My mother sent me the following joke the other day:
There was a knock on the door this morning. I opened it to find a young man standing there who said, “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness.” I said, “Come in and sit down. What do you want to talk about?” He said, “Beats the hell out of me; I’ve never made it this far before.”
I’ve heard jokes and stories about door-to-door missionaries for years, some of them real, some apocryphal. A woman I once knew would allow missionaries to come in on one condition: they could talk about their religion for 10 minutes, and she would talk about hers for 10 minutes. A former religion teacher of mine in Catholic school was a former monk, and missionaries used to leave his house utterly disillusioned after a cup of tea and a serious theological dressing-down. My brother once claimed to have opened the door to missionaries wearing nothing but a Frankenstein mask. But my favorite story is of a friend who got a knock at his college dorm room door while he was studying. Did he want to participate in a Bible study in the lounge? Never one to miss an opportunity to learn some Torah, he grabbed his chumash and joined the group. When they began reading from their English translations, he looked up in mock horror. “You study the Bible in ENGLISH?!” And with that, he snapped his book shut and went back to his room and his books.
I sometimes wonder why people are attracted to cults that peddle God as others peddled vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias in the old days. I suppose they start out as lonely people, and the kinds of people who find them sitting alone on park benches or smoking dope in alleys offer them some sense of belonging, of friendship, of security. I have compassion for such people as far as that goes. I have a little less for the kind of people who go to churches where they claim Catholics aren’t Christians, or anyone who doesn’t go to that particular church is going to burn in hell for all eternity.
Over the years, I have found Christianity disturbing on a number of levels, and one is its general departure from the lessons contained in the Hebrew Bible. Once, when I was learning with my rabbi before my conversion, he asked me why the Torah begins with the story of Adam and Eve instead of with the Exodus. It’s a question that has come up periodically throughout my years of hearing sermons. The answer is that the story of the Jews is the story of all people. We are all created in God’s image, and we all share a portion of life on earth, as well as a share in the world to come. God cares about all people, not just the Jews (though the Torah indicates that God has a greater stake in the Jews than in other people, for good and ill). We are not to rejoice at others’ misfortune, either by rejoicing at the drowning of the Egyptians or by keeping plunder upon conquering cities in Canaan (unless expressly told to do so). By the same token, how others treat the Jews is supposed to determine in some part their own fortune.
Perhaps this is why, when I was approached by a couple of starry-eyed evangelical Christian undergraduates in the middle of my conversion (and a dual master’s degree) and invited to a Super Bowl-pizza-Bible study party, my blood pressure rose. What the Bible has to do with American football and pizza utterly escapes me, and when I politely declined, despite promises that it would be “fun,” they asked, “Well, aren’t you a Christian?” I answered, no, as it happens, I am not. And they got that look such Christians always get, like they’re talking to someone who deals drugs, eats cockroaches, or murdered someone (which, as a Jew, they probably thought I had). But didn’t I want to be a Christian? And this is where my patience gets seriously tried, because I can’t help thinking to myself, you’d all be better off spiritually as Jews, and you could enjoy your Super Bowl and kosher pizza without having to canvass weary graduate students to join you. But I don’t say that. I firmly but politely decline, and refrain from telling them that their religion is a lie, a farce, and a bill of goods, and that the path to salvation, redemption, God, and the world to come is a lot simpler for them as non-Jews than they could ever imagine.