This afternoon I joined a group of Mormon singles participating in Open Mosque Day at the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, California. I had met the mosque’s leader on several occasions, and was pleased to see young Mormons observing Muslim prayers and asking questions. As I put my shoes back on and prepared to leave, a friendly guide showed me a desk with free literature and invited me to take whatever interested me. I chose an English-language Koran whose cover proclaimed that this “final revelation from God to mankind…attracts toward it Jews, Christians, and Muslims.” It also stated that the book “provides the code of life for mankind.” As I pondered these bold statements, I couldn’t help but wish that Paul Golin had been at the mosque with us.
Golin, a senior official at the Jewish Outreach Institute and a graduate of the great University of Michigan, recently posted an essay on the Huffington Post whose thesis was that the greatest division in the American Jewish community is between “insiders,” who are actively engaged with Judaism and the Jewish community, and “outsiders,” who are not. [The latter group undoubtedly includes many young Jews]. This insider/outsider dynamic is also present in the American LDS community, which encourages “active” members to seek out and befriend the “less active” ones living in their neighborhoods. Notwithstanding the many thousands of disengaged Mormons left to reactivate, our church continues to be one of the fastest-growing, dynamic religious groups in the world. One of the keys to our success was revealed in a recent Pew Group survey: religious education. Mormons knew more than any other religious group polled about the Old Testament, New Testament, Christianity, and Mormonism. Only Jews knew more about Judaism. In my opinion, another key is a practice that American Jews would do well to adopt: turning members into missionaries for the faith.
Unfortunately, Jews tend to focus on the people who are contacted by missionaries rather than on the missionaries themselves. We send tens of thousands of young men and women to every state and to dozens of countries for two years (18 months for women), and they return more mature, more knowledgeable, and more committed to living their faith and sharing it with others. Their missions form the spiritual base for adulthood and often motivate their less-active friends and family members to come back to church. Just imagine what would happen to Jewish communities that actively recruited and trained tens of thousands of educated, committed Jews, young and old, who could go into their communities and promote Judaism and Jewish values to their families, peers, and colleagues. They could invite their friends and neighbors to synagogue events, greet visitors to their shuls, give them Torahs and other religious literature, and share with them why Judaism is relevant to them – and why they believe that it is the best way for human beings to live.
I’ve been assured by several Jewish leaders that there is no theological prohibition against actively seeking converts to Judaism. In fact, Jews were once the most active missionaries in the world, and they only stopped preaching after the Romans made it a capital crime to do so. What would low-key proselytizing do for these Jews? I believe that it would increase their commitment to Judaism. After all, if being Jewish is so wonderful and fulfilling, why shouldn’t others be led to the mikvah? Golin speaks of bringing Judaism into the marketplace of ideas. I believe that more people would crowd Judaism’s stall in the market if it had a sign proclaiming “Judaism: the Best Way to Live” rather than “Judaism: the Best Way for Jews to Live.” I have never understood why anyone would live a Jewish life (or any other religiously-based life, for that matter) unless she believed that it was objectively the best one for humanity. If it’s just another pathway to God, then why not choose a pathway that’s a little easier? For that matter, why not marry someone who is on another pathway to the same destination? There is a Jewish radio host who often states “I don’t know whether Judaism is the ‘true’ faith, but I do know that God wants me to live as a Jew.” Well, why would God want him to do that unless Judaism is the best way for everyone to live? Unless one believes that God only wants the best for some of his children, it’s hard to understand this line of reasoning. If God has chosen the Jewish people to share His moral code with humanity, then all of humanity would do well to adopt the religion of the sharers.
Of course, there are many ways to express one’s attachment to Judaism. My Jewish missionaries would commit to share with non-Jews on a regular basis why Judaism matters to them. For some of them, the celebration of holidays, candle lightings, and other cultural practices are the most meaningful aspects of Jewish religious practice. Others could share their belief in the inspired nature of the Torah and God’s word to humanity. Each congregation and movement could come up with its own guidelines and suggestions. Regardless of the individual emphasis, each missionary’s motivation would be the same: the world would be a better place with more Jews in it, and I’m doing my part to make that happen.
I recall the first time I attended an event sponsored by the Orthodox Union. I was warmly greeted by Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, who asked about the origin of my surname. When I replied that it was Spanish, and that the name is Andalucian, the good rabbi told me that it was probably a Jewish name (“pardes” means “orchard” in Hebrew). He then asked whether my family had a tradition of lighting candles on Friday nights, circumcising boys, etc. Finally, he encouraged me to investigate my family origins – and Judaism. Not only was I not offended, I was honored that the rabbi would invite me to explore his faith. We remain good friends to this day. He did not say one negative word about my religion, but he suggested that I investigate his. Two other rabbis have suggested that my life would be better if lived Jewishly. People who do this project an image of confidence and assurance regarding their faith. I often hear of Jewish parents who attend anti-missionary lectures and fret about missionaries on college campuses. Not only is Jewish education the best inoculation against unwanted conversion, but their kids should also be trying to interest their friends in Judaism. If the students were informed and committed enough to do this, their parents would have no reason to fear. This role reversal on campuses would be a thousand times more effective than the common method of teaching the kids negative (and often simplistic) arguments to use with aggressive Christians. May we all live to see the day when Christian pastors offer seminars to their college students on how to resist Jewish proselytizing.
Of course, I am not advocating that we ask Jews to wear name tags and knock on doors in search of converts. Instead, congregations could adopt the mosque’s model of holding open houses, distributing literature, and answering questions about the faith. In addition, they could make it a priority to invite non-Jews to join study groups, men’s clubs, etc. The activities are not nearly as important as the message: we love being Jewish – come join us. It is my firm belief that “outsider” Jews who see Jewish organizations confidently advocating Judaism in the public square will desire to see what they’re missing. If fortune indeed befriends the bold, the Jewish community will be greatly enriched (and enlarged) by the efforts of these missionaries.