February 27, 2020

Shmuley Boteach’s missionary proposal: Good intentions, bad theology

As someone who has repeatedly (and publicly) encouraged Jews to become active missionaries for their faith, I was very pleased to see the headline for Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s recent essay, “Jews Should Seek Converts,” on the Jewish Journal’s website. I immediately clicked on the link, eager to read why one of the most prominent Jews in America sided with me in this debate. You can imagine my disappointment, then, to discover that the good rabbi has actually made two proposals in his essay, both of which are motivated by good intentions but lacking in theological integrity and appeal.

To begin with, Rabbi Boteach cites various reasons, including demographic ones, for wanting to increase the number of Jews in the world. [I too believe that the world would be a better place with more Jews in it, which is why I believe that Jews should actively proselytize.] He then suggests that Jews should consider actively seeking converts to their faith. So far I’m in his amen corner. However, he undercuts his argument by declaring that Jews “don’t believe that by becoming a Jew you come closer to God than you would as a Christian or Muslim.”

First of all, I’m not sure that most Jews believe this. I polled several Jewish friends, and they all disagreed with Rabbi Boteach on this point. If Judaism can’t bring you closer to God than your current faith, then why become a Jew? The only reason to proselytize to non-Jews is if you believe that you have something superior to offer them. Unless you do, they won’t be interested in buying what you’re selling.

The rabbi was kind enough to mention the Mormon missionary effort. Unfortunately, he does not understand why Mormons have grown from a handful of members to 14 million in 184 years. It is not, as he states, that Mormons “field a global missionary force of 60,000 [sic].” Rather, it is the messages that those 86,000 missionaries share with prospective converts that make the difference: We follow God’s religion. We have a superior spiritual product to offer you. You can draw closer to God by adopting our beliefs and practices.

Mormons have enormous respect for members and leaders of other faiths, but we don’t maintain our high growth rate by telling potential converts that what we have to offer in the spiritual department is no better than what they receive from the faith that they are considering leaving.

If in fact modern Jews believe that their religion does not bring people closer to God than other faiths, then this is a radical departure from the religion of the Torah: Ancient Israelites most definitely believed that their faith was superior to those of the nations that surrounded them. If Rabbi Boteach can find examples in the Torah to the contrary, I’d love to see them.

The second major problem that I have with Rabbi Boteach’s proselytizing proposal is his refusal to consider accepting Jewish converts who are not willing to become “fully Jewish” by living an Orthodox Jewish life. I know very committed Jews who may drive on the Sabbath, but who also send their kids to Jewish schools, publicly support Israel, work for Jewish organizations, etc. According to the rabbi’s essay, it would be better for Jews not to admit people like this to the tribe than to have new Jews who do not fully observe halacha. I know for a fact that he is in the minority on this point, barukh hashem, and would urge him to open his mind with regard to halachic worthiness of potential converts who wish to contribute to Jewish life. In a world where Jews who are atheists are considered fully Jewish (though not by me), there is certainly a place in the tribe for folks who want to contribute to synagogues and day schools while enjoying an occasional BLT.

His second proposal, to create a “Jewish confederation of Noachides,” suffers from the same fatal flaw as his first one. Why on earth would people join a confederation sponsored by a faith that doesn’t claim spiritual superiority? My guess is that most of them would prefer to be first-class Presbyterians than second-class Jews (the rabbi claims that this confederation would include people who are “reluctant to embrace Judaism’s exacting standards of ritual observance.”) I’m glad that Oxford students flocked to his L’Chaim Society, including some Mormons, but in the real world I’m not sure that this confederation arrangement would be terribly appealing to non-Jews.

I applaud Rabbi Boteach’s efforts to get Jews to become less insular when it comes to interfaith outreach, but he still needs to answer this question: How can Jews be the light unto the nations if they don’t claim to have a brighter bulb?