Why Jews Should Proselytize
If you were to ask me, “What would you do if you had a billion dollars to spend on a Jewish media campaign?” you might guess that I’d spend it on a billion dollars’ worth of advertising for Israel, since advertising to defend the Jewish state is a key priority of my organization.
But that’s not where I would put all the funds.
Instead, I would take out billboards on all the highways in America quoting from Ethics of our Fathers, the Talmud and Jewish wisdom on how to parent effectively, sustain an erotically fulfilling marriage, overcome anxiety and depression, and live a meaning-filled life. In other words, I would leverage universal Jewish values and wisdom to teach Americans how to master their lives. I would make Judaism a light to the nations. I would make the Jewish faith a source of inspiration and life-mastery for all Americans.
Let me explain.
One of the destructive beliefs in the Jewish community—more pronounced now given the rise of antisemitism—is that non-Jews are innately antisemitic. That they hate us deep in their gut. That we can make no positive impact on their lives because they naturally detest us, and we should therefore not even attempt to impart Jewish teachings to the world because the world wants to kill us.
In one of his last public speeches before his passing in 2016, Elie Wiesel, my hero and mentor, quoted the Talmud to me that “it is an undeniable axiom that Esau (the non-Jewish nations) hates Jacob (the Jews).” But Elie Wiesel was also revered in every nation on earth, including those, like France, that are not known for great sympathy for the Jewish people and where Wiesel received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor.
I find it strange that many Jews who reject the idea of systemic racism in America still believe that the world is systemically antisemitic.
I believe the opposite. While many may hate us, the world has generally been electrified by Jewish ideas like monotheism, the Ten Commandments, human dignity, and the Sabbath. It’s just that we Jews have never attempted to impart our teachings directly to the world, preferring insularity instead. This is why people like St. Paul, the foremost disseminator of Christian ideas, stepped into the gap to offer the world a form of “Judaism Light,” which became Christianity. Yes, we Jews are not a proselytizing faith. But that’s because we don’t believe we must “upgrade” our status to Jewish in order to achieve salvation. Rather we believe you’re special just the way you were born.
But what shame we did not convert the world, not to Jewish practice, but to a Jewish belief system—a Jewish values system that was always designed to be universal in nature.
But the good news is that it’s not too late. With the decline of religion in the West and the rise of anxiety, depression and general unhappiness, modern men and women are looking for spiritual fulfillment and purpose. Judaism, with its emphasis on community, family and ethical living is uniquely suited to cater to this deep-seated Western longing.
In light of this, imagine a national media campaign that shares the riches of Jewish wisdom with the masses. We can teach a generation obsessed with popularity on social media that “the more one pursues a name, the more one loses that name,” a fact evidenced by soaring rates of depression among millennials who daily fabricate stories on social media about how wonderful their lives are, even when they feel broken. We can teach sexually-famished marriages how to have greater erotic fulfillment. We can educate teenagers on how to be liberated from narcissism by contributing to a community, something I did with Chabad every Friday as we gave out Sabbath candles to passersby and connected them with tradition through tefillin. And we can teach a culture addicted to electronic devices how to regain their freedom by turning off all this garbage on the Sabbath.
It isn’t only people’s daily lives that will be enriched. By making Judaism a light to America, we will also protect Israel in a manner that is much more effective and long-term than is currently being practiced.
BY MAKING JUDAISM A LIGHT TO AMERICA, WE WILL ALSO PROTECT ISRAEL IN A MANNER THAT IS MUCH MORE EFFECTIVE AND LONG-TERM THAN IS CURRENTLY BEING PRACTICED.
The Talmud says there are two paths in life: the short-longer way, and the long-shorter way. The same is true of Israel defense. An example of the short-longer way is when we react hysterically to every non-violent attack against Israel, like the boycott of Ben & Jerry’s, for instance. The long-shorter way, on the other hand, is when we make Israel an essential light to the entire world, and the world comes to its defense in return.
Notice how revered the Dalai Lama is in the West. And notice that he faces the same odds as Israel. Here is a nation of six million Tibetan Buddhists up against the Chinese nation of 1.4 billion with the second largest economy in the world. Yet the Dalai Lama has strong Western support. Why? Because the West feels he has contributed something indelible to their lives. He has given many in the West a soul after they lost it to mammon. So they fight his battles for him not simply as a mark of gratitude, but because he is essential to their spiritual fulfillment.
Likewise, the world Jewish community in general, and Israel in particular, should become essential to the world by disseminating Jewish teachings about how to gain mastery over life. Israel should not only be talking about its tremendous advances in cybersecurity, but also about how they are the first in the world to offer a third vaccination against COVID-19 because of their tremendous emphasis on the infinite value of life. Jewish values are the reason that Israel is flourishing today, with its focus on the universal Jewish values of education, illumination, robust self-defense, and high birth rate, and respect for the equality and dignity of minorities, all part of the application of the infinite value of every human life.
If we make Judaism, the Jewish people and Israel a light unto the nations, then many in the world who are currently indifferent to our plight will rise to our defense, and not because they pity us because of the Holocaust.
I recognize, of course, that we have to defend ourselves, even as we create more allies who join the battle. This is the one great failing of the Dalai Lama, an otherwise great man. He never understood that one’s defense cannot simply be farmed out to allies. Tibet has largely ceased to exist as a nation, given that it is oppressed by China, even as the Dalai Lama has become a global spiritual beacon.
Israel has chosen to take a different direction, building an army to defend itself against its genocidal enemies. But the heroic IDF is not enough. We need an army of eloquent Jewish spokespeople in the media who not only engage in hasbarah but who also can effectively impart Jewish wisdom to the masses, thereby making our people an essential light to human civilization.
I love Israel with all my heart. But the parts of it that I so cherish, like its humane army, its democracy, and its care for its Arab citizens, are all based on eternal Jewish values that declare that every human being is created in the image of God, and that we must therefore love our neighbor as ourselves.
Right now I don’t have a billion dollars. Who knows maybe one day I might, God willing, and you can all help by buying a billion copies of my books. But rather than spend it, like Jeff Bezos, for an hour in space, I would rather spend it helping to create heaven here on earth.