Friday, September 23, 2005

On Convictions and Conversions

There are two places on my daily trip home from work every day where I encounter Christian missionaries. One is at the start of the trip, when I enter the subway. There is usually a woman there with a microphone going on about how if one accepts Jesus, all will be well with you in the afterlife.

When I get off the train, I catch a bus. At the corner where I catch the bus, there is usually another person there missionizing. He does it a bit differently. He simply stands there with a bicycle and a sign and waits for people to approach him. I've eavesdropped on some of his conversations and he seems like a fairly intelligent person. I've never actually spoken to him directly.

This story is not about either of those people. :) (Hat tip: Douglas Adams - go to page 2).

This is about someone who approached me while I was listening in on a conversation the bicycle evangelist was having with someone else.

I was approached by a balding gentleman, about 40 years old, short, with a short red beard. He was wearing what looked like maroon hospital scrubs. He came to me and asked me if I believed in Jesus. I decided to entertain him and answered that I did not.

"Why don't you believe in Jesus?" he asked me.

"Why should I?" was my response. He responded with a verse from the Christian Bible.

"You do realize," I informed my disputant, "that quoting from the New Testament to convince me isn't going to do you any good, since I don't hold of the authority of the New Testament to begin with."

"But he died on the cross for you," was the next line of argument. Rather than get bogged down in the historical accuracy of the statement, I decided to try a different tack.

"So?" I said. "What does that mean?"


"You said that Jesus died on the cross. What does that mean? How did he die for me? Lots of people died on crosses. What makes his death any more special to me than any other?"

"Pray with me..." was the next tack.

Now, I knew the answers to the questions that I asked. I'm actually fairly well versed (for an outsider) in Christian theology. I know the significance (in Christian thought) of the crucifixion, the resurrection, Original Sin, etc. But I find it interesting that my disputant, who was trying to convince me to become a Christian, could not even tell me the very basics of *why* he was a Christian.

"Don't you want to be saved?" he asked me.

"What do I need saving from?"

"From Hell."

"Why do you think I'm going to Hell?" I asked him. "I'm not a wicked person."

"Because you don't believe in Jesus."

"But why would I be going to Hell because I don't believe in Jesus?"

"Because Jesus said so."

"But since I don't hold of the authority of the New Testament, that basically boils back to "because I said so." I replied. "That's not enough. If you want me to believe, you have to give me a reason."

"I believe it," he said. "Isn't that good enough for you?"

"Of course not," I replied with a smile. "I believe Jesus wasn't the messiah. Isn't that good enough for you?"

In the end, he left me alone, he simply could not convince me. No surprise there... I don't think he really had any idea why he was a Christian himself.

Of course, that got me to wondering how many frum Jews know why they are frum Jews. I'm sure that, as a whole, frum Jews are far better educated about their religion than most Christians (especially those who didn't go to a parochial school or religious seminary). And I'm fairly certain that most frum Jews *inwardly* know why they are frum Jews. But how many can express that in words; in clear coherent sentences. I'm not looking for people to bring proofs to the authenticity of Judaism (a la the Kuzari)... just simple statements that explain why they believe what they do.

The kiruv movement has brought this more into the spotlight in recent years. After all, as my disputant showed, you can't convince someone else of something unless you can articulate what it is you're trying to sell. And I don't think that you have to trot out false "proofs" to convince people of the wonderfulness of Judaism. All you have to do is be able to articulate what it is you find special about Judaism; the wonderfulness of the holidays, the meanings behind some of the rituals we observe; the bond that forms in our communities (barring the rotten apples, of course :) ), etc. *That's* the point that needs to be emphasized when speaking to people about Judaism.

The Wolf


Rebeljew said...

In my experience, missionaries do not relent do to a glitch in logic. They are not influenced on a logical basis, so just crossing their circuits never worked for me.

I had a missionary at work (I will not turn him in, though I could) tell me about the Messiah. I asked if he knew what the word meant. He ventured "savior, lord, master, god" and a few others. (Doesn't Google work at your desk, man?) I gave a few examples of stories in the New Testament that are only understood in light of proper translation of Tanach phrases. Again I asked if he understood the LANGUAGE of the Bible? He said no. The history of 1st century Judea? No. The prominant ideas and people of that time? No.
I asked him if a Russian were to tell him that the constitution of the US was referring to communism, would he believe it. Again, no. Suppose he said that it talks about "general welfare, common defense, the people, perfect union" etc. Again no. Now suppose he said that he knew nothing about America, nothing about American history, and had only read the above Preamble, and that, only in translation, written by a communist. I told him, with as much hubris pouring through as I could muster, that he needed to learn a bit more before discussing the subject with me. Though it was entertaining in a sadistic kind of way.

Sometimes, they will reward you with a frustrated, angrily sputtered "I am going to PRAY for you!" It is nice to know that as exasperating as our kiruv clowns are, they sound like brain surgeons next to these "talking points" regurgitation machines.

Anonymous said...

To use a cliche, I think you've hit the nail right on the head. I heard an entire speech from a Rabbi who had been a former missionary, where he unveiled certain tactics he had used and tried to understand. One of the things he felt was most important was that Jews understand their identities as Jews. As he would say, there is a difference between a "belly-button Jew," namely, one who has been born Jewish and had it passed on through the blood-line, and a Jew who is able to identify why he is Jewish. Or perhaps, why he is a practicing or even a non-practicing Jew. Sadly, many times much of the focus turns into a geometrical mathematical proof- GIVEN: One is a Jew, THEN and we have a whole list of responsibilites/ ways of acting necessary.

Those people who can question the GIVENS and come up with their own answers and ideas are those who are really thinking about their religion as a choice- and therefore people who, in my mind, have begun to truly connect to/ with God.

and so it shall be... said...

Wolf, great post. If you could fit your message onto a bumper sticker somehow, I think it would be well worth the effort.

WHY WHY WHY said...

The best way to change a Jew caught up in a missionary is to invite them for Shabbos.Just this year I did exactly that and every week this jews for j guy comes for Shabbos.I also got this Jewish woman who is a buddist to come for Shabbos weekly.Its amazing how they have changed so fast.The J guy was in the movement 4 years and the buddist woman was in it for 10 years.One real Shabbos and they have chucked their foolish beliefs.If I would not of seen it with my own eyes I would never believe it.

Anonymous said...

A lot of Christians are very well-read and knowledgeable about their faith. These are not the ones who go about preaching on street corners. There is no sense trying to engage in a meaningful dialogue with those guys. There can be, however, much gained from exchanges and dialogues between well-meaning, well-educated Christians and Jews.

BrooklynWolf said...

Coco, you're absolutely right. I post on other (non-Jewish) message boards quite often and have found that some of the most knowledgeable Christians are the non-evangelical ones.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...


Understand what you preach!

The Wolf

Miss S. said...

Frum Jews need to be proactive not only on rote "Jewish education" but also in a bit of the "fluffy stuff" as well. I know of two frum women who frequent the local Aish HaTorah center basically in an effort to connect the dots and hear about the spirituality underlying the ritual in Judaism.