The Messianic mess
The Jews for Jesus are coming to town in September, launching their largest-ever missionary blitz in San Diego.
It’s my duty as a journalist and community spokesperson to tell you how horrible they are, how deceptive and manipulative and just plain creepy these people are. I am supposed to tell you to warn your children about them, to be on the lookout for their literature, to snarl at their advertisements. But I just can’t bring myself to do it.
It’s not that I like Jews for Jesus. It’s just that I can’t conjure up hatred for either their beliefs or, generally speaking, their methods. Granted, when their methods are deceptive or adults seek to convert children, then, yes, I condemn them. If they are not open about their intentions, then, yes, I condemn them. But how can people who proudly wear t-shirts that say “Jews for Jesus” be considered deceptive?
Several distinctions must be made. Jews for Jesus is not a synonym for Messianic Jews. Messianic Judaism is a religion whose adherents believe Jesus is the messiah and son of God but still perform many traditional Jewish rituals, from keeping a Sabbath on Friday nights to celebrating Passover seders. They call their houses of worships synagogues and their leaders rabbis. Some come from Jewish backgrounds, others from Christian backgrounds. There are at least three Messianic Jewish congregations in the San Diego-Temecula area.
Jews for Jesus is not a religion, but rather a missionary group composed of Messianic Jews that looks to proselytize and gather converts directly from the Jewish community.
Within the Jewish community, these people are condemned. Our movements make official declarations explaining how Messianic Jews are not Jewish; Israel does not allow Messianic Jews to immigrate under the “Right of Return” law.
The issue, rabbis say, is that Messianic Judaism is fundamentally incompatible with traditional Judaism. The idea of Jesus as the son of God is incompatible with the fundamental Jewish principle of the oneness of God.
They’re certainly right, from a theological perspective. But worshipping Jesus is no more – or less – incompatible with traditional Judaism than not believing in God at all, and yet we recoil at Messianic Jews while we shrug at Humanistic Jews.
I think the reason for Jewish anger towards Messianic Jews has more to do with sociology than theology. It is emotion – not intellect – that guides our distaste for Messianic Jews.
Most of us were raised by parents who knew far less than they’d like to about Judaism. The easiest shortcut to explaining Judaism to a child is explaining what it is not – it is not Christianity. As a child I knew my family didn’t worship Jesus, although I wasn’t quite sure if we worshipped God.
Eventually, that kind of socialization of negative attitudes toward Christianity becomes visceral disgust. It becomes unrooted from its intellectual basis and becomes an emotion that colors and blinds our opinions – in the same way that many people are revolted by homosexuality. But I think Jewish attitudes toward Messianic Judaism are just as flawed and irrational as general American attitudes toward homosexuality.
And if we don’t condemn Humanistic Jews or Jewish Buddhists for being incompatible with traditional Judaism, then we can’t condemn Messianic Jews for the same crime.
The response, I think, to Messianic Jews should not be marginalization and vilification but controlled dialogue to discover who they are, what they believe and why they do what they do. Ask yourself who is a more valuable member of our community: the man who goes to synagogue every Friday night, keeps kosher and worships Jesus, or the Jew who’s unaffiliated and could care less about his people, culture or religion?
As for their methods, there’s no question that Jews for Jesus are evangelizers. But their evangelical work is no different in character and scope than that of evangelical Christians – many of whom have become close with the Jewish community, especially Orthodox Jews, in recent years.
I don’t begrudge evangelical Christians for what they do. Their religion directs them to “save” people, and they believe so strongly in the truth of their beliefs that they confidently share their message with whoever will listen. If only more Jews had that kind of confidence in the fundamental value of their religion.
Let’s not pretend that Judaism has nothing to do with proselytizing. Several of the ancient prophets, from the second Isaiah to Zechariah, openly called for spreading the truth of Judaism. From the time of the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.E.) until the emergence of Constantine (325 C.E.), Jews were so successful at converting gentiles that up to eight million (!) residents of the Roman Empire were Jewish. In our own time, Israel is going out of its way to convert Russians of dubious Jewish heritage to Judaism. Any way you look at it, Judaism’s hands are not clean of evangelism.
In eras of forced conversion and Jewish persecution, I can understand the revulsion for proselytizing. But when the most aggressive a missionary gets is repeated invitations to have a coffee, it’s hard to get all stewed up over their methods.
Certainly, Jews for Jesus preys on unaffiliated Jews. But if Jews for Jesus converts them to Messianic Judaism or Christianity, I don’t blame the evangelicals for being manipulative – I blame ourselves for having so many Jews that care so little about their religion, culture and heritage.
Granted, it is not too late. The rise of non-Orthodox Jewish day schools, the spread of Chabad and the flowering of Jewish adult education indicate that we’re making progress in teaching people the value, beauty and honor of being Jewish. But nearly half of America’s Jews are almost completely ignorant about what Judaism is and is not.
So if Messianic Jews want to call themselves Jews, that’s their prerogative. If they want to proselytize among the Jewish population, that’s their right. And if significant numbers of Jews embrace their movement, that’s our failure.
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