THE ULTIMATE JEWISH PLURALISTS
The Jerusalem Post, Jan.9 1998, by Jonathan Rosenblum
Shortly after Reform and Conservative leaders hit upon the winning strategy of telling their followers that Orthodox Jews do not consider them Jewish, a remarkable full-page ad appeared in The New York Times. Entitled “A word of advice to 80 percent to 9O percent of American Jewry from Jews for Jesus,” the ad was filled with solicitude for injured feelings of Reform and conservative Jews.
“We understand how you must feel,” the ad began. “We Jews for Jesus are used to that kind of de-labeling.” We too have been found not “Jewish enough or pious enough to suit some standards.”
No doubt American Jews were shocked by the thought that they had anything in common with Jews for Jesus. More than 30 years ago, Philip Roth noted in a Commentary symposium that American Jews define themselves not in terms of what they are, but in terms of what they are not: We are not Christians.
More recently, critic Michael Medved has written, “[American Jews] do not believe in Jesus as the messiah. End of sentence, end of story… This rejection marks the sum total of their theological commitment, the beginning and end of their ideological identity as adherents to what is still misleadingly described as ‘the Jewish faith.’” Rabbis who do not balk at marrying Jews and non-Jews or two men, he points out, will nevertheless refuse to marry to “Messianic Jews,” even if they are halachically Jewish.
Deep in the collective unconscious of the Jewish people is the memory of millions of ancestors slaughtered in the name of Jesus. That collective memory no longer prevents more than half of American Jews from marrying Christians or 10 percent of born Jews from joining Christian churches or other religions. Yet visceral feelings of revulsion toward Christian symbols are still widespread in the Jewish community, particularly among the older generation.
There is an almost unanimous consensus in the Jewish community that joining Jews for Jesus cuts one off from the historical continuity of the Jewish people. (Curiously most American Jews do not perceive their non-Jewish grandchildren are irretrievably lost in the same way, though an American Jewish Committee study found that 82 percent of children of intermarriage are not raised as Jews.)
Though American Jews may be certain that they are far better Jews than those who identify themselves as Messianic Jews, it would be a valuable thought experiment to ask themselves why. That question would force them to consider – perhaps for the first time – the crucial issue of what determines legitimacy of a particular belief or practice in Jewish terms.
True, Judaism rejects Jesus as the messiah. But it also insists upon a God, who gave us His law at Sinai. Why is the acceptance of Jesus as the messiah more un-Jewish than rejection of God as lawgiver? Why is Jewish atheism less oxymoronic than Jewish Christianity?
By what standard is the modern Jewish conscience so easily reconciled to “rabbis” who declare the Five Books of Moses irrelevant to determining their position on homosexuality or any other issue? By what authority do those same rabbis suddenly “discover” that having a Jewish father makes one Jewish? How can 4,000 delegates to the recent Reform convention in Dallas gulp down non-kosher food without qualms?
Messianic Jews accept most of Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith; most American Jews would be hard-pressed to affirm more than a few, if they knew what they were. Many groups of Messianic Jews are halachically observant to a far greater degree than most Reform and Conservative Jews. So why is one group Jewishly illegitimate and the other legitimate?
Unfortunately, that is not a question American Jews are equipped to answer, for they have lost the habit of asking themselves how a particular practice or belief is legitimized in Jewish terms, or of thinking about legitimation at all. Challenged to justify their practice or belief in Jewish terms, they are more likely than not to stare at you slack-jawed, unable to comprehend the question at all.
They have not been taught to think of mitzvot as God-given law, but rather as suggestions awaiting their approval. Their standard of judgment is: I like this mitzva; I don’t like that one. Reminds one of the old American Bandstand: “I give that record an 8, Dick; I can really dance to it.”
The issue of legitimacy is not merely theoretical. It lies at the heart of the pluralism debate in Israel today. If the state puts its imprimatur on Reform conversions, why not on those of Messianic Jews, who outnumber Reform Jews in Israel today? If the Supreme Court requires the Western Wall to be open to “egalitarian” minyanim, why not the prayer services of the Jews for J? The Supreme Court will not be able to trick its way out of the conundrum, as it did in the Brother Daniel case, by declaring that one cannot belong to two religions at the same time. Jews for J don’t consider themselves Christians but Messianic Jews.
If neither history nor Halacha are any longer a guide to legitimacy – as must be the case to classify the Reform and Conservative movements as merely different “streams” of Judaism – then history and Halacha cannot be used to deny equal rights to Jews for J.
We are not dealing here with some law professor’s slippery slope. The New York Times ad makes the argument clearly: We are as entitled to call ourselves Jewish as anyone else. The Jews for J are nothing more or less than the ultimate Jewish pluralists.
(Reprints only with permission of the Jerusalem Post.)
THE GOOD SAMARITAN
Kol Ha’Ir, Jan.16; The Jerusalem Report, Jan.22; Israel Radio, Jan.26 1998
This is the story of David Ortiz, an American immigrant living in the West Bank town of Ariel who is bringing the gospel to the Palestinians. He visits their villages and workplaces, picks up hitch-hikers, and always has Arabic Bibles and literature on hand to give away. According to reports, he is responsible for a recent wave of close to 100 conversions from Islam.
Not everyone is happy about this – many of the converts have experienced threats and violence at the hands of their neighbors and Moslem religious authorities, others have been arrested by the Palestinian police. But they’re willing to suffer for their new-found faith, stating that they have finally found peace in the midst of an often violent society. Ortiz himself was once arrested by the Israeli police, who thought that he was distributing anti-Israeli literature, and has suffered discrimination and harassment at the hands of suspicious neighbors in Ariel.
The believers meet in a church in Ramallah, in their villages and in Ortiz’ home for fellowship and study. In the words of Ortiz’ wife Linda (herself a Messianic Jew), “Our faith brings peace between Palestinians and Jews. It breaks down the walls between us and removes hatred and racism.”
“PEACE TEAM” THREATENED
Kol Ha’Ir, Jan.23; Jerusalem Post, Jan.25, 1998
Members of the Christian Peace Team, a group advocating non-violence, have received death threats from Kach (extreme Jewish right-wing) activists. The five members of the group are living in Hebron, trying to show their support for victims of injustice on both sides of the political divide as well as physically intervening to prevent violence. In the eyes of some Jewish residents, however, these foreigners are anti-Semitic provocateurs who heat up the already tense atmosphere and prevent Israeli soldiers from doing their duty. Members of the Peace Team themselves state that though they have good ties with many of Hebron’s Arab residents, they have been attacked, both verbally and physically, by members of the Jewish enclave.
The Jerusalem Post article, an editorial by Daoud Kuttab, contrasts this group with Christian Zionists, who in his opinion are too uncritical of the Israeli political right-wing. He considers Christian Zionists an embarrassment to Palestinian Christians, and their zealous support for the Netanyahu government an “unholy alliance.”
IN THE KNESSET
Yated Ne’eman, HaModia, Ha’Aretz, Jan.14; The Jerusalem Post Jan.22, 1998
The Knesset Interior Committee has discussed a proposed bill that would make any religious conversion illegal in Israel. The bill was submitted by a member of the Shas orthodox party. Most of the MKs attending the meeting supported the passage of such a law, and the proposal was sent on to the Knesset Law committee. The meeting of the Interior committee was attended by representatives of both anti-missionary organizations and Messianic congregations in Israel, resulting in a heated discussion even by Israeli standards.
Ha’Aretz includes quotes from Baruch Maoz, who stated that Messianic believers are against using any kind pressure to convert people, but insist on the right to state their opinions. Another Messianic representative told the committee that faith in God could not be bought, and that Israeli believers suffer from a false image and are persecuted for their faith.
The Jerusalem Post article includes mention of a meeting between A. Kennet, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Inter-Religious Affairs Dept., and leaders of Israel’s Protestant community, at which Mr. Kennet assured those present that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and the government were opposed to any such legislation. However, Rev. Charles Kopp of the United Christian Council in Israel noted that following his promise to an American Christian leader to fight the proposed anti-missionary law, Netanyahu promised an MK from the orthodox United Torah Judaism party to fight missionary activity.
“STOP THE MESSIANIC STUDENTS”
Itton Yerushalayim, Jan.16 1998
The anti-missionary Yad L’Achim organization has demanded that the Hebrew University outlaw the activities of the Fellowship of Christian Students on campus due to their missionary nature. Recently the group held an open panel discussion entitled “Everything you ever wanted to know about Jesus,” which drew some orthodox students who started an argument. A representative of the group stated that they and their activities are legal according to campus statutes. The University spokesman’s response to Yad L’Achim was that the public and legal status of the Christian group would be investigated before any decision is made.
AFRAID OF A JEWISH POPE
Ha’Aretz, Jan.14 1998, by E. Slepter
Pope John Paul’s recent conciliatory statements towards the Jewish people, while welcome, are causing worry among some Orthodox Jewish leaders. This, in their words, is because the Vatican’s new openness to Judaism might cause some Jews to get closer to the Church, as well as encouraging inter-marriage. Another cause for concern is the fact that Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger, who was born to a Jewish mother and considers himself a “completed Jew,” is a serious papal candidate. The very possibility of him becoming the next Pope creates a theological problem for Judaism, as it “blurs the lines” separating the two religions.
NEWSPAPERS USED IN THIS EDITION:
The Jerusalem Post: National English language daily, published in Jerusalem. Tends to the religious right, but careful and relatively fair towards believers (has a large Christian readership). Friendly towards right-wing political Christianity.
Kol Ha’Ir: Jerusalem leftist weekly. Pro-Palestinian, anti-religious, objective towards believers.
The Jerusalem Report: English language bi-monthly published in Jerusalem, world-wide distribution. Politically centrist or left of center. Sensitive and objective towards believers.
Yated Ne’eman: National religious/political daily published in Bnei Brak. Very hostile to believers.
Ha’Modia: Jerusalem religious daily. Very hostile to believers.
Ha’Aretz: National daily, published in Tel-Aviv, mostly objective towards believers.
Itton Yerushalayim: Jerusalem weekly.