How do you respond when a friendly neighbor hands you a book that argues that Jesus was the son of God?
My wife and I live next door to a lovely couple from Jamaica. We've got two kids, they've got two kids, we all get along very well. They are very active churchgoers, far more active in their congregation than we are in our synagogue. Anyway, he's got an interest in Judaism, and we talk sometimes about theological issues. Recently, he handed me a copy of The Real Kosher Jesus, a book that argues that Jesus was the son of God. As a Jew, clearly I can't accept this idea. I don't think it was given to me maliciously or to try to convert me, but rather I think he was truly interested to hear what I thought of the arguments. Do I read the book and tell him why I don't believe Jesus was the messiah, never mention it again, or pursue some other option?
The Wary Jew Next Door
Dear Next Door,
Assuming that you're correct that all of this is just friendly, neighborly interactions, it's your responsibility to educate your neighbor about the context of the book he gave you. For the record, I didn't know most of what follows before receiving your question, so all of this "education" was acquired through very basic Internet searching. That means that you can take my word for it, or you can Google the title of the book or the author for much more informati
First of all, this is not a scholarly theological text. This is a book written by a proselytizing Messianic Jew attempting to convince Jews that Jesus is the messiah and to convince Christians that it's acceptable to attempt to convince Jews that Jesus is the messiah. I previously answered a question in which I said some things about Messianic Jews that were not entirely negative, and I received criticism for not outright condeming them.
In this particular circumstance, I have only negativity to share. Though I haven't read the book, I still feel justified in saying that I find nothing redeeming (no Jesus pun intended) about the subject, the approach or the author's stance on Jews. While I hesitate to link to anything I found because I'd prefer not to drive traffic to these sites under any circumstances, I will quote the banner on the author's personal website just so no one thinks I'm overreacting: "My heart burns for spiritual awakening, for moral and cultural reformation, for the salvation of my Jewish people." This is not an innocent book.
Your neighbor's actions, however, may be innocent. For whatever reason, he may think that the question of whether Jesus is the son of God is a reasonable subject for a Christian and a Jew to debate, and that the two of you may gain something from the discussion. You don't need to read the book to know this isn't a debate you want to have. I would suggest approaching your neighbor next time you see him (no need to make a special appointment to have this difficult conversation) and saying something like this:
"I appreciate that you thought I might like that book, and I do enjoy discussing religion with you. I'm not sure if you know this, but the author is part of a group called Jews for Jesus that most Jews actually find pretty offensive. They believe not only that Jesus was the messiah but that it is their mission to convince Jews of that and to convert them to Chrisitianity. Even though they call themselves 'Messianic Jews,' because they believe in Jesus, they're actually Christians."
You could even go so far as to say, "I'm happy to talk about other religious issues with you, but when it comes to something that borders on delegitimizing Judaism, I'm not comfortable with those topics."
This is all taking your word that your neighbor doesn't know the backstory on proselytizing and isn't trying to save your soul. I wouldn't be so quick to absolve him of that agenda. My sense is that anyone who thinks of this book as a legitimate text is likely to be connected to a Christian denomination that promotes proselytizing. While I certainly believe that Jews can engage in productive religious discussion with Christians, I was told one too many times as a kid, "You're such a nice person, it's too bad you're going to Hell," to believe that friendships between Jews and evangelical Christians can be entirely stripped of theological undertones (or overtones, depending). Continue to be friendly and talk about religion as long as you enjoy the talks, but don't hesitate to be direct about where conversation ends and conversion begins.
P.S. I'm not sure I've ever done a postscript before, but this all started to sound a bit heavy-handed. You could also simply return the book with a smile and say, "Thanks," and then shovel his driveway next time.