One Solution: A Pluralistic Outreach-Inreach Program

The author proposes that only an active program that combines inreach to "faithless" Jews and outreach to unchurched spiritual seekers can revitalize the Jewish community.

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Speaking of Maimonides I turn to the magnificent answer he offered Obadiab, a convert to Judaism who asked Maimonides whether he, a Jew-by-choice, could recite the prayer "Our God and God of our fathers." Someone had told Obadiah that because his ancestors were not Jews he dare not recite that prayer. In Maimonides' response he writes, "By all means you should pray 'Our God and God of our fathers' for in no respect is there a difference between us and you. Do not think little of your origin. If we trace our descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, your descent is from Him by whose word the world was created."

Thinking back to my conversation with Kathy, I realized that these non-Jews who came to the lectures had not come to my office brought by a Jewish partner seeking my ceremonial imprimatur. Most of the non-Jews during these two years were not interested in matrimony. They were spiritual seekers; that realization enabled me to address them differently. Importantly, I never thought of them as making up for our terrible Holocaust losses or as surrogates for our lagging demographic statistics. I never spoke to them about their conversion for the sake of appeasing Jeff's parents. They are not to be used as means for our ends.

Either/Or

The Kathys in our midst have to contend with Jeffs who wonder why she spends so much time and energy on him, why in the world she would choose to be Jewish? In that incredulity lies one of the primary sources of our dissolution--the vacuity of Jeff's Jewishness. In truth, Jeff is unaware of the superordinate system of values and wisdom and spiritual depth in Judaism, not only wonders what it is that possesses Kathy to become Jewish, he wonders what possesses his parents to insist on a Jewish wedding. Both Kathy and Jeff must be encouraged to become Jews-by-choice. The outreach program is as much for the native born as it is for the searching stranger.

Either educate "them" or "us" is a perverse disjunction. If Judaism is understood as a faith and culture that has something of supreme value to offer the world, then outreach is very much part and parcel of Jewish teleology. Not either/or but both/and. The reluctance to share our wisdom with the spiritual seekers is less a sign of particularistic fidelity than a trivialization of Judaism. If we have nothing to say to the other who seeks, we have nothing to say to ourselves or our own. The seekers ask us hard questions. "Tell us why Judaism is so important? Tell us how it can enrich our lives and the life of the universe?" As much as they would know "how" and "when," they ask "What for?" That root question we must answer not only for them but for ourselves and our children, for all who choose to be Jews.

The Talmud observes that the precept to understand and to love the stranger in our midst, which the rabbinic tradition takes to mean the proselyte, appears 36 times in the Torah. The stranger in our midst is our self, our very selves. Proactive conversion must be placed high on the Jewish agenda of the next century. In the words of Gary Tobin, "Proactive conversion can revitalize the Jewish community."

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Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Harold Schulweis is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He is the founder of Jewish Foundation for Rescuers and the author of For Those Who Can't Believe.