One of the other many things I adore about Judaism is that we aren't sent off in search of people to convert or even at the very least, sent out to spread the merits of Judaism. Jews don't, as a group, proselytize (There may be some groups of Jews who do, I haven't been approached by them, haven't heard of them, haven't seen them, so I'm not sure if they do or don't exist so I don't want to generalize, but I know that in my studies up until this point I have not learned of a tenet that tells me I need to tell others about Judaism and why they should be Jewish). I know Jews certainly used to try to encourage gentiles to become Jews...but this was almost 2,000 years ago and despite its success, the aggressive practice stopped.
I have a few theories about why we don't shout out "Be Jewish!" from the rooftops...but I'm not sure any of them have any validity and I'd like to do some more research before I go into this any deeper. Instead, let me explain what I consider to be the difference between outreach and outright proselytizing.
Outreach: education (particularly where it applies to interfaith marriages), learning opportunities for those interested in converting. Teaching, not tempting, sharing, not scaring. All of this done in a very relaxed manner...if you want to sign up, great! If not, now you know why! And if you decide to sign up...be prepared, it ain't going to be easy! For those Sex and the City fans who watched Charlotte get turned away by the Rabbi three times who wonder if that method is still in practice, let me tell you, that to an extent, it is. While I wasn't exactly turned away by my beloved Rabbi, it certainly wasn't easy to pin him down initially to talk to me about conversion. Fielding excuses like it's time consuming, hard to manage too many students, etc., I KNEW he was the man for the job so I wouldn't listen. He finally agreed and I began to show up at his office, dutifully and eagerly, every other week for more than a year. We were scheduled to meet for one hour, but I don't think our conversations ever wrapped up earlier than two hours after they'd started.
Now proselytizing...that seems a little more aggressive to me. More like sending the message "THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD BE, WHAT YOU ARE DOING STINKS, WHAT I AM DOING IS BETTER AND HERE'S WHY!". Now, I will relent that there are some that this message should be offered to...but I won't be the one to do it. Way too personal and in your face for me. Now I'm a personal and in your face sort of gal, but not when it comes to matters of the heart (at least that's what I like to believe about myself!). I also happen to believe that proselytizing is lost on those who love their faith. Faith is something that is hard to change. You've got to have some pretty decent sized doubts to begin with if you set about on a journey to find a new faith. I don't think you simply wake up one day, answer the door to someone who has come knocking, and say "Gee, I've been living wrong this whole time!". And if/when you change your faith, I think for the most part, you've already identified the parts and pieces that don't jive in your former faith, so the decision on what path to take in terms of the new faith to follow, is for the most part pretty obvious. At that point, you just need the courage to follow it.
I also happen to believe that faith and religion, though typically practiced within a group setting, are deeply, deeply personal. I don't feel comfortable telling someone that my heart is right and theirs is wrong. Sort of like telling your best friend that her husband sucks and you'd be happy to introduce to her a new man...yeah...that wouldn't go well. How awkward.
BUT, all that being said...I LOVE to learn about faith. My own faith, my friends' faith, anything to do with religion is utterly fascinating to me. I think if you can come from a place of deep respect then there is much to be learned from someone who follows a different path of faith than you do. And I've even put my money where my mouth is. I have signed up for a bible study with a few girlfriends who belong to the Methodist church. I will admit that it isn't exactly what I'd anticipated (and believe me, I looked at this from ALL angles) but I think that my mind is still open to it and I firmly believe that any type of learning is well worth the effort. For me, coming at the Bible from a TOTALLY different perspective has been eye opening to say the least! Does that mean there aren't parts of what I'm reading or hearing that make me squirm...uh, no. And in a lot of ways, it solidifies to me that I really did make the right decision in becoming a Jew. But I also am committed to maintaining an open mind. And I should state here that I think there is a difference between having a mind that is open and having a mind that is willing to be CHANGED...my beliefs are firm and steadfast and are not up for debate in terms of whether they are wrong or right, so there will be no changed minds, but there will also be no closed minds either. My mind is open in a way that will allow me to learn the way my friends learn even if the entire message won't stick. I like the idea of understanding what they believe by learning it the way they learn it for myself, rather than relying on assumptions, hunches or hearsay. I like sitting in the same room with them, hearing the same words but being comfortable enough to hear (and discuss) a different message. I also like being able to draw the similarities among what we all believe - and there are more than just a few!
I am looking forward to sharing more of what I learn from this study with you as it continues. We had our first class last week and I will post about that a bit later...I sort of wanted to keep these posts separate (though wasn't entirely successful). I didn't want to talk about proselytizing and my class in the same breath, because I don't think there is neccessarily any correlation between the two, other than that I was trying to make sure that I made the message clear that I am more than happy to listen when anyone discusses their faith (as long as it is done with respect of course!).