I’m no theological expert on Christians who want to convert Jews, but after a little evening stroll last week in Boulder, Colo., I’m starting to understand what motivates Kool Aid-drinking missionaries — and why they can get so annoying. It all started with beautiful music on a funky promenade in downtown Boulder. I was walking with my kids and other family members, when, on a quiet evening under a light drizzling rain, we heard what sounded like a drum circle.
This was the only “action” on the promenade that night, so we naturally gravitated toward it. The music was like a burst of joy on a gloomy night. There were percussions, guitars and lots of chanting, and a small group of friendly looking people milling around the musicians.
The same friendly looking people who ended up giving me the creeps.
One of them, a gentle chap named Luke, initiated a conversation with me and my 9-year-old boy, who happened to be standing next to me.
The first few minutes were all small talk: “We’re from Los Angeles, how about you? Oh, Indiana, did you live near French Lick, where Larry Bird is from? No kidding, did you play basketball? My son loves basketball … ” and so on.
It was clear where the conversation was headed when Luke, speaking over melodic chants that included words like “Lord” and “heaven,” asked if I had any “spiritual leanings.”
It was as if 20 years of hearing about Christian missionaries flashed through my mind in two seconds. Twenty years of meetings with people like Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, head of the L.A.-based anti-missionary group Jews for Judaism, who has badgered me endlessly about the deceptive tactics and enormous resources of missionary groups out to seduce vulnerable Jews.
I believed Rabbi Kravitz all these years, but still, they were only words. Here on this night in Boulder, it was the real thing. A live missionary right in front of my eyes, and a pointed question about my spiritual leanings.
“I’m Jewish,” I said to Luke, looking straight into his eyes. “Very Jewish.”
I knew his agenda, but I was in a mood to take him on. I’m not sure why; maybe I was fascinated by the whole scene, or maybe I just didn’t feel like splitting like a coward.
When Luke saw how strongly I felt about my faith, he quoted King Solomon to make a point that humans can never have the real answers; that we needed a “higher human” to guide us (a higher human like Jesus, I presumed). Instead of defending King Solomon and arguing over interpretation, I told him that just because King Solomon says something doesn’t mean I can’t challenge it, which got quite a reaction from him.
“But it’s in your Bible,” he said.
Yes, but there are plenty of things in my Bible, I told him, that we challenge — like, for example, stoning a boy to death who desecrates the Sabbath. Our talmudic sages spent many centuries reinterpreting and debating the many aspects of our covenant with God, a process that Jews continue to this day.
In other words, we Jews are never done. We’re always struggling with God.
I could see that I was starting to unsettle him. The idea of struggling and arguing with a perfect and infinite Lord seemed foreign to him. But maybe he was so grateful that I was engaging and not ignoring him that he bravely soldiered on to try to find a crack in my smug Judaic armor.
He brought up the notion of grace. Humans are more likely to do good deeds, he said, when they know they will have grace and forgiveness for their sins.
I told him I didn’t connect with that idea. It was too schmaltzy for me; too easy. It didn’t feel Jewish. The Jewish tradition is more complicated, more demanding, more layered. It thrives on the details, the subtleties and the nuts and bolt of life. We can be anal, compassionate, intellectual, mystical, skeptical and obnoxious, all at the same time.
Christians save, I told him. We argue. We argue with God. We argue with “higher humans.” We argue with ourselves. This keeps us very busy; too busy, perhaps, to seek out converts in small-town promenades.
By now, I was on a roll and almost enjoying myself. We don’t believe there’s just one path to God, I continued. I respect yours, even though it’s not for me. Why do you feel that I must believe in your path to be spiritually whole?
“Because I love you,” he said quietly, which is right about when I started getting the creeps.
“If you thought you had something beautiful and valuable,” he added, “wouldn’t you want to share it with others?”
Sure, I said, if it was the cure for cancer. But with religion, I like the idea that we all play different instruments. Even though I love my path to God, why should I assume that because it works for me, it should also work for you, especially if you’re already on your own path?
On and on we went, two people politely engaging each other, but with a radically different approach to showing love. For Luke, showing love meant “giving” you the gift of his way. For me, it meant leaving you alone to follow your own way, so that we might both chill and enjoy the music.
So while, to be sure, most Christians are not missionaries out to convert Jews, it was still enlightening to see this worldwide phenomenon up close.
And it got really close when my 11-year-old daughter came by and asked me for some money, so she could give it to the musicians.
“It’s OK,” Luke told her. “We don’t want your money.”
No, indeed, they don’t want your money, I thought to myself. They want something more valuable.
They want your soul — because they love you.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.