It is certainly possible to understand, as an instinctive reaction, the objection of Jews to Christians praying that they see the light and accept Jesus as their savior. For long centuries, Jews were reviled, discriminated against, persecuted, and sometimes murdered for the crime of not seeing the light. A Christian prayer for a Jewish soul can trigger some scary reflexes.
Still, I must say that I find 21st century Jewish protests against such prayers, or other expressions of the Christian wish that Jews convert to Christianity, amusing. The era of the auto-da-fé is over. Atavistic reactions aside, it's hard to see what makes major Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League repeatedly do such things as send frantic messages last week to the Vatican, demanding that it change a newly worded Good Friday mass that reads in part:
"Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord enlighten their hearts to accept Jesus Christ … Eternal and omnipotent God, You who desire all Your creatures to be saved and know the truth, let Israel be redeemed by passing through the gates of Your church."
Are the AJC and ADL worried that God might actually listen to such a prayer? If so, we Jews are in greater trouble than we thought. But it's more likely that they would explain their position by saying:
"We cannot acquiesce in Christians telling us on the one hand that, after all these centuries, they now respect Judaism as a legitimate faith, yet that on the other hand they intend to go on praying that Jews abandon it. You can't respect another person's religion and still expect him to exchange it for your own."
Really? And what shall we say about many Jewish prayers, such as the High Holy Day one that goes: "Our God and God of our fathers, rule over the world in Your glory … and may every creature understand that You created him, and may all that possesses the breath of life say, 'The Lord God of Israel is king and His kingdom reigns everywhere'"?
Is this not a prayer for Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus to abandon their religions and accept the Torah of Israel? What would Jews say if the leaders of the world's religions turned to them with the demand that it be deleted from the Jewish prayer book? Would they agree?
The issue, when you think of it, is not only respect for the other person's religion. It is respect for one's own religion, too. If a Jew sincerely believes that it is God's will that the entire human race one day recognize the truth of Judaism, he would be showing disrespect for Judaism by excising this belief from the Jewish liturgy in order to prevent it from offending others. And by the same token, if a Christian believes that Jesus was born on earth to save all mankind, Jews included, he would be slighting Christianity by refusing to say so.
Indeed, there is more justification for a Christian praying for a Jew's conversion than vice versa. Jews do not traditionally believe that Gentiles will be made to suffer in an afterlife for not embracing Judaism; Christians do traditionally believe that Jews, like all other non-Christians, will be consigned to eternal damnation if they do not accept Jesus. What kind of Christian would it be who, convinced that his Jewish friend was bound for everlasting torment, did not do everything to save him from it? What kind of friend?
Jews will answer: But this justifies Christian missionary work among Jews. No doubt it does. And what's wrong with that? In a democratic society, non-coercive proselytizing should be a perfectly acceptable activity. If one may try to sell one's neighbor a particular brand of automobile, detergent, or vacuum cleaner, one may be allowed to sell him a particular brand of religion. No one's forcing him to buy.
Jews often talk about Christian missionary work in their midst as if it posed a mortal danger without realizing how self-demeaning this anxiety is. Are there really so many Jews who are ready to run to the baptismal fount with the first knock of a Christian missionary on their door? One doubts it — but if it's true, it's a sad comment not on the predatoriness of Christianity, but on the weakness of contemporary Judaism and Jewish identity. Jews must have little confidence in themselves indeed if they have to live in fear of Christian soul snatchers.
Frankly, I don't see how it's possible to be a believing Christian without hoping that the Jews will one day accept Jesus. If they don't need him for their salvation, why does anyone? Even those Christians (and there is a growing number of them today) who are aware of how Jewish the historical figure of Jesus was, and who have a genuine appreciation of Judaism and even a feeling of closeness to it, are convinced that in the end the Jewish people will recognize this figure as the Messiah they gave to the world. I know such Christians. Not only do they not have an anti-Jewish bone in their bodies, they think far more of the Jews than many Jews do.
It's time Jews outgrew their defensiveness — and their fear of hurting others and being hurt. There's nothing wrong or inconsistent with saying, "I respect your religion, but mine is a better one." Jews have always thought this about Judaism and it's hypocritical of them to want Christians not to think it about Christianity. If anyone cares enough about my soul to pray for it, I might as well take it as a compliment.
Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.