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Rubenstein: Why don’t Jews proselytize?

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One of my favourite Bizarro comics shows two well-dressed, earnest-looking  young men standing in a doorway, handing the homeowner their literature, as the man looks at them quite perplexed. “This pamphlet is blank!” the puzzled man protests. “We’re atheists,” answers one of the young men.

This short anecdote leads me to this question: why don’t you ever see Jews proselytizing (i.e., trying to convert others to our religion)?

The answer, I believe, leads us to three important Jewish ideas that I think the entire world might benefit from.

So why don’t Jews actively pursue others to join our faith? Many people are familiar with the phrase, “Righteous Among the Nations,” a designation that Yad Vashem uses to honour those of other faiths who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The phrase itself, however, is some 2,000 years old. In the Talmud, the statement is made that Righteous Among the Nations have a share in the world to come. This obviously does not refer to those who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust; rather, it refers to those of other faiths who practiced universal principals of morality. To the rabbis, this meant they abide by the Seven Laws of Noah (which prohibited idol worship, cursing God, murder, sexual offenses, theft, certain types of cruelty to animals and mandate the establishment of courts of justice.)

One may disagree with certain items on the list, but the principle the rabbis taught us over two millennia ago is exceptionally progressive and enlightening.

The rabbis were saying that to be a good person – to gain access to heaven, if you will – one doesn’t need to be an observant Jew, just a good person.

That’s why we don’t proselytize. In fact, we actively discourage potential converts, because to gain salvation or redemption, however you define it, one just has to be a moral person, a “mensch,” in the Yiddish vernacular.

I once heard Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, lamenting the existence of what he called “religious triumphalism,” the idea among certain religious groups that only they have the truth and will be the only ones who will have a place in heaven. Hence the need to zealously proselytize the less fortunate non-believers, in order to save their souls.

Some religions are a little less harsh, suggesting that people from other faiths might get into heaven, but will end up “in the cheap seats,” Rabbi Schachter- Shalomi joked.

How refreshing Judaism is on this issue. When I meet people of other faiths, they can be confident that I do not have a hidden agenda, that I do not feel superior to them or feel the need to try and convert them.

My only duty is to inspire them to act morally, without necessarily encouraging them to abandon their own faith traditions.

Just think: what if all religions in the world followed this same respectful approach? So much war, violence and conflict could be avoided.

This accepting attitude is mirrored in another rabbinic idea. In Brachot (58b), the rabbis teach us that, “Just as their faces are different, so too are their opinions are different.” God created us to be different. It’s embedded in both our physical and spiritual DNA.

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Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550) and Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) go as far as to say that the sin of the builders of the Tower of Babel was their desire for uniformity – that everyone speak the same language, hold the same beliefs and share the same culture.

But God delights in humanity’s diversity, originality and creativity. So to counter the efforts of the builders, God’s antidote was to spread humanity far and wide, and cause them to speak different languages.

In the words of Elie Wiesel,  “God made man because He loves stories.” Not one story, but many stories.

A third rabbinic concept is reflected in the saying in Pirke Avot: “Who is a wise person? One who learns from all humanity.”

Over the centuries, Judaism has given much to humanity, but it has gained much, as well. In recent history, much of the Jewish world has accepted modern Western ideals that embrace equality for women, gay rights and creating a more equitable world for the disabled.

Why? Because, as the rabbis taught us thousands of years ago, the truth comes from all sources, and truth has no religious or ethnic boundaries.

The opening prayer of the siddur is Mah Tovu, the words of which were first stated by Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet from the Biblical period.

Could the rabbis not have found and chosen a prayer written by someone from their own faith? They surely could have, but they did not because the truth is not the property of a single person or nation.

In John Lennon’s classic peace anthem, Imagine, he dreamed of a world with “no religion too.” Let us imagine something a little bit different. Let us encourage the creation of a world where all people not only accept each other’s religions, but celebrate and encourage their differences, and even learn from each other’s best practices.

Albert Einstein once said that “all religions … are branches from the same tree.” All religions try to understand what God demands of us. All religions seek to climb a mountain and reach the highest point humanity can strive toward.

Let all of our religions celebrate their diverse approaches, as we help each other reach the top of the mountain peak. 

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Eli Rubenstein is the religious leader of Congregation Habonim and the national director of March of the Living Canada.