If You Want to Proselytize Me, First Try to Understand Me

2021-12-27 – I do not understand proselytizing. But I do understand persuasion.

I have been the target of two distinct efforts at proselytizing recently. Neither of them has been persuasive.

Jews have historically been targets of proselytizing, but we typically don’t do it ourselves. At least not in the last couple of millenia. When I grew up, my Sunday school and Hebrew school teachers viewed proselytizing with disdain. Proselytizing was seen as obnoxious, at best, and dangerous, at worst. We left everyone else alone, and we wished that everyone would leave us alone.

That’s my attitude: Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to others.

This attitude seems to be eroding in parts of the Jewish community. They say that their efforts are not “technically” proselytizing because they are Jews haranguing Jews. In fact, the first thing they ask when they pounce is, “Are you Jewish?” If you say yes, they launch into their spiel for the day. They might want you to put on tefillin (leather amulets worn during prayer) or light some candles or wave a lulav (palm branch used in prayer during the holiday of Sukkot)—something to enable the target to fulfill some mitvah (commandment).

I find this quite annoying.

And to compound the annoyance, this proselytizing is typically done by teenage yeshiva bocherim. Teenage boys are inherently annoying—especially when there’s no teenage girls around to occupy their attentions.

My initial reaction is to proselytize them right back. I would offer to take them to a restaurant where they could experience the joys of a sausage pizza or mu shu pork.

But, of course, I never do this. It’s just an amusing fantasy in my mind. Instead, when they ask me, “Are you Jewish?” I say no.

It takes a Jew to make me deny my Jewishness.

The other proselytizing I’ve encountered recently is from a more “traditional” source: an Evangelical Christian. An acquaintance of mine asked me to read a book that musters the biblical “evidence” for the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. This proselytizing was much more polite, seeing that it didn’t involve teenage boys, but it was more intimidating, in a way: hundreds of pages of “argument.”

There was one similarity, however, between the book and the teenage boys. Neither had any understanding of their target audience. They are both self-absorbed.

For example, the book goes on at length about the reliability of the transmission of holy texts. What we see in our Bibles today is reliably the messages once set down by the apostles, etc., etc.

I actually believe that holy  texts are reliably transmitted through the ages. My senior paper in college was about exactly  that. Early “scientific scholars” of the Bible (particularly in the nineteenth century) attacked the biblical text as “corrupted” by years of poor transmission. I didn’t buy that. I saw the obsessive veneration of these texts in our own day. I couldn’t imaging people at any time being so careless as to allow unfaithful copies to propagate. Furthermore, I knew that texts recovered from ancient digs track pretty well the texts we have today.

But arguments about reliable texts are really beside the point. I don’t believe that the holy texts were (somehow) god’s truth in 70 CE but somehow the corruptions of poor transmission led to an entirely new religion.

No. I believe that the original texts would have been just as unbelievable to me as the current copies of those texts are.

That’s not the only dead-end argument I found in the book. But all the arguments share one thing in common. They totally  misconceive what I would find persuasive. The attack one red herring after another.

But the red-herrings never explained why am a Jewish agnostic rather than an Evangelical Christian. Removing the red-herrings change nothing.

The author of the book may be impressed by what he wrote. People who bought the book to give to their Jewish friends may be impressed by the book. But to me, it’s hundreds of pages of irrelevant argument. It misses the point entirely.

If you want to persuade me, you need to understand me.

Years ago, the forerunners of the yeshiva boys who try to proselytize me today had a different gambit. When I was in law school, their sect (Chabad) offered free meals every Shabbat to anyone who wanted to come.

I am very motivated by free food. And they had me coming back and back and back for almost two years. They understood me.

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