Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Abraham's Kiruv

One of the things I enjoy about our religion is the lack of proselytizing (in most branches/denominations). I'm content in my ability to discuss the pros and cons of world religions and be able to say this, especially in contrast to the role of conversion in some other religions' doctrines. I can talk about Ruth and Naomi, of how we hold this story of conversion up and show how it was Ruth's choice; Naomi did not ask her to convert, or reach out to her to do so (in fact, it's quite the opposite). So I find it hard to remember that once upon a time, Judaism was a new religion, actively seeking new "members." Some of the today's readings dealt with Abraham's recruitment efforts, and they made me feel... uncomfortable.
Our father Abraham would bring people into his home, give them food and drink, befriend them, and thus attract them, and then convert them and bring them under the wings of the Presence. (1:3:15)
As I read this, my first thoughts were of Jesus. He preached that sharing meals with neighbours was a great way to convert people. (Or, at least that's how the Apostles have reported it.) While I wouldn't be surprised if there was a shared tradition between Abraham and Jesus, there's still something that seems sneaky, underhanded about this. But I continued reading.
Abraham used to receive wayfarers. After they had eaten and drunk, he would suggest, "Say grace." When they asked, "What shall we say?" he would reply, "[Say], 'Blessed be the everlasting God of the world, of whose bounty we have partaken.'" If the wayfarer, having eaten and drunk, accepted the suggestion and said grace, he would be allowed to depart. But if he refused, Abraham would say, "Pay what you owe me."
Alert! Alert!
When the wayfarer asked, "How much do I owe you?" Abraham would reply [with the cost of the food and drink]. Who do you suppose is giving you the wine in the wilderness? meat in the wilderness? bread in the wilderness?" The wayfarer, now aware that he must either pay or thank God by saying grace, would say [grace]. (1:3:18)
And now I'm feeling more uncomfortable. I understand Abraham's want to share his faith, his appreciation for God. But giving an ultimatum of "see it my way" or "give me payment" when he had kindly invited these unsuspecting, possibly naively unsuspecting, travelers? Not okay. Do we want people to thank God for all that has been provided? Of course. Do we want it to be forced? Hopefully not. This approach feels like that of Chabad: the need is for Jews to perform the mitzvos (commandments), regardless of the kavanah (intention).

If I were to explain Judaism, God, to non-Jews, I wouldn't approach it this way. I'd make it a conversation, make it sound exciting by explaining what aspects excite me, what aspects I enjoy wrestling with. I wouldn't encourage adapting practices that are vacuous, meaningless, or without accompanying faith or belief.

I don't want to end on a negative note though. So I'll also mention that I was excited by the possibility that this section includes sources for birkas hamazon - the grace after meals.

Maybe this post should have been called "Why feygele isn't working in outreach." Oh, wait...


Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

I can't manage to get bothered by this Midrash, even though I agree with your core principles - that keruv through deception or pressure is 100% undesirable. But, knowing that the Rabbis were more than willing to use various kinds of extremism and hyperbole as a rhetorical device, I see this more as a statement about gratitude than a practical guide to proselytizing.

The core of Abraham's teaching (in general, not just in this case) includes gratitude to God for everything. Not saying grace is equivalent to expecting free food from a stranger on the road - presumptuous, rude and arrogant. Thanking God is like receiving free food on the road - an act about which we should be radically grateful.

Some may read this as apologetics, but I think that taking midrash literally is nearly never a good way to understand what it means!

chillul Who? said...

There's a midrash aggadah in "Moreh Nevuchei Hazman" by Rav Krochmal (early modern era, central europe) that is a coutnerpoint to this one.

Avraham gets angry at an idolator who will not abandon the gods of his ancestors and chases him out of his tent into the wilderness.

God then rebukes Avraham for this, saying something along the lines of "I've tolerated this man's idolatry all his life and dealt with his mercifully -- you can't do the same for one day??"

chillul Who? said...

(apologies for the typoes)

BZ said...

Here's a version of that story by Benjamin Franklin.