Into that gray area the so-called "Jews for Jesus" group has marched, setting off alarm bells in the Jewish community.
This is a Christian sect that masquerades as a Jewish denomination in order to trick Jews into joining its ranks. Philadelphians will get a close view of them in September when they descend upon the region for a three-week "Behold Your God" campaign. The group's Web site indicates that college campuses, especially those with large Jewish student populations, will be key targets; so, too, will be areas with a large number of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
How should Jews react to this?
Some community leaders believe that the worst mistake we can make is to pay too much attention to these missionaries. Public confrontations would only play into the hands of these publicity-seekers, they reason.
Others believe that "Jews for Jesus" thrives whenever it flies beneath the radar of the media. Its basic - and highly misleading - premise that a person can be Jewish and still accept the Christian messiah succeeds only with Jews who know little about their faith and so accept such distortions without explanation.
There's wisdom in both approaches, but before our community gears up to respond, a few points must be reaffirmed.
First, Christians need to understand that Jewish sensitivities about missionaries are rooted in historical and current demographic realities. In the past, Jews were often subjected to coercive attempts to force them into converting to Christianity. The memory of these sad chapters in our history was solidified by centuries of church teachings that bred contempt for Jews and Judaism. Since the total number of Jews in the world is directly related to past persecutions and the Holocaust, contemporary efforts to further reduce our numbers are properly regarded as offensive.
Second, the campaigns of "Jews for Jesus" to seduce members of the Jewish community into accepting its brand of Christianity are also disrespectful because they specifically target Jews - and do so deceptively. In spite of the fact that sharing their faith with as many people as possible is an essential tenet of Christianity, most American Christians have come to understand that behavior that essentially delegitimizes Judaism smacks of intolerance and even anti-Semitism. That's why the activities of "Jews for Jesus" have been repudiated by most Protestant denominations, as well as by the Catholic Church.
Third, Christian missionaries have every right to seek converts. Freedom means tolerating speech that sometimes doesn't sit well. We may find the activities of "Jews for Jesus" irksome, but there's nothing illegal about it.
Fourth and most important, we need to remember that such missionaries have zero chance of success whenever they come up against Jews who understand their faith and heritage. Why else would they target college students and immigrants from a country where the practice of Judaism subjected the believer to discrimination? If "Jews for Jesus" or any such group wins converts from the ranks of American Jews, it is only because we as a community have often failed to Jewishly educate our children.
We need to worry less about missionaries who want to convert us and more about our failure to raise a generation of educated Jews. If we do raise such Jews, then we'll have nothing to fear from groups that seek to lure our children with false information.