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Kosher Pigs and Jews for Jesus
By Robert M. Price
Who are "Jews for Jesus"? Why are Jews for Jesus? How can there be Jews for Jesus? Isn't that kind of like "Christians for Muhammad"? Capitalists for Marx? According to most folks' dictionaries, such a group shouldn't exist. But it does. Jews for Jesus have been around for nearly a quarter of a century. And all that time they have stuck in the craws of just about all Jews and a good many Christians. And Jesus? He is unavailable for comment.
Jews for Jesus, on the other hand, are more than available for comment. In fact, they tend to be available for comment whether you want them to be or not! Like Hare Krishnas, they may be found leafleting on the streets, spreading their gospel in a manner nostalgically reminiscent of New Left Radicals left over from the 60s, which some of them are. But unlike the Krishnas, they have a sense of humor. Aimed at non-Christian Jews, their pamphlets, called "broadsides," bear titles like "Kosher Pigs," confronting the issue of their contradictory identity head-on. Here's the deal: Jews for Jesus, started by a Jew-turned-Presbyterian named Martin Rosen in 1973, claim that Christianity is true Judaism, that Christian Jews are "completed Jews." The idea is that Jesus was a Jew, in fact the predicted messiah (anointed one) of Judaism, that his first followers were Jews, and that he never said anything about starting a new religion called Christianity. Obviously, they admit, most Jewish contemporaries of Jesus never jumped on the bandwagon, while many Gentiles did. Not surprisingly, the name of Jesus soon became associated with Gentiles and non-Jewish culture. Today very, very few Jews believe in Jesus as the messiah. But, Jews for Jesus say, that doesn't take away the essentially Jewish character of the gospel message about Jesus. It's just a historical irony, just like the fact that Buddhism started among Hindus in India but now exists mostly among Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, etc., but hardly at all in India. Does that mean Buddhism shouldn't be considered an Indian religion? Hardly.
Jews for Jesus, then, claim that they're being more Jewish than most Jews, who haven't got with God's program since they don't believe in Messiah Jesus. The splinter group of the Lubavitcher Hasidim who are waiting for the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson to return from the dead as the Messiah feel pretty much the same way. They know they are very much in the minority, and they hope their fellow Jews will catch up with them sooner or later.
But it's a pretty safe bet that if you're a Jew but not a member of either the Schneerson sect or Jews for Jesus, you probably don't tend to view the two groups in the same light at all. Chances are, you think of the Schneerson sect the way most people view the Elvis cult: they're just going a bit overboard, though harmless enough. But Jews for Jesus? Most Jews have little patience with them, tend to see them as dangerous phonies. Why?
In many ways it is a question of who owns the copyright on the word "Jew." Who gets to decide who qualifies? Suppose you are a Reform Jew who takes a dim view of Jews for Jesus. Just remember that Orthodox rabbis think pretty much the same thing about you! Remember when the Falashas, the so-called "Black Jews" of Ethiopia applied for admission to the State of Israel a few years ago? They got the nod. Should the rule be, "If you think you're a Jew, then you're a Jew?" I don't know. Whoever has the copyright, it's not me, that's for sure.
But why do most Jews think Jews for Jesus don't qualify? Jews see so-called Jews for Jesus as nothing but sneaky Christian evangelists masquerading as Jews. Basically Jews for Jesus seem to be inviting young Jews to leave the Jewish faith. But, unlike traditional Christian missionaries aiming at Jews, Jews for Jesus try to make the transition appear easier by denying it is a matter of converting at all--which, however, it is. "You'll still be Jewish!" But will you?
And then there's the matter of Jews for Jesus as an organization, as distinct from the wider movement of "Hebrew Christians" or "Messianic Jews." Jews for Jesus, Rosen's organization, sees itself overtly a missionary organization and proclaims itself avowedly a group of evangelical Christians. They aim to persuade individual Jews to embrace faith in Jesus Christ, but after that, Jews for Jesus merely recommends the newly "completed Jew" join a local fellowship, whether a fundamentalist church or a "Messianic synagogue." It doesn't matter to them which. Jews for Jesus does not organize or sponsor local congregations. They are the type of organization that has a staff, but not members. More like United Jewish Appeal than the Lubavitchers. So asking about "Jews for Jesus" is not quite the same thing as talking about Jewish believers in Jesus or Jewish Christians.
Silk Purse, Sow's Ear
To really understand the gripe most Jews have with Jews for Jesus you need to look at the big historical picture. Sure, Jesus was a Jew; most Jews today are happy to admit that. Many see him as a liberal Pharisee, even as a reforming prophet. And Christianity began as a sect of messianic Jews. Everybody admits that. But today's Jews for Jesus are not like those early "Jewish Christians" (who called themselves Nazoreans and Ebionites). The ancient Jewish believers in Jesus were pious nationalistic Jews whose beliefs would not look much like anything we would recognize as Christianity today. They would look a lot more like the Essenes of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (For a good historical treatment, see Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus. Viking Penguin 1997.)
The apostle Paul and other Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles rapidly transformed Christianity into something like the pagan Mystery Religions of the Greco-Roman world, and eventually our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches were the result. (As for Protestantism, it split off from Catholicism 500 years ago.) During all these centuries Christians kept the Jewish scripture as their own "Old Testament," and they developed ways of reading it as if it were written to Christians, not Jews. For instance, most of the "Old Testament" was reinterpreted, grossly out of context, as predictions of the coming of Jesus, his crucifixion, resurrection, etc. All the promises of God for his people were treated as if they were aimed at Christians, with Jews ejected from the picture for failing to believe in Jesus. The Christian view of Jews was all one big rationale for why Jews were no longer God's chosen people now that (Gentile) Christians had taken their place. In the process just about everything got redefined--including the notion of the messiah, which now came to denote the incarnation of God himself.
Where do Jews for Jesus fit into this picture? Their movement grows not out of Judaism but out of late 20th century Protestant fundamentalism. What happened was that some Jews who had converted to Christianity in effect decided that Protestant fundamentalism, as long as it wore a yarmulke and ate matzoh, counted as the real Judaism. As long as you lit your menorah, it would be Jewish to believe Jesus was God and had died for your sins. But would it be? The whole thing appears to be symbolized in one fact: the founder of Jews for Jesus changed his name from Martin Rosen to Moishe Rosen, obviously, so he would appear to be more Jewish. And that's all the Jews for Jesus Bible-quoting amounts to: Christianity pretending to be Jewish.
You can even look at it as a case of the Stockholm Syndrome, where prisoners come to identify with their captors, as some Jews did with their Nazi prison guards in the concentration camps. Jews take great pride in maintaining their community against all the attempts to eradicate them, including Christian evangelism which, if successful, would have to result in total assimilation, the cultural and religious disappearance of Judaism. Jews for Jesus seem to have, so to speak, joined the enemy and learned to play the enemy's game. Jews for Jesus are Jews, true, but they have thrown in the towel and internalized the ideology of Christianity, a set of explanations for why God has abandoned Jews in favor of Christians. At least from a historical standpoint, then, Jews for Jesus is at heart a Christian movement, not a Jewish one. The Judaism of the thing seems purely cosmetic. You can't make a Jewish silk purse out of a Christian sow's ear, I guess.
Semantics & Semitics
I have spoken with "Moishe" Rosen and even attended a Protestant seminary (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 1976-1977) along with Jews for Jesus members. There was no question in anyone's mind that these people were, like me at the time, evangelical Christians. There was essentially no difference between them and many other friends of mine who didn't mind saying straight out that they had converted from Judaism but were now Christians. It was all a matter of semantics, but not of Semitics. That they were Christians was not up for dispute; whether they were Jews was. Even today, they are careful to include Gentile Christian missionary leaders on their board of directors, one suspects, in order to make it clear to Christian supporters that Jews for Jesus are indeed good Christians, not some "Judaizing" sect of half-Jewish/half-Christian heretics.
There is no reason to question the sincerity of Rosen, his organization, or any other self-styled "Messianic Jews." The question is whether their position makes any sense. There's no sense in accusing them of being phonies; the relevant question is, are they confused? Let's compare Jewish Christians with Jewish Buddhists, and you'll see what I mean. Jewish Buddhists? That's right, there are a number of Jews (I have never seen any statistics) who practice both Judaism and Zen meditation. They see no problem because Zen, though Buddhist in origin, transcends its roots, and it is a technique people use to induce a new state of awareness. Nothing in this even overlaps Judaism, much less contradicts it. In Asia, for the same reason, you can find plenty of Confucianist Buddhists and Taoist Buddhists. The two religions don't have enough to do with each other to be contradictory, so if you have sufficient time and energy, you can practice both. But can you be a Jewish Christian in the same way? It gets tricky because Judaism and Christianity do have a considerable overlap, and while much of it is compatible, like the ethics of both faiths, some of the beliefs clash pretty severely.
About twenty years ago I happened to check out a congregation of Messianic Jews who met, ironically, in a Lutheran church in Long Island. This group had begun some years before as an evangelistic outreach to Jews by a number of converted Jews in the Lutheran congregation. They had adopted the "completed Jew" pose, but eventually they started taking it more seriously than they had probably expected to. By the time I met them, they were strict, almost Hasidic, Torah-keepers. Their worship looked nothing like any Christian service I had ever attended, and I was fascinated to hear their discussions of theology. They had begun to reinterpret Jesus in categories from the Book of Enoch and the Kabbalah. Okay, these people were Jewish Christians. They deserved the name. It wasn't long before the Lutheran Church got fed up with them, and the two parted ways. My guess, however, is that Jews for Jesus wouldn't have liked them any better, because underneath the yarmulke, Jews for Jesus is one more Protestant fundamentalist missionary effort aimed at Jews.
Hebrews & Hybrids
The Messianic synagogue I visited was genuinely syncretistic, combining elements of belief from two religions. By contrast, I have suggested that Jews for Jesus is pushing Christian beliefs as the right kind for Jews to hold. Its beliefs about Jews, Jesus, Gentiles, and salvation are Christian, not Jewish, in origin. Are these elements of Christianity compatible with Judaism, as Jews for Jesus claim? Like I claimed Zen and Judaism are? Maybe so.
In one sense you could look at Jews for Jesus as kind of like Reconstructionist Jews (though I suspect neither would relish the comparison!). Both seem to think that what makes you Jewish is being a member of the Jewish culture (or subculture), not particular religious beliefs. Thus it is not rare to find Torah-reading atheists in Reconstructionist synagogues. And if atheism is compatible with Judaism, why couldn't Christianity be compatible with Judaism, too? If, that is, Judaism is Jewish culture. Jews for Jesus happily celebrate Passover, for instance, yarmulkes and all, though they will give you a play-by-play description of how each part of the seder stands for Jesus or the Trinity, etc. They are combining elements of Jewish culture, including lifestyle and liturgy, with elements of Christian belief, just as an atheistic Jew may piously keep kosher in a Reconstructionist synagogue. In the same way, you can visit Messianic Jewish synagogues and see nothing particularly out of place in the order of service--until that is, you start hearing references to Jesus. These folks are believing Christian, acting Jewish, and sincerely doing both.
One of the major Christian misconceptions about Jewish belief is that while Christians believe you are saved by God's forgiving grace, they think Jews believe that they are obligated to keep all the Torah commandments under pain of damnation, like a checklist of things to be done before you have earned your merit badge. Of course, Jews teach that no one can hope to be saved except by the grace of God. No one can earn salvation like earning a vacation cruise by selling enough magazine subscriptions. Salvation comes by the grace of a God who delights to forgive all who truly repent. Jews feel obliged to keep the commandments for a different reason: it is part of their national identity, assigned them as part of their covenant as a people with God. And thus keeping the commandments of God is a privilege, not a chore.
I find it a happy irony that when (usually, I suspect, assimilated half-religious) Jews accept the invitation of Jews for Jesus to become Christians, they often appreciate their Jewish heritage more than before, when they took it for granted. Sure, they believe they have God's grace through Jesus, so if they start attending a Messianic synagogue, it's not because they think they have to in order to be saved. In this matter of motive they think they differ from traditionalist (non-Christian) Jews, whom they falsely imagine to be sweating to accumulate brownie points by keeping Jewish Law. But that's the Christian misconception! How ironic that, having God's grace and salvation as a settled issue, Christian Jews can enter into Jewish custom and liturgy with what turns out to be the same motive Jews really had all along: it's part of the privilege of being Jewish, not an annoying list of curriculum requirements.
We live in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society unlike any since the cosmopolitan era of ancient Rome. We cannot help anymore being aware of each other's religions, and that fact alone makes it very difficult to insist that you or I have the true religion, that our neighbor of another faith is a benighted heathen. Religious belief tends to become diluted in a society like ours. Beliefs start rubbing off on one another. A friend of mine likes to describe himself as "a Jew who loves Jesus and believes in reincarnation." I know others who are ostensibly Christians in dialogue with Jews and who have given up their belief in Jesus as the messiah. I knew a Pentecostal Christian who devoted himself to keeping all the laws of Judaism. And then there are the "one from column A, one from column B" New Agers who tend to mix a Mulligan Stew of religion. Unitarian churches are filled with mixed-faith couples whose children receive a Comparative Religion course as their catechism. Groups like the Amish and the Hasid communities of Brooklyn are only exceptions that prove the rule. They have erected their walls so high precisely because they see the danger of pluralism and assimilation looming so largely.
In such a context, the question, "Are Christian Jews really Jews at all?" is very much like the tricky question that always comes up in mixed marriages: if a Jew and a Christian marry, what religion do the children belong to? Especially if you raise them to love and respect both parental faiths? What is the child's religious identity? Only the child, ultimately, can decide that one. I am proposing that the Jews for Jesus, Jewish Christians, Messianic Jews are the religiously ambiguous children of a mixed marriage between mainstream Judaism and the American culture. They cannot bring themselves to deny either side of their cultural DNA. Are they really Jews? Like the individual children of mixed marriages, perhaps only they have the right to say. For the rest of us, as always, it is probably safer to try to understand them than to presume to judge or classify them. Sure, it's annoying to be told you're going to be damned unless you believe in Jesus. That's obnoxious. You feel like the pilot in the comedy Airplane: you'd like haul off and slug such nuisances. But that has nothing to do with the nuisance being a Jew or a Christian, neither or both. There are jerks for Jesus, jerks for Judaism, and jerks for neither one.
CopyrightŠ2006 by Robert
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