Letter from Seattle: Sidewalk Showdown
Within the Jewish community, Jews for Jesus is viewed as just cause for a headache. But is it possible that the group’s actual effect renders the cause harmless?
One thing most Jews seem able to agree on is that Messianic and other Jesus-believing Jews make us uncomfortable—which might be the understatement of the year. a Because I wrote a book titled Why the Jews Rejected Jesus (Doubleday), I have received many e-mails from Jewish Christians wanting to argue with me or just share their own experiences. More than a few complain of having been yelled at, ostracized, even spat on by mainstream Jews. Often the issue is evangelizing, but some in the Jewish community object to these heterodox, self-identified Jews simply being.
True, there are reasons to disdain attempts to merge Jewish identity with Christian doctrines. Yet allow me to broach a heterodox belief, some would say a heresy, of my own: While Jews for Jesus does not deserve three cheers, I might give them two.
Don’t spit on me yet!
Before explaining myself, it will help to clarify some basic terms of the discussion. Messianic Judaism and Jews for Jesus have in common a belief that Jesus was the Son of God and the Jewish messiah. In a nutshell, Jews for Jesus seeks to get Jews into churches while Messianic so-called Judaism purports to be a Jewish denomination in its own right. What is certain is that even if they prefer to be called “Jewish,” and even if they practice some Jewish ritual observances, both groups are fairly called “Christian,” since the name Christ means messiah.
But isn’t a Jew always a Jew if he has a Jewish mother? Actually, it’s not so simple.
In his codification of Jewish law, Mishne Torah, Maimonides writes that a born Jew who willfully professes faith in another deity has exited the people of Israel, rendering himself like the members of a non-Jewish religion “in respect of all matters” (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 2:5).
That means a group that seeks to convert Jews to the Christian faith while claiming to be “Jewish” has committed a deception, however innocently.
Frankly, part of me can sympathize with the spitters. Why? Because any belief of Jews in Christianity has for centuries acted as a powerful acid on the existence of the Jewish people. Jews who accept Jesus usually marry gentiles or will see their children do so. What do you think happened to the descendants of the original Jewish Christians, Jesus’ earliest followers? They aren’t Jewish anymore.
This is bad news for Jews.
So what’s to like about Jewish-Christian syncretism? I can think of three reasons to regard such hybridization with a mild countenance, if not a friendly one.
First, there are what i call the jews for jesus “success stories.” Like me, for example. These folks might not be traditional Jews today were it not for Hebrew Christianity at one point acting as a catalyst in their spiritual growth. When I was a high school senior taking classes on the Los Angeles campus of the University of California, I bumped into a Jews for Jesus missionary, Sid, passing out pamphlets. He talked to me for an hour about Isaiah 53, which Christians believe foreshadows Jesus’ life and death.
A typically ignorant teenager from a secularized suburban Southern California Jewish background, I was stunned and scared at being totally unable to answer any of the challenges Sid posed. It set me on a path to learning more about Judaism and ultimately converting. (I was adopted by Jews but my birth parents were gentile, meaning that under Jewish law I was not Jewish either—not that I understood that at the time.)
Or like the mom of a baby whose bris I attended. My friend Robin Alberg has a Jewish-born Christian mother but never realized what that meant till she was 15 and a student at Northwest Christian High School in Spokane, Washington. At Passover, a Jews for Jesus missionary addressed the student body and passed out matza.
“I was mesmerized,” says Robin. “When it was over, I started doing research. I read [Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s] Jewish Literacy as a direct result of hearing this guy talk. For the next two years, every paper I wrote for every class was about Judaism.” She had learned enough to decide by age 17 that she wanted to be Orthodox.
There is also the guy who sits behind me at the Orthodox synagogue I attend. Born Catholic in Poland, Menachem Rochon immigrated to South Africa. He and his (Jewish-born) wife were both spiritually searching and found a Jews for Jesus group, among whom they spent three years in Johannesburg. Later he would become disenchanted and, after moving to Seattle to work for Microsoft, he formally converted to Judaism. Today, he credits Jews for Jesus as a necessary “way station” on his path to Torah observance.
Messianic Jewish groups have their “success stories,” too. Penina Taylor, a countermissionary speaker and counselor, was raised in a turbulent, secular Jewish home in Miami. Encouraged by a friend, she became a Christian in high school, proceeding to join Southern Baptist and Charismatic churches before discovering Messianic Judaism.
Like Rochon, she and her non-Jewish husband became disenchanted. Encouraged by a Chabad rabbi in Baltimore, they made the leap to Orthodox Judaism. Would she have ended up there if Messianic Judaism hadn’t existed? “For me, I don’t think so,” says Taylor. “It was the bridge between being a Christian and even being willing to consider traditional Judaism.”
I don’t know of any organized study of ex-Christians, or former Jews for Nothing like me, who found their way to Torah by crossing the bridge of Jewish-Christian syncretism. However, there are solid statistics for another relevant population: the members of Messianic Jewish congregations. Which brings us to my second reason for looking kindly on Jewish Christians—most were never Jewish in the first place. In fact, the impact of Jewish-Christian syncretism weighs much more on non-Jews than on Jews.
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press), there are 30,000 Messianic Jews in the United States. They belong to denominations whose membership, according to the same source, consist of up to 90 percent born gentiles, with only 10 percent born Jews. (Admittedly, the situation may be different in Russia and Latin America, where Hebrew-Christian missionaries are reported to be making troubling progress among actual Jews.)
This confirms my own reporting, as when I visited the spiritual leader of the Messianic synagogue in my area near Seattle. Congregation Beit Tikvah is led by the earnest and genial Rabbi Hylan Slobodkin, who told me that of the 200 or so people who attend services, about 2 percent are Jewish-born—mirroring the Jewish demography of Seattle.
What about Jews for Jesus? Interestingly, the national director of Jews for Jesus, David Brickner, is himself a born gentile, as traditional Jewish law would see it. His father is Jewish, but his mother is not.
Almost every Jews for Jesus program takes place at a church, where missionaries who travel the country speak to Christians about the Jewish roots of Christianity. One popular program, “Christ in the Passover,” is described this way on the group’s Web site (www.jewsforjesus.org): This sermonic demonstration is visual, so the congregation will actually see a table set with traditional Passover items. The missionary uses Scripture as well as the visual items to walk through a Jewish Passover Seder, weaving the story of the Exodus together with the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
The impact on gentile-born Christians has to be gauged in the context of America’s philo-Semitic evangelical Christian culture. The subject is described ably by Zev Chafets in his new book, A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance (HarperCollins). That alliance is largely responsible for the Bush administration’s solid support of Israel.
But Chafets points out that “Protestant philo-Semitism”—admiration for Jews and Israel widely found among evangelicals, though not among mainline Protestants—can’t be taken for granted. The next generation of evangelicals could end up being turned off by the frequent attacks on them by Jewish groups that persist in the belief that Christian political power threatens Jewish interests while apparently never asking themselves, “If conservative Christians were less politically powerful, would this help or hurt the security of the State of Israel?”
Jews for Jesus’ message to Christians emphasizes their religion’s indebtedness to the Hebrew Bible, an idea that’s basic to Christian philo-Semitism. The impact of Messianic Judaism on gentiles, who form the core of its membership, is probably similar.
Which brings us to the third reason for not taking an entirely negative view of Jewish-Christian syncretism: its impact on Jews.
Most Jews don’t have much personal contact with Jewish Christians. But to the extent Jews for Jesus does manage to get in our faces, as in their periodic forays into the streets of New York and other big cities to pass out pamphlets, you can make a case from the standpoint of Jewish tradition that they do us a favor.
Not by converting us—with which their own published figures show they have little success—but rather by giving us an easy test with a reward for passing.
Deuteronomy (13:4) promises God will send to us preachers of a non-Jewish faith to test our commitment to Torah: “Do not hearken to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of a dream, for the Lord, your God, is testing you to know whether you love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.”
Surely an omniscient Deity knows whether we will pass or fail His test. But the 13th-century rabbinic sage Nahmanides explained that such an experience has a different purpose: “to bring forth deed from the potential”—that is, to actualize hidden spiritual potentials in us. When a Jew demonstrates to himself that he is committed to Jewish life and observance, he brings out a spiritual energy that previously may have lain dormant in his heart.
Every time a jew on a New York subway platform pointedly ignores a Jews for Jesus missionary, it’s a painless way of showing ourselves who we are.
When Jackie Mason sued Jews for Jesus for $2 million over a pamphlet that used his name and image without permission, lots of Jews may have hoped the comedian would sue the group out of existence. (Ultimately, he settled for an apology.) And yes, there would be benefits to the Jewish community if David Brickner went into a different business.
Certainly it’s a cause for celebration when Messianic Jews—or rather the small minority of actual Jews among them—follow the path of Penina Taylor.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to recognize the truth, which is that the effect of these groups on Jewish life, while small, is not all bad.
David Klinghoffer’s review of A Match Made in Heaven(HarperCollins) by Zev Chafets appeared in the March 2007 issue of Hadassah Magazine.
Dev Huffman says
How could you describe Hylan Slobodkin as “earnest and genial” and call him Rabbi? That church has misled many people: Lied to purchase an important Torah, had speakers come by telling them it’s a synagogue etc. I do get that the movement has attracted converts to Judaism, but Hylan Slobodkin is NOT a Rabbi.