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We’re still not over it.
We Jews are still not over our fears of being forced to convert.
Jews’ negative feelings about proselytizing are so strong that even in Israel, a country where Jews are the majority, we continue to feel threatened by the idea that someone might force us to convert. To me, this explains a lot about the ways that the Jewish community has reacted to interfaith marriage. A recent story about Jews in Israel burning books brought this into sharp relief. The deputy mayor of the small Israeli town of Ohr Yehuda, acting as a private citizen, organized a collection of missionary literature, which some of the townspeople then burnt in a bonfire.
In response to the burning of copies of the New Testament in Ohr Yehuda, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Peter Knobel, President of the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis, and Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:
First I thought: “Jews aren’t supposed to burn books. Period.”
My second reaction was, “Holy cannoli, Israel is a a country where Jews are the majority, there’s a law against trying to convert Jews to other religions, is there that much Christian proselytizing there? I mean, who ever heard of Ohr Yehuda, a town small enough that Google can’t tell me exactly where it is–and they had that many pieces of proselytizing literature? Amazing!”
My third reaction was, “Well, this explains a lot about the reluctance of Jews to seek converts ourselves. How can we go around telling Christians they should be Jewish when we hate it this much when they do it to us?”
It’s one of the many things that makes it tricky to get the Jewish community to be welcoming to allies who are not Jewish who become part of our circles through marriage or affinity. We should be able to welcome these non-Jewish friends eagerly, but our lack of a tradition of inclusion is tied to our tradition of avoiding proselytization.
We should be able to combine our live-and-let-live attitude about other people’s right to religious expression with our new consciousness of being safe in the world to be welcoming to outsiders without pressure to convert. How cool is that? Seriously, finding a way to let non-Jews participate without pressuring people or telling them they are unredeemed? It would be just perfect to be part of a Jewish community that could do that.
If only we could get our pulses to stop racing when proselytizers ring the doorbell for us, we might be able to chill out and make that possible.
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