Friday, February 1, 2013

Talking With Missionaries (Yes, That Includes Kiruv People)

Guest Post by Jewish Atheist
When I was younger I got involved with anti-missionary work. It started when I discovered that some friends of mine somewhat deceived me into organizing a concert at a Jews-for-Jesus (J4J) center… also discovering that these friends were J4Js! That encounter actually led me to start studying Judaism more… and ironically led me on the path to becoming very religious. But I always kept an interest in missionaries, the threat they posed to the Jewish community (or at least as I perceived it), and how to argue with them. This hobby of mine was rather unusual for a yeshiva bochur (student), but then again, I’m the kind of person who likes to debate his beliefs. And so I did.
I used to go out to Jewish gatherings (e.g. the Salute to Israel Parade) or any events that I heard would have a lot of missionaries. I would often stop to argue with people preaching to Jews in the subway. (I usually only bothered with missionaries who were targeting Jews.) And amongst my friends I was known as the guy who had answers to their questions.
And that’s what a lot of people think is most important, answers and rebuttals. In truth, that’s only a small part of it. More important, I found, were the assumptions and framework for the debate. Otherwise you can simply get into dead-ends where people just stubbornly accept their own opinion; in particular, one’s own interpretation of texts.
Now that I’m an atheist, I’ve often found that arguing with religious Jews - especially the kiruv (outreach / missionary) types - is quite similar as arguing with Christian missionaries. Very similar.

So here are some thoughts and observations on how to have a meaningful debate without falling into common traps:

  1.  Burden of Proof: Religious folk often assume that their beliefs are the default truth and that skeptics must “prove them wrong.” No. They’re the ones making a claim that “such and such is true” so they have the burden of proof to demonstrate it’s true (especially for such extraordinary, supernatural claims). Establishing this is a key component to such arguments. Don’t let rabbis corner you into “proving the ten plagues didn’t happen.” Or “proving there isn’t a god.” That’s b.s. They’re the ones claiming magic exists; let them prove it.
  2.  Define Terms!!! Define “god”; define “moral”; define “proof," etc. For instance, it’s very easy for kiruv types to talk about how the Torah teaches morals… but only because they define morals as “that which the Torah teaches”! (And obviously circular reasoning is not very impressive.) It’s very easy to politely disagree and say that you don’t define morals that way, and that if they are defined that way, that you don’t particularly care about “being moral” (aka “doing what this particular ancient text - and interpretation - says). If you can come to a mutual agreement on what it means to be “moral” or an elment of morality (e.g. promoting wellbeing), then one can have a more rational discussion. For instance, on whether it’s “moral” to dress less strictly than the orthodox modesty rules. Or whether it’s “moral” to impose such strict modesty rules. etc. But you can only get to this if you define terms first. (Also: Don’t fall for, or create, simplistic dichotomies. Embrace the gray area. Embrace that things usually exist along a spectrum. e.g. Most people aren’t “good or bad”. We’re all somewhere inbetween.)  
  3. Go back to the basics, to the framework: It’s easy to fall into a trap of “I think the text means this” vs “I think the text means that.” Don’t do that. Establish a system for analyzing texts and claims. In particular, look at the assumptions in a belief system’s framework. For instance, when I would argue with missionaries, I’d often begin by asking them if they agree that Judaism existed before Christianity. Which, of course, it did. I then ask, “If Judaism came first, and Jews had their own understanding of the Torah, then why on earth would it make sense to adopt a new interpretation which completely contradicts the standard, historical, traditional  interpretation? Why would it make sense to suddenly understand, for instance, Isaiah 7 as referring to a “virgin” if the word doesn’t imply that and - to my mind, more importantly - that it was never understood as meaning a virgin (nor as a messianic prophecy!). It makes the argument not only about “interpretation” but about a historical perspective, an argument about the structure of Christianity itself, and the validity of its novelty.The same is true of Judaism. For instance, the assumption Orthodox Jews share that the Rabbinic interpretation represents the true intent of the text. E.g. “eye for an eye” isn’t meant literally - and never was. How do they know that? Afterall, we know for a fact that there were different religious groups around at the time who interpreted the text in different ways, and often expressed the opinion that rabbis were just making stuff up and not sticking to the text. E.g. Karaites, Sadducees, and more. (Thus one could argue that the “traditional” understanding of a text may actually just be a very old novelty originating from the rabbinic sects, but not the text itself. {But yes, “almah” in Isaiah 7 would still not make sense for Jesus. Facts and evidence are still important!})
  4. Fact-check. Amazing how many people - especially kiruv types - make stuff up or present only a very one-sided perspective or just repeat dribble which they naively assumed was true. Question their stats, their facts, and esp their quotations. Double check. Especially if it seems fantastical. Thanks to the internet, this is a LOT easier than it used to be. Take advantage. 
  5.  It’s ok to say “I don’t know.” Or, “I want to look into it more.” Don’t be pressured into making stuff up or trying to invent poor arguments which will only make your arguments weaker. There’s no rush. Take your time. Do your research. And be honest if you don’t know. You’ll avoid getting cornered and bogged down by having a weak argument of yours being demolished. And besides, we don’t know everything. And that’s okay. It’s something religious people need to learn to accept instead of - as is often the case - merely using a “god of the gaps” argument.
  6. “Is this any different from other groups?” This one question can debunk (or at least lead to some great discussion about) lots of outreach arguments. “Our lives are wonderful!” Okay, but can’t other religious groups say that too? Should I therefore become a Mormon? “We have prophecies that have been fulfilled!” Aside from looking into those “prophecies" again, ask if this is different from other religious groups which claim to have had prophecies fulfilled. You get the idea.
  7. Emotions: They get in the way of thinking clearly, which is probably not what you want to happen. So, three points:
  • A) Stay calm. Don’t insult. Don’t let them rattle you. The calmer you remain, the better you’ll be able to formulate points, the more reasonable you’ll seem (and probably be,) and it’ll irk those who try to tug at your emotions to evoke certain reactions.  
  • B) Don’t get bogged down in long, emotional stories. If the rabbi has a story about Jewish children being identified in Christian orphanages by their recitation of the shema, then just ask him for the bare facts: Some Jewish children were kidnapped and found. Just ask for the facts. 
  • C) Environment is important: Whether you realize it or not, your brain acts differently based on the environment you’re in. If you’re on a retreat with other Jews, unfamiliar with the place, and being led by rabbis around a Jewish schedule, it’s essentially already placing you into their environment. It can be dangerous, and I suspect is a huge part of why going to yeshiva in Israel - surrounded by other religious Jews - has such a big effect. If you can, avoid such scenarios - or at least be wary. If the rabbi wants to talk, you may prefer email or a neutral setting so that you’re both on equal ground. 

Well, there you go. Hopefully this will be of some help. And feel free to drop by my blog:


  1. Thank you. This was very informative. I would've found it eventually, but you caught my eye with your comments on the frumsatire page. Again, thanks and I hope to see more from you in the future.

  2. I also found this document very helpful: 42 Fallacies. It discusses logical fallacies that are good to be aware of:

    It helped me understand what an ad hominem attack is, an appeal to authority, etc.

    Very useful for debates!

  3. Amen on the part about Jewish guilt. I have secular Jewish friends who still buy into it. I.e. we must support Israel because if we don't then the Zionists have won. I get asked all the time what I will raise my kids. My answer: as human beings. So does it perturb me that Jewish numbers are dwindling and I'm "part of the problem"? Not at all.

  4. Sorry,but you can't compare jewish kiruvers with missionaries of j4j.
    missionaries are always saying lies and tricking.
    Kiruvers just wanna jews and not people for other religions.
    and btw,i hate yeshu.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. unknown,
    how are people doing kiruv not "saying lies and tricking?" if they're trying to change someone's type and degree of religious observance without being up front about their goal, how is that different from what any other missionary wants to do?

    1. I’ve heard this from people before. Apparently Chrisitan missionaries are evil because they proselytize non-Christians, while kiruv is noble because it only targets Jews.

  7. It is not possible to "make" someone Orthodox. Those involved in kiruv know this.


Your respectful comments are welcome.