Ethics in Proselytizing - A Jewish Perspective

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 2, Number 2, 1985, pages 351-352

Ethics in Proselytizing - A Jewish Perspective

Ralph D. Mecklenburger

Within the last decade there has been increased discussion in certain segments of the American Jewish community about the desirability of seeking converts to Judaism from among the “unchurched” of our society. That no major efforts in that direction have resulted is not surprising. Jews, resentful of being specifically targeted by some proselytizers, have hesitated to do unto others what we resent being done unto us. The inertia of our tradition is against missionizing, as well. Throughout most of post-biblical history Jews were prevented from proselytizing by religious and secular authorities and by fears of arousing anti-Semitism. Judaism has in the past, and does today, accept converts who are willing to study our ways and pledge their loyalty to Judaism and Jewry. However, our attitude has been, and overwhelmingly remains, that we accept individuals who come to us, but do not actively recruit would-be converts.

If I had my “druthers,” other religious groups would take the same approach, providing religious instruction for those who seek it, rather than aggressively proselytizing. Jews recognize, however, that spreading the “good news” is an essential component of many faith groups. Often this is done for idealistic reasons, and if done in a proper manner need not be unethical. This goes doubly in a pluralistic society where we have reason to be proud of our “free marketplace of ideas.” But free markets need rules to be fair markets. One question I would address, then, is what constitutes ethical proselytizing? I shall attempt to answer that from a Jewish - and I dare say Judeo-Christian—ethical perspective.

Humanity’s moral greatness derives from our God-given free will, our potential to think and do the right (which of course means we also have the capacity to think and do the wrong). God wants us to choose rightly, but the choice is ours. As the Torah puts it, “life and death I place before you, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19.) Based on the premise that God wants us to exercise free will, it is immoral, an offense against God, to undermine a person’s free will. Proselytizing may be ethical in so far as it opens choices to people, provided that they are entirely free to accept or reject what is offered them. Violating this moral principle is the most obvious sin of the cults in their proselytizing. Sleep-deprivation, extreme peer pressure, separating recruits from familiar people and places, and other forms of psychological coercion are designed to undermine individuals’ free will, and are thus immoral.

“Truth is the seal of God.” (Shabbat 55.) This Talmudic statement, felicitously phrased particularly where religious truth-telling is at issue, is grounded in any number of biblical passages. All but self-evident for our secular as well as our religious traditions is the proposition that truth-telling and integrity are moral, lying and deceiving are immoral. Here again the cults are notorious offenders, lying about the nature of the faith and the nature of the life adherents live. The Unification Church goes so far as to speak of “heavenly deception.” Ethical proselytizing requires that people be told the truth up front and then be given full, honest answers to whatever questions they may have as time goes on.

I hasten to add that I am not suggesting that it is immoral to preach a “false religion.” It would be immoral to do so if one knowingly preached falsehood. Yet the definition of “heresy,” as “the other fellow’s religion” should be borne in mind. It is moral to preach a religion with which you or I may disagree. What is immoral is knowingly to lie or distort. Such dishonesty is no less obnoxious when the proselytizer distorts faiths other than his own. Jews, for instance, are annoyed and offended by self-styled “Hebrew Christians,” “Jews for Jesus,” and the like. An individual is free to choose to be a Christian rather than a Jew. If he then says that he has not left the Jewish fold, and uses his former Jewish status to woo Jews, he is distorting both Christianity and Judaism, each of which is a distinct and separate religion.

The two principles I have suggested as the litmus test for ethical proselytizing, respecting free will and telling the truth, are both compromised by what we might simply call false and misleading advertising. So-called psychological cults often promote themselves as philosophies which will help people take control of their own lives, whereas their real intent is to create dependency upon the group. Similarly, I know of young people who have signed up to participate in a ski weekend, and found only after arriving that Christian missionizing was part of the agenda. It is not unethical for a proselytizer to take people on a retreat; it is wrong to do so under false pretenses.

In sum, I do not believe anyone has a monopoly on truth. I do believe that all—even those who drink they have a monopoly on truth! -- have the right to preach their beliefs and accept converts. But it is ethical to do that if, and only if, people have as much right to reject as to accept the message; if, and only if, psychological coercion is not used; if, and only if, the proselytizer is honest about what he is doing, refusing to lie about or distort either his own faith or that of others.

Rabbi Ralph D. Mecklenburger serves the Beth-El Congregation, Fort Worth, Texas.