Yesterday on my lunch hour, I was sitting outside the library, eating lunch and enjoying a rare day of warm weather, when I was approached by two young men in Orthodox Jewish garb.
“Hello, are you Jewish?” one of them greeted me.
“No,” I said, as cheerfully as possible. “I’m an atheist.”
Give them credit for one thing: they didn’t flinch. “You can be Jewish and an atheist,” he insisted, still smiling. “Judaism has nothing to do with what you believe.”
Now, I acknowledge there’s a certain sense in which this claim could be true. But it clearly wasn’t the same sense being used by these two young men standing before me in Orthodox black garb, yarmulkes and peyot. If it was only the ethnic definition of Judaism they were interested in, it wouldn’t be necessary to get people to do anything, and these two clearly had something more in mind. I could see the bait-and-switch coming a mile off, and I tried to forestall it. “I think Judaism has more to do with which ideas you accept,” I demurred.
But the proselytizers clearly had a script they were determined to stick to. “What about your parents?” they asked. “Were they Jewish?” They asked a few questions about my family, until it emerged that my maternal grandmother was Jewish. (This is technically true, but only in the loosest sense: as I’ve written before, she was an entirely secular person. The extent of her Judaism was that she gave her grandchildren presents on Hanukkah.)
Naturally, the two proselytizers were very excited to discover this. “You’re 100% Jewish!” they announced.
If this was supposed to produce a moment of epiphany in me (like in the Jack Chick comics where the protagonist announces, “But why didn’t anyone ever tell me about Jesus?”), it didn’t work. Actually, I found it presumptuous and arrogant: What gives you the right to just dismiss all the rest of my family’s ancestry and culture? How dare you think you can define who and what I am without my participation?
I didn’t have time to say that, though, because they were pressing on to the next part of their script. “We’re trying to get all Jews to put on tefillin,” he said. “Would you like to wear them?”
I gave them a very flat look. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Can I give you this pamphlet then?” he asked, pushing some literature into my hands. I glanced down at it, and as I expected, it was a newsletter published by the Chabad Lubavitch sect, extolling the limitless virtues of their deceased rabbi.I probably didn’t succeed at holding back a smirk. “Isn’t this the guy you believe is the messiah?”
The two Lubavitchers suddenly looked very uncomfortable. For them, this was probably like a Scientologist being asked about Xenu. “Well, not exactly,” the spokesman admitted. “There are some people who believe that, yes, but I’m not really… I don’t know if…”
“I believe it!” the other one piped up, interrupting him. I guessed this was a matter of some awkwardness between them.
“And the fact that he’s dead doesn’t convince you otherwise?”
“No,” the first one said, shaking his head. “It doesn’t.” Clearly, he had dropped any pretense that he wasn’t also a messianic believer. They’re probably told not to talk about this in public, but as I already knew, I assumed he saw no further point in trying to deceive me.
Since I wasn’t going to convert to Orthodox Judaism on the spot, they sensed the conversation had run its course, and after shaking my hand, they walked away. In retrospect, I should have talked to them for longer. I was curious, for example, why they had been so eager for me to wear their ritual clothing, even knowing I didn’t believe any of it. Was this some kind of Pascal’s Wager, where they assumed faith would eventually follow practice? Or – more likely – did they believe that their deceased rabbi will only return once all the Jewish people in the world are obeying their commandments? If the latter, it would have been a treat to see how they’d have explained that to me.
But what I really should have done a better job nailing them on was the bait-and-switch underlying their whole strategy. They insisted that being Jewish was an ethnic identity and not a matter of belief, but at the same time, they were trying to convince people who were “Jewish” (by their tendentious definition) to adopt a whole array of practices derived solely from religious belief. It’s the same kind of false equivalence used by all proselytizers everywhere, such as those who ask you if you want to be a good person and then define “good person” as one who worships their god in the prescribed manner. The next time I run into some of these people (and I’m sure I will – they’re all over Manhattan), they’re not going to get off so lightly.