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Fighting Chutzpah With Chutzpah
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Along with oppressive heat, maddening insects, and sticky shirts, New York summers can be counted on to provide another seasonal annoyance: Jews for Jesus.

The brightly-T-shirted pushers of the group's literature -- which lately seems to consist of cartoonish briefs about Christian salvation -- are stationed at a variety of subway stations, ferry terminals and pedestrian-heavy corners. All smiles and proffered pamphlets, they accost every passer-by. When they see me, with my unfashionable beard and black hat -- a rather obvious Orthodox Jew -- some shrink imperceptibly (fearing, presumably, that I might be rabid and in a biting mood), but most smile even harder and thrust their wares forward with even greater enthusiasm. Even the remote hope of converting so Jewish-looking a Jew must fill their heads with visions of a bright Hereafter.

Sometimes I stop and ask "Are you Jewish?" Most, interestingly, are not. When I get the rare affirmation, I trade my business card for the pamphlet, and offer to speak with the young person by phone at a more convenient time "if you're really interested in understanding Judaism."

Usually they aren't. And on the rare occasion when they actually call, they seem programmed to just mouth lines they've rehearsed. One gets the feeling they aren't listening, or for some reason cannot hear.

That is particularly ironic in light of the group's most recent advertising campaign just across the pond. A billboard ad it is running in Britain features a group of religious Orthodox Jews dressed, as religious Orthodox Jews are wont to dress, in white shirts and dark outergarments. One of the men, however, is wearing a bright red Jews for Jesus T-shirt, while a slogan urges the viewer to "Think for Yourself."

The ad is clever. It plays into preconceptions -- all too common not only in the non-Jewish world but, sadly, the Jewish one as well -- about traditional Judaism being monotonous and unquestioning.

In reality, though, few identifiable religious communities are as vibrant and variegated as the traditional Jews of our day; while Jewish Law binds all its adherents together by the most important thing in their lives -- the Torah -- the Jewish mosaic is comprised of many very different groups, and reflects a broad assortment of approaches and attitudes. Major issues running the gamut from the role of secular education in Jewish life to the place of Zionism in Jewish history -- not to mention a host of more mundane matters -- are perennial subjects of vigorous disagreement among traditionally observant Jews. If there's anything that religious Jews tend to do with a vengeance (so to speak), it's think for themselves.

And they are among the most Jewishly knowledgeable as well, which may well be part of why Jews for Jesus chose to ridicule them. The group, after all, feeds off Jewish ignorance.

The overwhelming majority of missionary-snatched souls belonged to Jews woefully uneducated about their own religious heritage. Many, by their own published accounts, received little or no Jewish education, and even less in the way of Jewish life at home. That is why "Messianic" congregations have such success with Jews from the former Soviet Union, whose upbringings were devoid of true Jewish content. Jews with even a modicum of Jewish knowledge recognize the insinuation that a Jew is "unfulfilled" unless he adds Christianity to his beliefs as absurd.

And so, what better means for missionary Jew-targeters to try to ensure an abundance of ripe marks than to mock those very Jews whose example -- by their dedication to the learning and living of Judaism -- undermines their essential strategy?

So stupid they're not. But the spectacle of a group dedicated to exploiting ignorance, peddling absurdities and portraying knowledgeable, observant Jews as dullards carries the word "chutzpah" to new lows.

It might inspire us all, though, to summon a little chutzpah of our own, and dare to learn something useful from Jews for Jesus' choice. For the group, it is clear, is mocking what it most fears, and we would do well to ponder that well-placed apprehension.

Because the antidote for ignorance is knowledge, and the cure for Jewish malaise is Jewish learning and living. We can argue with missionaries until our faces are blue, and we can protest the misrepresentation of Jewish sources and practices until the (Jewish) Messiah arrives.

But the most efficient and meaningful way to counter those who view Jews as spiritual prey is to foster more of what the soul-hunters most dread, what they know will spell their defeat: Jewish knowledge.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]




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