Ask the Rabbis // Proselytizing?
Should Jews advocate for their religious choices in conversation with Jews who have chosen differently?
The ancient rabbis made it clear to us long ago that God would much prefer we worship idols than be in conflict with one another (Midrash Bereishit 38:6). We are a people divided deliberately into 12 unique tribes, each with our own flag, stone, direction and totem (Genesis 49, Exodus 28:21, Numbers 2, Deuteronomy 33). Accordingly, it is by honoring one another’s “otherness” that we foster rather than frustrate our sacred interconnection. So, unless the Other kindles the conversation, I say: Don’t ignite it. Leave it alone. Don’t tell him to put on a yarmulke. Don’t tell her she needs to cover her knees. And conversely, if your well-meaning fellow Jew admonishes you to cover your head or recite a version of the Grace After Meals six pages longer than the one you usually recite, ask, “Where, pray tell, is it written?” Our tradition is replete with as many opinions regarding Jewish law and practice as there are Jews on the planet. Don’t preach yours to others unless they inquire, and even then, speak your ways not as mandates but as a sharing of teachings and practices that have inspired you personally. Torah, after all, means “guide,” not “law.” And halacha means “the journey,” not “the rules.”
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
Some say to-mah-to, some say to-may-to. The question is innocuous and inconsequential; one’s fate and destiny do not ride on the outcome. But in the arena of religion, clearly much more is often at stake. If I am convinced that salvation depends on a particular set of beliefs and practices and that one who doesn’t affirm these beliefs is condemned to eternal suffering, then it’s not enough for me to get with the program. I have to make sure you do, too. I can’t just save myself and leave you behind.
Judaism, however, has never taken this view. From the beginning, with the Noahide Laws—seven laws for all humanity, laid down at the end of the biblical story of Noah—we recognized that there had to be a set of rules and imperatives that assured non-Jews an equal opportunity path to a place in the world to come. One might say ironically that this was very generous of us. We were always a tiny minority of the world’s population. We might have been expected to focus, not on tolerating others, but on making sure others tolerated us.
Internally, Jews have never been unified in our requirements for belief and practice. We have had sectarian, denominational and philosophical divisions throughout the centuries. Rather than proclaim one right way, we ought to acknowledge the multiplicity of our ways and the strength of our diversity. As a realist, I do not expect stringently fundamentalist Jews to give me this courtesy, but I will give it to them.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
I unwisely bought a bathrobe online that was listed as “one size fits all.” It didn’t fit me. It was hubris for a clothing company to think it could fit everyone. And if hubris and arrogance are present even in the world of online clothing, they are more than plentiful in the religious and political worlds.
From Moses to the rabbis of the Talmud to the Hasidic rebbes, Jewish authorities have agreed that the most important disposition to cultivate is annivut, humility. There are two mantras I use regularly. The first, from Pirkei Avot, is “Teach yourself to say ‘I don’t know.’” The other I learned from a colleague: “I could be wrong.” When I assert the rightness of my view, my life partner reminds me that I could be wrong, and I respond that I usually am.
Humility is not meekness but, rather, the antidote to arrogance. In conversation, then, I can offer that which is right or satisfying for me without implying it will be best for the other person. For “God’s greatness is made manifest in God’s humility.” (B. Megillah 31a).
Rabbi Victor Gross
Pardes Levavot: A Jewish Renewal Congregation
I believe in religious pluralism, the understanding that there is meaning and truth in a multitude of different religious practices and beliefs. I also believe in the importance of real conversation in which we share what we believe in and what is meaningful to us. Real conversation does not necessarily include advocacy. If we want to influence others on the topic of our religious choices, that is best accomplished through the sharing of our own experiences. If we want others to listen to our experiences, we must be willing to listen to theirs. We must engage in conversations that include asking questions out of genuine curiosity and listening to answers out of genuine respect. Such a conversation means that both sides are open to the possibility of coming away feeling changed.
So rather than advocacy, I would suggest conversations where we ask and where we listen. As the midrash teaches, each individual Israelite at Sinai heard something different, according to his or her own strength and experience. If each of us can hear only a part of the great whole, it’s worth learning what others are hearing. Entering the conversation with the idea of learning, rather than advocating, may lead us to places we hadn’t imagined before.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA
The Talmud records more than 300 differences of opinion between Hillel the Elder and Shammai, first-century BCE rabbis. Hillel was more liberal in his interpretation of Jewish law, whereas Shammai was stricter in his interpretation. In one case of a particularly divisive debate that threatened to tear the community apart, the Talmud records that a bat kol (voice from heaven) came down and declared, “Both these and these are the words of the living God, but the law is in accordance with the rulings of the House of Hillel” (Eruvin 13b). This bat kol reminds us that, even though the law aligned with Hillel, both opinions are valid and divinely inspired. Some say that a time may come in which the laws will shift to Shammai’s positions.
The debates between Hillel and Shammai are preserved and revisited in our tradition of study. Judaism has a deep appreciation for dialogue about differences of opinion. There are many ways to be Jewish today. We should learn about each other’s stance on matters of practice and religious choice; we can develop appreciation for each other’s motivations and perspectives. Yet to demand a level of observance, to pressure another or to judge another’s sincere practice is to deny that “These and these are words of the living God.”
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Of course it is appropriate for Jews to share their religious choices in conversation with other Jews, so long as they are doing so in a respectful manner. I very much appreciate when others share their views with me, because our conversations challenge me to rethink my ideas. Having to articulate my rationale for the religious choices I have made turns out to be very important to my personal religious growth.
The rabbis of the Talmud understood that open yet respectful dialogue was important. This is one of many lessons to be drawn from the Babylonian Talmud’s well-known account in which a heavenly voice intervenes in a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel by asserting, “The utterance of both are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.” The question arises: Since “both are the words of the Living God,” why was the School of Hillel entitled to have the law fixed in agreement with its rulings? We are told it was because the sages of the School of Hillel were kindly and modest; they studied both their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai; and they were even so humble as to mention the opinion of the School of Shammai before their own.
Rabbi Amy W. Katz
Temple Beth El
What kind of question is this? It sounds like some of the great moral breakthroughs of our time—pluralism, respect for the dignity of the other, upholding autonomy and freedom of choice—have been scrambled together and taken to a level of absurdity and beyond. In this vision of political correctness gone wild, saying anything that the other does not want to hear is a sin. If turned into a policy, this concept dumbs down the political conversation to the point of idiocy.
If I have made a meaningful religious choice, why should I not respect others (who have gone a different route) enough to share it with them? Of course, if my words assume that the other’s approach has no intelligent basis or legitimacy, then those words likely will offend. To this the Talmud says: While it is a mitzvah to correct someone, if you say it in a form that will not be heard (e.g., in a way that will turn off the other), it is equally a mitzvah not to say it. However, sharing beliefs and explaining the values and experiences in your religious life, if it is done with a desire to help, is an expression of friendship.
In fact, God is depending on you to speak up. In the words of Isaiah, “You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and [then] I am God” (Isaiah 43:12). Jews have witnessed to the whole world for four millennia and have made a tremendous contribution to humanity. Why not with fellow Jews?
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
It’s not only appropriate, in many cases it’s even commanded. Contrary to what our mothers told us when we were young—that we should mind our own business—the Torah tells us that we are obligated to mind God’s moral business. The Torah in fact commands us, “Thou shalt certainly admonish your friend.” The Talmud offsets this by saying that when you expect an extreme reaction on the part of the recipient, the commandment doesn’t apply. And the phraseology is specific: Admonish your friend. It has to come from a place of friendship. So when the choice or the admonishment can be communicated from a place of love and concern, it should be, even if it makes one or both parties uncomfortable.
The best way, however, is often the indirect way. The Talmud offers the example of two rabbis who were brothers, Reb Susya and Reb Elimelech. When they wanted to rebuke a third party, the two brothers would get into a conversation within earshot of the intended recipient and would act as if one were rebuking the other. “My brother, how could you do that?” We can do something similar: “My brother, can it be true? Did you really vote Libertarian?” That way, the third party would hear the words of concern but would be spared the embarrassment of being rebuked.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA
As a campus rabbi, I frequently converse with others who have made different religious choices from mine. It is not my goal to persuade, but rather to educate. This is an essential Jewish approach.
Education involves providing information and guidance. In this regard, one’s approach matters as much as the content. As it says in the Talmud, “Words that come from the heart enter the heart” (Berachot 6b).
Hillel said, “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to Torah” (Ethics 1:12). Perhaps one way to understand this statement is that bringing them close to Torah is intrinsically connected to loving people.
Indeed, sharing one’s knowledge is a form of kindness. When a person advocates beliefs from a genuinely loving place without arrogance, those words are respected.
We base our life choices, for better or for worse, on the information that we have. Sadly, many Jews are not as Jewishly educated as they could be. I am proud of our heritage, and I relish the opportunity to share what I love about Judaism with others. An educated Jew is an empowered Jew.
Rabbi Shaul Wertheimer
Co-Director, Chabad on Campus