds of some followers. It really depends on whether it’s true. Have you investigated it for yourself?

  1. An anecdote from Moishe Rosen.
  2. Rabbi James Rudin, quoted by Deborah Cooper, in “Southern Baptists Vote to Convert Jews,” http://www.israelfaxx.com/webarchive/1996/06/6fax0628.html.
  3. Ellen Horowitz, “Blessing or Curse: Praying for us or Preying on us?” 20 May 2008, http://www.israelenews.com/view.asp?ID=2087.
  4. Hillel Halkin, “Take It As a Compliment,” The New York Sun, 12 February 2008, http://www.nysun.com/opinion/take-it-as-a-compliment/71132/.
  5. Leah Orlowick, quoted by Joshua Halberstam, Schmoozing: The Private Conversations of American Jews (New York: Perigree Judaica, 1997), pp. 219-220.
  6. Rabbi James Rudin, quoted by Deborah Cooper, in “Southern Baptists Vote to Convert Jews,” http://www.israelfaxx.com/webarchive/1996/06/6fax0628.html.
  7. Jay Newman, Foundations of Religious Tolerance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), p. 3.
  8. Ibid., p. 89.
  9. For a fuller treatment of Jewish proselytism and missionary activity through the ages, see “When Jews Were Proselytizers” by Susan Perlman, ISSUES, Vol. 9, No. 10, http://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/9_10/proselytizers.
  10. Moses Mendelssohn, quoted by Joseph Herman Hertz, A Book of Jewish Thoughts (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1949), p. 26.
  11. http://forums.hannity.com/showthread.php?t=734741.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. It is understandable that many consider the New Testament an anti-Semitic book, because it has been used to justify acts of anti-Semitism. Previous ISSUES articles have encouraged readers to withhold judgment until reading the book for themselves. One such article, “Anti-Semitism in the New Testament?” can be found at: http://www.jewsforjesus.org/publications/newsletter/1993_01/anti.
  15. The term “witness” means to state one’s beliefs, or tell of one’s experience, just as a witness would do in a court of law.
  16. From a website representing a variety of religious views at: http://www.religioustolerance.org/.