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The Southern Baptists aren't out of line

When the Southern Baptists announced they wanted to convert the Jews, all hell broke loose. Singling out the Jews smacked of anti-Semitism, some said. Religions shouldn't proselytize anyhow, others maintained. Above all, many rejected as unseemly any confrontation between religions, religious debate being found disruptive and offensive. Southern Baptists have no business denigrating Judaism.

But people who take their religion seriously do make judgments about other religions, and these judgments involve rejection of error and confession of truth _ that is what religious conviction is all about. Good relationships between religions ought not suppress open debate about religious truth and error. If Jews who practice Judaism believed Jesus Christ were the way to God, they would accept him; so practicing Judaism represents a rejection of that and all other religions. If Southern Baptists conceded that Jesus Christ saves everyone but the Jews, they would, by their own lights, count themselves anti-Semites. No one should take offense when people affirm their religions _ including their difference from, their rejection of, all other religions. Monotheism allows no alternative.

Not only so, but rejecting Judaism and converting the Jews represent the very foundation of Christianity. The apostle Paul said so in so many words, "If righteousness comes through the Torah, then Christ died for nothing" (Galatians 2:21). As University of Rochester religious studies professor William Scott Green writes, "Christianity began as a kind of Judaism. The conflict between what became two religions began as a quarrel within Israel . . . a family feud about God's will for Israel and about the definition of Israel itself."

To object to the Southern Baptists' initiative is to reject the Christianity of nearly 20 centuries. Anti-Judaism is what makes Christianity Christian. Not only so, but the persistence of Judaism _ and that means the vitality of the religious practice of Jews _ calls into question the integrity, indeed the point, of Christianity. Gavin Langmuir states, "The continued existence of Judaism after Jesus was the physical embodiment of doubt about the validity of Christianity. Unlike pagan anti-Judaism, Christian anti-Judaism was a central and essential element of the Christian system of beliefs." That is why Christianity must form a theological opinion about Judaism, and that that opinion must be wrong. Again Green: " Christianity's need to define itself over and against Judaism is theologically self-generating."

Why do the Jews who practice Judaism object so strongly to the decision of the Southern Baptists?

The same centuries-old convictions that account for the Baptists' recent decision explain, also, the response of Jews who practice Judaism. For while Christianity emerges as not-Judaism, Judaism does not define itself as not-Christianity. Christians face in Judaism competition about the true meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures ("Old Testament") and in Jews' persistence in Judaism an explicit rejection of Christ. And they are right. But Jews for their part have had to react to Christianity only because they have had to, because Christianity ran the world in which they made their lives. No theological conviction of Judaism requires Judaism to pay special attention to Christianity.

Judaism objects to being singled out by Christianity because Judaism deems all religions equally true or false by the unique criterion of the Torah of Sinai. In Christianity, with its affirmation of the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, Judaism finds much that is right _ though, to be sure, by reason of Christian reading of those Scriptures as "the Old Testament," Judaism must discern also everything that is wrong as well. But if others choose to provoke religious debate, Judaism has ample resources, considerable experience and a powerful case to make in its own behalf.

Does that mean the Southern Baptists are wrong to precipitate a religious debate? Not in my view.

On the contrary, the Baptists serve contemporary religious dialogue by setting forth their claim to exclusive possession of the way, the truth and the life. They thereby force Christians of different sorts as well as Jews who practice Judaism to consider the foundations of their faith. The Southern Baptists are right to call Judaic and other Christian faithful to a reassessment of their deepest convictions. From such a confrontation the rebirth of informed and well-considered faith must come as the one sure result _ but not, really, not the conversion of all or most of the Jews. What has not happened for 2,000 years is unlikely to happen in the next 1,000 years either.

Green comments, "Crucial events of modern history _ the Holocaust, the founding of the state of Israel, the declarations of Vatican II (and Protestant and Orthodox counterparts), the decline of communism, the maturing of American religious pluralism, the so-called "globalization" of culture _ these allow Judaism and Christianity to see themselves, to experience one another with unexpected breadth and perspective. In America, at least, this may be a genuinely new moment for interreligious dialogue."

In that context, the Southern Baptists have seized the moment. When through the Judaic response they discover that Judaism is a religion, too, and that Jews when pressed respond with intense loyalty to that religion, they will appreciate how much their initiative has contributed to the renewal of Judaism. That's why I'm glad they said what they said, which contains nothing wrong but everything right for interfaith dialogue of substance and significance.

Jacob Neusner is distinguished research professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and professor of religion at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. He is author of A Rabbi Talks with Jesus: An Intermillennial, Interfaith Exchange (Doubleday) and Children of the Flesh, Children of the Promise: An Argument with Paul about Judaism as an Ethnic Religion (Pilgrim Press).