Monday, July 10, 2006

i don't even believe in jeebus

[DISCLAIMER: The discussion below refers specifically to my personal experience as a Jew in Northern CA. Much of it could apply equally to other religious contexts, and none of it is intended to propose Judaism as singular in possessing the problems discussed -- it's just where I'm at]

So, there's been a lot of hubbub around the Jews For Jesus summer 2006 campaign. It's the culmination of a five-year evangelical effort. (Maybe they got the idea for the timing from UNITE HERE?)

Anyway, to describe my feelings on this issue as conflicted would be really understating the case.

However, as usual I don't have the time to put something coherent together, so I'll just make a few observations and number them, like the order matters.

1) I hate to admit it, but in practice, Jews for Jesus bothers me the exact same amount as the Orthodox hassidim who evangelized on my college campus regularly. At first, when I started contemplating it, I thought -- "No, that can't possibly be true. After all, Jews for Jesus purposely twists Jewish theology and tradition to persuade more people to accept Christ as their savior." But in reflecting on it, the judgements they make about my personal faith were no more presumptious or insulting than those of the Orthodox evangelists. And at least Jews for Jesus did not (in my experience, can't speak for others) approach me because I "look Jewish" and try to sell me a menorah. Whatever. At the heart of this lies the judgement that my faith, whatever it might be, will leave me incomplete if I don't change the nature of my spiritual commitments.

2. Which leads to my next point. Antimissionary groups like the JCRC's Spiritual Deception Prevention Project fret constantly about the irreparable damage done by "Hebrew-Christians" when they distort Jewish theology and appropriate Jewish symbols, tradition, etc. to convert people. I would ask, is it any worse than the damage done by anyone who stands in judgement of another because of their difference in beliefs? Personally, I'm a lot more worried about the behavior of Orthodox (and, for that matter, Conservative) jews towards homosexuality than I am about whether someone thinks Jesus is the Hebrew Messiah and wants me to have a bumper sticker. If you want to talk about damage to the Jewish community, let's take a look at the CJLS Consensus Statement, which expressly welcomes homosexual jews into congregations but refuses to ordain or marry them. It definitely ruins our reputation as an ethical people, if nothing else.

[By the way, I've heard all the rationales behind this, including those about rabbis being models of Jewish law, and about there being 612 other mitzvot to do, so homosexuality is only as bad as driving on Shabbas. Well, it's one thing to have high standards, and another for religious doctrine to welcome someone but expressly forbid them from exalting God through mitvahs & covenants. Go find me a conservative rabbi who won't marry someone because they drive to the synagogue on Saturday]

3. Which brings me to my last point. Nothing about this makes me feel good. My own community will accept and embrace me, even though I don't practice much Judaism, don't believe that many events in the Torah actually took place, and don't subscribe to the Jewish conception of God. However, someone who believes in the Old Testament and views Christ as their personal savior? -- they can't go to day camp at the JCC.

I don't know whether Jews for Jesus represents a legitimate danger or not. I can't speak for the damage they do. They threaten me, and my beliefs, exactly not at all in the slightest. When they appropriate Rosh Hashauna holiday, it just makes me glad that someone's celebrating it. If they think we break Matzah to symbolize how Jesus was broken, well, I grew up in California: on the scale of Pesach re-interpretations, that's pretty tame.

They're engaging Jewish youth with "contemporary music"? They're visiting senior centers and luring in recruits by offering them "meals, companionship, and a sense of being part of a caring community?" They're targeting the most vulnerable by adopting and caring for children with special needs? Those bastards!

That's facetious, obviously, but still. Because Jews are being targeted, some perceive a serious threat of "corruption" -- of the individual, of congregations, and of Judaism as a whole. Provided no assumptions are made about the legitimacy of these folks as people of faith (and that's a big proviso, so watch out already), I can respect that. So, in response, the JCRC does counter-leaflets, and takes out ads, and generally does their thing. But, in the process, they also find it necessary to define the "Jewish Community." Here's where I start to feel that familiar chill of confusion and alienation wash over me.

I've got no doubts about myself. To the extent that I'm a Jew and identify as one (which is, not to trivialize it, about the same extent to which I identify as a Democrat), no amount of consensus statements or rabbinical pronouncements will change that. If I was the only Jew on earth, that'd still be who I am. And if my mother's mother hadn't been Jewish, but I'd been raised the same, I wouldn't give a fuck. What sickens me with (unnecessary) anxiety is the impact of these pronouncements on my family. I'm left with the knowledge that those evangelizing Hassids who came to Yale would never sell my Catholic wife and I a mezuzah for our new home [She, by the way, really wants us to have one, whereas it barely even occured to me because I was worried about us having a working faucet]. I want her to continue her willingness to embrace my faith and expose our child(ren) to those ideals and traditions. I want to raise my kids to be both Jews and critical thinkers -- which means I'll have to hope that they choose either a conservative congregation or a same-sex spouse, but not both. Sucks for them.

To their credit, the JCRC and other critics of Jews for Jesus have, in addition to publicly debunking the "Hebrew-Christians," have also made it a priority to encourage participation in and commitment to Jewish life as an antidote, and to try to remain inclusive while incorporating antimissionary education into various programs. The crappy rhetoric remains, but it seems like a decent compromise given their choices. What bothers me is this: Jews for Jesus prompts people to defend and sanctify these particulars of Jewish life that supposedly determine inclusion in our community. But in the end, if I feel included at all, it's not such a great feeling.

1 comment:

zach said...

take your point about the antimissionary homophobia and hasidic
puritanism. My own objection to the Jews for Jesus arises not from an
anxiety over pollution and corruption of a conservative tradition but
rather a discomfort with/objection to the array of forces underlying
and underwriting the mission, as well as the Jeebus-freaks' own
orthodoxies. It isn't as if, after all, the Jews for Jesus are any
better on queer politics than the Satmar Hasidim. And from what have
seen of the Jews for Jesus's evangelical campaigns both in New York
and New Haven, though this may be more of a comment upon the
neighborhoods I frequent than the offensive as such, they seem to be
directing their energies as much toward secular jews as toward
orthodox religious communities. I suspect the way they got my name
was by poring over a voter registration list and identifying the
phonetically semitic as meriting attention.

I also really like the idea of a Jew for Jesus '04-'06. That's some
crazy imagery.