Holy Cannoli–Jews, Burning Books? What Gives?

We’re still not over it.

We Jews are still not over our fears of being forced to convert. Holy Cannoli

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:

We are appalled that Jews would engage in the burning of books that are held sacred by Christians around the world. These actions are hilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name; they should be condemned by religious people of all faiths, are contrary to Jewish values, and demonstrate an utter disregard for the tolerance and mutual understanding that are essential if people of different faiths are to live together in harmony.

We Jews remember the burning by Christians of the Talmud in 13th-century Paris and 16th-century Italy. We remember as well the book burnings in 1933 Nazi Germany. It staggers the imagination that in the year 2008, Jews would engage in actions of this type.

We share the concerns of Jews in Israel about messianic activities of Christian missionaries, but such activities must be dealt with through appropriate legal means, as determined by the laws of the State of Israel.

We are appalled that Deputy Mayor Azi Aharon would apparently make comments encouraging such acts. We call upon him to apologize immediately, and we urge rabbis of all streams in Judaism to condemn these actions and to reaffirm the bonds of friendship and respect that should mark relations between Jews and Christians throughout the world.

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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7 thoughts on “Holy Cannoli–Jews, Burning Books? What Gives?

  1. i live in quite possibly the largest metropolitan city in the US. everywhere you turn, there are Christian missionaries setting up posts in the subways and other public areas (you also have the Scientologists, but that’s a completely different story and they’re more comical than threatening). now that summer is approaching, they’ll be out in full force. in order to avoid any sort of contact with them, i usually just turn up my Ipod and tune out anything they say.

    i think one reason Jews have survived for so long is due to our stubborn attitudes. but now that we’ve evolved and are living in a time when Jews and non-Jews frequently interact and fall in love, our stubborn nature is turning a lot of people off. born Jews become less interested in Judaism and intermarry, and non-Jews who are interested in either converting or raising Jewish children are chased away. it’s one thing to harbor insecurities about the past as Christian missionaries continue to spread “the word” and not really caring about who they might be offending. it’s another to be hostile towards those who are not prostelytizers- those who have Jewish significant others, friends, co-workers and relatives and would like to be part of our community in some form or another.

    we have not always been the most welcoming of groups, and it’s good that we acknowledge that. yet we still aren’t doing much about it. the Jewish community has a right to discourage intermarriage, but it also has an obligation to be a “light onto the nations” and to do its best to be open to new members and opportunities even if there is a lingering sense of religious uncomfortability from past events.

  2. Hi, h.! I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds the proselytizing off-putting. I’m not above telling the people who want to convert me that “I already got one,”–religion, I mean.

    What amazed me about this story was, after I had written this post, the Jerusalem Post put up this story putting the number of burnt New Testaments in the hundreds. Someone handed out hundreds of copies of the New Testament in this teensy Israeli town? I’m just flabbergasted. It’s not just that it’s illegal to proselytize Jews in Israel. Who the heck thinks to do such a thing? I mean, when I wanted a copy of the Oxford Study Bible I had to go to a bookstore. (Yeah, yeah, I know, not the same thing.)

    But yes, I do think that openness is key, not only to reaching out to non-Jewish partners of Jews, but to making us all feel like Judaism is something anyone could love. Which, I think, it really is.

  3. Of course burning Christian bibles is wrong but it is not hilul Hashem since those bibles say things about G-d that aren’t true.

    As to the burning of missionary literature, which aren’t considered holy by anyone, what is the problem with that, although I can see how it might bother the Gentile spouses of Jews.

  4. Rude and disturbing that they’d destroy someone’s holy book. There’d be hell to pay if someone burned a copy of the Jewish Torah or the Koran. I also fail to see why it’s illegal to proselytize in Israel. Surely people are capable of saying “no” without making it illegal. When the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons come to my door, I’ve never had a problem saying, “I’m Catholic. Not interested. Go see my neighbor instead.” And then there are the people who might be interested in becoming Christians, which I suppose is what they’re afraid of. Those people ought to have a right to say “yes.”

  5. Hi Andrea, I’m glad you commented. I learned more about this story over the weekend, and I need to update it. There was a piece missing of this story that makes it make a lot more sense, that the BBC reported.

    The missionaries were targeting a neighborhood of Jews from Ethiopia. These were folks who have actually encountered forced conversions to Christianity. They weren’t just frightened by the long-ago historical specter of forced conversion–they’ve lived through it. They also came from a country where some had endured forced conversion, to Israel, where some people doubted whether they were Jews. So now their decision to use extra-legal means to express their feelings about being proselytized seem to be a little less mysterious. It might also go some way to explaining the existence of this law.

    The missionaries who targeted them for proselytization–I don’t totally understand what their thinking was in seeking converts among Ethiopian Jews, but the fact that they were looking to convert a specific group certainly goes a long way to explaining why there were hundreds of free New Testaments lying around in this small town. (I was really mystified about that part!)

    What was trying to say in the blog post was that the reason Jews don’t like to be proselytized peacefully is that it feels too close to being proselytized violently. I don’t think that could ever justify burning other people’s holy books. I feel empowered as an American Jew to tell proselytizers to hit the road, as you do as a Catholic–but that might not be the experience of Ethiopian Jews, who were a persecuted minority in their country of origin.

  6. Hi Dave,
    I’m not sure whether or not it is a desecration of God’s name to burn other people’s sacred texts. It is apparently against Israeli law to desecrate objects that are holy to any religion–I didn’t know this before this story came to light, but read it in the context of this CNN article.

    It’s very funny to be discussing this from the US (where I am, I don’t know where you are, Dave.) In the United States, it’s not against any law to proselytize, and it’s also not against any law to burn books–as long as you own them, of course. If this incident had happened in the United States, it would not be exciting–at least, not legally. People would say, “Look, you gave them the books free and clear, if they want to burn them, that’s your tough luck.” But in Israel, all the parties are potentially at fault–the proselytizers and the book burners, both.

  7. “Of course burning Christian bibles is wrong but it is not hilul Hashem since those bibles say things about G-d that aren’t true.”

    No religion can be proven objectively, including the orthodox Judaism you observe, Dave.

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