A word for gentiles: As in any group, there are Jews who are saints, and Jews who are scoundrels. Any respectable evaluation of us should be based on your knowledge of us as real people.

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Faith & Values |

She was trying to be nice, and maybe I should have appreciated it. But she had touched on an unresolved tension in Jewish-Christian relations, and the whole experience left me feeling a little unsettled.

It happened after a funeral on a beautiful spring day several years ago. The attendees were paying their respects to the family and walking toward their cars, when a woman broke away from the crowd and walked toward me. She wore a bright, floral-print dress, had wavy blond hair, perfect makeup and a smile just a little too sparkly for the occasion. Her husband trailed a step behind.

“Hello, Rabbi,” she said. “My name is Margie, and we were friends with Mr. Cohen.” She had a hint of a Southern accent, making “rabbi” sound like “rabbah.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Sorry it had to be at an occasion like this.”

“Yes,” Margie nodded. “I want you to know that we’re born-again Christians, and we love the Jewish people.”

Again, I’m sure she was trying to be nice, and I’m pretty confident that she was motivated by a genuine belief that Jews carry a special blessing as God’s chosen people and are therefore worthy of Christians’ love.

But what was I supposed to say in response?

When my wife tells me she loves me, the unwritten rules say that I should reply, “I love you, too, honey.” But for some reason, such a response didn’t seem appropriate here. “Thanks, Margie, we love you too, honey”? It just wouldn’t work.

On the other hand, a simple “Gee thanks, Margie,” might sound too dismissive.

Maybe I could have said, “You say you love the Jewish people? Well you should meet my cousin Myron. If you knew him, you might rethink your position!”

As I thought about it, I realized that the awkwardness of that moment stemmed not so much from my lack of a ready response as it did from having a complete stranger come up and proclaim her love for me. After all, Margie and I had just met. We hadn’t even had our first date! Yet here she was, telling me she loved me. Of course it was awkward — it was unbalanced! Margie looked at me and felt love; I looked at her and wondered where she’d learned to say “rabbah” like that.

Come to think of it, however, Margie hadn’t actually said that she loved me. She said that she loved “the Jewish people.” Her feelings weren’t for any particular individual, but for a group, a nation, a worldwide socio-religio-cultural entity. Despite her love for the Jewish people, I found myself wondering whether, aside from Mr. Cohen and me, Margie knew any Jewish people.

If my suspicions were correct — if Margie actually knew very few Jews — then, alas, maybe she didn’t love me at all. Maybe what she was in love with was a phenomenon — a people whose roots occupy an important role in the history of her own religion, a concept that doesn’t include any flesh-and-blood human beings at all. Least of all, me!

So, to all of you “Margies” out there — all you whose religious convictions inspire passionate feelings about the Jewish people, I have a request: When you interact with us, please try to treat us as people, not as a phenomenon. Please remember that, as in any group, there are Jews who are saints and Jews who are scoundrels, and that any respectable evaluation of us should be based on your knowledge of us as real people.

And please remember that, however nice the sentiment, saying “I love the Jews” is only a hairbreadth different from saying “I hate the Jews.” Both statements carry an evaluation based not on our character or behavior, but rather on our common group label.

Margie loves the Jews. It’s a good thing, I suppose. But it would be even better if she got to know a few of us.

Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. Readers may send feedback to faithcolumns@seattletimes.com.