Interesting Times: Let The Pope Be Pope

On Easter this week, controversy has swirled around Pope Benedict XVI, both for personally baptizing a prominent Muslim Italian journalist and for allowing the revived Latin mass to hope that Jews convert.

Aside from Osama bin Laden’s ravings about a “new Crusade,” Muslims have attacked the Pope for his “provocative” act. Similarly, regarding the Latin mass, German Jewish leader Charlotte Knobloch said “I would have assumed that this German pope, of all people, had got to know first-hand the ostracizing of Jewry. … I could not have imagined that [he] could now impose such phrases upon his Church.”

At some level, I understand such reactions. Jews have seen throughout history where Christian denials of Jewish legitimacy have led. And it could well seem foolish to fuel Muslim-Christian rivalry at a time when a virulent Islamic strain has declared war on other religions.

But I still understand the Pope more than I do his critics. The Pope wants Muslims and Jews to become Christians. Should this be a surprise? If the Pope won’t advocate Christianity, who will?
To be Christian, Muslim or Jewish should mean believing that one’s faith and creed is superior to others. Otherwise, being an adherent is not really a matter of belief, but of inertia – a statement that other faiths might be better but it is not worth the effort to explore or switch.

To be fair, I did not come to Judaism through a systematic religious survey. I can hardly be sure that if I had not been born Jewish, I would have been so attracted by Judaism as to convert.
But it is normal and desirable for adherents of whatever religion to believe that their creed is not only best for them, but could be best for others. Healthy competition does not lead inexorably to holy war.

OBVIOUSLY, the key dividing line is the use of force or intimidation. It is one thing to recognize that not everyone is born into the religion that is right for them, quite another to compel people to leave a religion that they, given free choice, would continue to practice.

Of the three Abrahamic religions, Christianity is currently the closest to striking the right “outreach” balance. Muslims have been threatened with death for converting, and a prominent strain of Islam is attempting to spread itself by force, including terrorism.

Judaism has gone to the other extreme. Many Jews seem to believe, and are even proud of, the historically mistaken notion that Judaism resists converts. Yet this resistance only became dominant about 130 years ago, as part of a trend within Orthodoxy to “stricter” practice as a reaction to the Reform movement and the modern era.

This was not always so, far from it. The book of Matthew records a Christian accusation that Jews will “travel over sea and land to make a single convert.” Even during centuries of persecution and exile, when conversion could mean a death sentence, Jews continued to seek and welcome converts. When rabbinic opinion began to turn against seeking converts, it was mainly on the grounds of the dangers of doing so, not a rejection of the welcoming Jewish ideal.

What is true is that the Jewish model of affecting the world is fundamentally different than that of Christianity and Islam. While the latter see becoming a universal religion as the ideal, and see numerical growth as an important measure of achieving God’s will, Judaism has a more particularist route to a universalistic end.

Judging by the Bible, the Jewish people is God’s fallback after multiple attempts at pure universalism (Garden of Eden, Noah after the flood) fell through. The Jewish model is not that all people become Jews, but that Jews set an example as a people for other peoples to follow.

This model has actually worked well, in that Judaism has, through Christianity and Islam, brought about the triumph of monotheism over paganism. In addition, the Jewish idea that God cares about ethics and improving the world has become the foundation of the Western notion of progress, and thus of the modern world.

But it does not follow, just because Jews don’t believe that everyone needs to be Jewish, that the size and trajectory are irrelevant to the Jewish purpose. As a tiny people, Jews, even more than Christians and Muslims, need to be growing in numbers.

As much as Jews are fond of making lemonade from lemons, there is no doubt that if the Jewish people were growing at a modest but steady clip, this would be a source of pride and confidence. Indeed, the last time that Jewish population grew substantially due to attracting non-Jews, not just natural growth, was the time of Ancient Israel, when Judaism was accomplishing its purpose of offering an alternative way of thinking and life that changed the world.

Back then, the Jews grew about 16-fold over 250 years (to one-eighth of the population of the Roman Empire, according to Salo Baron), which implies a growth rate of about 1 percent per year.

LET’S SAY that Jews are less ambitious now and seek to grow at a rate of half a percent each year. Even this would have a significant impact because, at a time when almost all Jews are effectively “Jews by choice,” the challenge of attracting your own melds with that of attracting others.

The great sociologist Peter Berger, who though not Jewish wrote a 1979 article in Commentary endorsing Reform leader Alexander Schindler’s call to reach out to the “unchurched,” goes even further.

Seeking converts “is now no longer an expression of institutional strategy, let alone of religious arrogance or aggression. On a more basic level, it is an imperative.

“Whether the engagement with the outsider actually leads to conversions … is not essential. Rather, what is essential is that every committed individual, and every community of such individuals, engage with all the significant alternatives.”

Berger’s conclusion for all religions is that “you will not be able to keep your own unless you are prepared to persuade others.”

Jews should welcome a level religious playing field with Christianity and Islam, in which each seeks to peacefully attract disaffected members of the other faiths. If each faith manages to persuade one in 100 adherents from other religions to join them, this would mean a substantial net influx for the Jewish people.

But as Berger points out, even more significant than the numbers is the willingness and ability to persuade.

The fact that Jews have lost the desire to welcome newcomers is the most telling evidence that we have lost our sense of purpose as a people. When we rediscover our purpose of affecting the world directly and by example – as individuals, families, and as a people – we will start attracting ourselves and others, and transform the current vicious cycle of decline into a virtuous cycle of growth.

This column will appear monthly for the next year, while the writer completes a book.

[email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel’s Struggle & the World After 9/11