When I began hosting "Shalom in the Home" in the United States, I did not intend the show as a promotion for Judaism. To be sure, viewers are well aware that the show is hosted by a bearded rabbi with his tzitzit flying who bases the advice he gives for marriage and child-rearing on ancient Jewish wisdom. Still, the show’s purpose was simply to heal broken families.
I am therefore taken aback, as I travel around the United States for lectures and book promotion, to discover large numbers of non-Jews, especially young men and women, who have told me that watching "Shalom in the Home" has made them decide to become Jewish. Last week alone men and women from as far afield as Louisville, KY, and Edmonton, Alberta, told me just that. And the number of e-mails flooding in from viewers asking me how they might become Jewish keeps rising.
Judaism is virtually alone among the religions of the world in not proselytizing. We even go so far as to actively discourage non-Jews from joining our faith. We do not believe that one must be Jewish to come close to God, to be saved, or to lead a spiritually fulfilling life. Less so do we believe that we are the only true religion, given that any religion that leads to a God-centered, moral life is blessed with truth.
And yet, I cannot honestly say that hearing that the show has inspired a great many to seek adoption of the Jewish faith is entirely unwelcome. There are far too few Jews in the world, and relying solely on the declining Jewish birth rate, that is not going to change that any time soon. While Judaism does not believe itself to be better than any other religion, it also does not believe that it is less than any other religion. And there are a great many to whom the Jewish emphasis on using faith to master practical living appeals.
For most of modern times Judaism has shunned converts because a great many people who have wanted to convert to Judaism over the past few decades have been inspired to do so for reasons of marriage, and have thus made their conversions suspect. Adopting a faith and becoming part of a people is a choice as personal as marriage, and in the same way no one wants someone to marry him or her for the wrong reasons, a religion should similarly not be adopted for ulterior motives. A faith has a right to demand a serious commitment from prospective converts, and that means backing up a religious identity with passionate ritual observance.
But I believe that the world Jewish community must change its skepticism toward conversion and now openly seek to spread the light of Judaism to gentiles. Synagogues should offer a weekly class that is advertised as a taste of Judaism for non-Jews. These classes should focus on the richness of a Jewish life, from the sublime rest of the Sabbath, to the humanity behind the kosher laws, to Jewish advice for a passionate and intimate marriage. Whether or not non-Jews decide to actively embrace the faith is entirely up to them. Even if they do not, they can still extract elements of the religion that they find healing and uplifting. After all, you don’t have to be Jewish to agree that a monthly period of sexual separation is an erotic barrier that enhances romantic desire. Less do you have to be Jewish to turn the TV off for a ‘4-hour period every Friday night and Saturday and really communicate with your kids.
An opening to non-Jews would fulfill, in the most straightforward sense, the biblical mandate to be a light unto the nations.
For too long Jews have wrongly believed that the radiance of Judaism was only for Jews. The result is that we have allowed the world to believe that our religion is dark.
Recently the news broke that Pope Benedict XVI is considering reviving the Latin mass, with its Good Friday liturgy containing a prayer "For the conversion of the Jews," which reads, "Let us pray also for the Jews, that the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they also may acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ." The prayer goes on to refer to the Jews’ "blindness" and prays for them to be "delivered from their darkness."
Thousands of years of spiritual racism has been brutally practiced against the Jews. Just as Africans were identified as sub-humans for the darker color of their skin, the Jews were identified as sub-spirituals for the darkness of their faith. They were the spiritual inferiors of Christians and could be subjugated to oppression and servitude as a result.
The allegation of "Jewish blindness" bespeaks a belief in an innate Jewish spiritual defectiveness that can only be cured by Jews’ shedding the blinders of their faith and removing it to allow in the majestic Christian light. Now such words are, of course, more racist and offensive than even Don Imus’s revolting description of African-American female athletes, seeing that his repulsive remarks pertained only to their body while the words of this prayer addresses the rancid nature of the sightless Jewish soul. And it behooves our Catholic brothers and sisters to retire, rather than revive, such odious prayers. But it equally behooves the Jewish community to retire such sentiments by actively demonstrating to the world the brilliance and luminescence of Judaism by opening the faith to a broken world that is desperately in need of healing.
As Hillel once said, "If not now, when? And if not us, then who?