If I think a movie you plan to see is lousy and I attempt to spare you a couple of hours of boredom by talking you into a better flick, that is generally considered a friendly gesture. But if I think your spiritual beliefs are in error and I attempt to spare you an eternity of hellfire by converting you to a different set of beliefs, that is widely considered a terrible insult. The Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations denounce any efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. Mainstream Christian organizations avoid conversion campaigns and declare they are pleased for Jews to remain Jews. When the Southern Baptist Convention issued a prayer for conversion of Jews a couple of years ago, the A.D.L. called it "an act of theological arrogance," among other names.
Last week a new theme park opened in Orlando, Fla., called the Holy Land Experience. The founder, Marvin Rosenthal, says he is a "Hebrew Christian." This is apparently another oxymoronic have-your-bagel-and-eat-it-too sect, like Jews for Jesus. A fuss is bubbling over accusations that Rosenthal's park has a hidden agenda of converting Jews to Christianity. The critics' idea seems to be that Jews will be attracted by Old Testament aspects of the Holy Land Experience and then will get seduced by New Testament aspects. This seems to be Rosenthal's idea too, though he denies it. Holy bait-and-switch, Batman!
Rosenthal's marketing strategy does not inspire confidence. It is a comic-book variation on the classic conversion strategy used by proselytizers of all sorts, from cults like the Moonies to communists in their heyday to sects within Judaism that recruit among Jewish tourists in Israel. You befriend your targets when their guard is down, disguising your true intent; then you gradually draw them over to your side.
Rosenthal may be foolish, but what is he doing that is so terrible? You may not agree that your soul needs saving, but why is he wrong to try as long as he isn't prying away your soul against your will?
As an ethnically Jewish nonbeliever, I find this fuss over conversion utterly baffling. Jewish leaders complain that conversion attempts imply that Judaism is an inferior religion. This seems unavoidably true. Any attempt to convert implies that the faith on offer is superior. "Theological arrogance" isn't a bad description.
But if theological arrogance is insulting to rival theologies, the insult is inherent in religion itself, isn't it? Unlike Christianity, Judaism does not claim to be a universal faith and does not seek converts. It doesn't believe that non-Jews are damned. But even Judaism considers itself to be right and Christianity to be wrong about some pretty basic issues. All religions claim to have answers to life's most central questions. Any one of them may be right, but all of them can't be right. And each one's claim to be right necessarily implies that others are wrong.