At the end of 1988, full page advertisements appeared in the national press in Britain which exhorted Jews to embrace Jesus Christ as the Messiah and effectively to convert to the Christian faith. The reaction of most Jews was initially one of astonishment that, in this day and age, large sums of money should be spent on such a pointless exercise. In view of a plethora of worthy causes that are starved of funds, it seemed a distinctly unChristian act. Since a number of Christian groups intend to make the 1990s the decade of evangelism, how seriously should Jews take the activities of these zealots?
There is no hard evidence by which to form an opinion since not even the number of Jewish converts to Christianity is known. In this country, no research has been carried out by any Jewish organization to measure the success or failure of missionary work amongst the Jews. In the United States where the situation is more acute, the Director of the Task Force on Missionaries and Cults of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council recently remarked that there were 147 groups which have spent more than $150 million during the last five years on Christian missionary activities directed at Jews. He estimated that 25,000 Jews have been converted during the last ten years.
Since the Shoah, mainstream Christianity has become increasingly aware of the Jewishness of Jesus. This has been an ameliorating factor in Christian thinking. It has provided a basis for dialogue and commenced a historic process of re-examination. It has also secured a justification for the existence of evangelical fringe groups of converts who wish to proselytize amongst Jews who remain faithful to Judaism. Financially well-heeled, such groups preach that one can remain a Jew—like Jesus—whilst embracing Christianity. For religious Jews, this is an impossibility. For secular ones who are more than Jews in name only, the opportunity is regarded as a renunciation of the Jewish people’s special role in history. The striving towards tikun olam—repairing the world—is a goal which characterizes Jewish behaviour. Ahad Ha’am in his dispute with C.G. Montefiore, a founder of Liberal Judaism, remarked on the preference of the Jews for an abstract religious and moral ideal. There is no anthropomorphic figure to worship. There is no emphasis on specific individuality but on the diffuse collective. Ahad Ha’am wrote that “it will be sufficient to examine the daily and festival prayer-books in order to realize that only a small part of the prayers turns on the particular needs of the individual while most deal with the concerns of the nation and the human race in general”. (Judaism and the Gospels, 1910). Paradoxically, it is Judaism that is universalist and Christianity that is particularist.
The very idea that there is only one road to the truth strikes Jews as both illogical and intolerant. The thought that six million murdered Jews are “unsaved” and condemned to hell because they were the bearers of original sin is offensive to even the most anti-religious Jew. The Jewishness of Jesus is an established truth for both Jews and Christians. Yet Jews perceive his Jewishness differently from Christians. Many Jews now regard the historic Jesus as a religious-nationalist figure, a revolutionary insurgent against Roman imperialism, a charismatic leader of one of a number of Jewish sects which prevailed at the time—an orthodox Jew who would have rejected both the crown of divinity and the embrace of Pauline Christianity. Indeed, the very title “Jews for Jesus” is a misnomer for “Jews for Christianity”. Martin Buber significantly distinguished between the collective emunah of Jesus and the individual pistis of Paul. Many writers in recent times have attempted to demythologize Christian history and reclaim Jesus the Jew.
Even so, the passion and conviction of such fringe groups symbolize important but fundamental problems within Christian thinking. Can the Jews only seek salvation through Jesus? Do they need to be saved?
Should there be a Christian mission to the Jews? Before the war, the answer was relatively clear-cut—only total acceptance of Jesus Christ would suffice. Even decent anti-Nazi clergy such as Pastor Niemoller and Dictrich Bonhoeffer were unable to overcome the anti-Judaism of Christian teaching, stretching all the way back to the Byzantine Empire. Niemoller himself preached a sermon in 1937 which suggested that the teachings of the Gospels threw light “upon the dark and sinister history of this people that can neither live nor die because it is under a curse which forbids it to do either. Until the end of its days, the Jewish people must go its way under the burden which Jesus’s decree has laid upon it.”
The pagan anti-Semitism of modernity was nourished by the Christian anti-Judaism of history. Did Streicher not tell his accusers at Nuremberg that he was only repeating what Luther had said. It has only been a gradual recognition of Christian historical responsibility for the finality of the Shoah that has caused the church to investigate its distortion of Judaism. Geoffrey Wigoder in his recently published book, Jewish-Christian Relations since the Second World War (Manchester University Press, 1988), writes that “the Church which fomented a cultural myth as Christ-killer must now meet itself as Jew-killer”.
All churches today renounce and condemn antisemitism, but they have made only measured progress in eradicating its age-old perceptions of Judaism which contributed to it. Whilst Nostra Aetate was a great step forward, a spiritual ambivalence persists. As Wigoder underlines—”the assumption of an innate triumphalism which, even if only eschatological, continues to promote a psychology of superiority which can undermine dialogue”.
The Church of England also manifests this sense of transition towards a new understanding. At last year’s Lambeth Conference, the participants unanimously passed a remarkably coherent and positive document entitled “Jews, Christians and Muslims: The Way of Dialogue”. Whilst it rejected all covert proselytizing, it also stated, without comment, the reality that there are a variety of attitudes towards Judaism within Christianity today including those who “regard it as ‘their particular vocation and responsibility to share their faith with Jews”. The Church of England even has its own Ministry among the Jews. The honorary presidency of this organization is inherited by each succeeding Archbishop of Canterbury—and it is clear that the liberally minded Dr Runcie does not feel that it is timely to break with tradition.
In his book, Geoffrey Wigoder delineates three main Christian attitudes towards missionary work amongst the Jews. First, there is the approach of the mainstream which believes that the Church has a mission to all humanity and that the Jews are therefore not a special case. A second category, mainly conservative Christians, believe just the opposite—that the Jews do constitute a special case. In the words of the theologian Jakob Jocz: “If Christianity has no gospel for the Jews, it has no gospel for the World!” Finally, there is a broad spectrum of liberal Christians who believe in the necessity of dialogue, mutual recognition and coexistence—and that together the church and the Jewish people form “one people of God”.
The American theologian, Roy Eckhardt, is a fervent exponent of the latter view.
The Jewish people are already with God, participants in an age-old covenant. They do not have to be “saved”. The Christian is the man who dares to hope that he belongs in some all-decisive way to the family of Jews. If the Jewish people are not already among the family of God, we who are gentiles remain lost and without hope. By seeking to do away with the Jewish community, the missionary attitude is an assault on the very foundation of Christianity. (Jewish Christian Relations in Today’s Worlds, 1971)
New thinking on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism emerged even before the Shoah. The Jewish philosopher Franz Rosensweig, postulated the idea of two covenants standing before God. Some Christians believe in a single covenant where Christ was the point of entry for non-Jews. Others recognize that Judaism is a different religion and not a precursor of Christianity but that they share a common biblical pathway. The Vatican too has begun to distinguish between Christian witness and unwanted proselytism. Clearly the Christian doctrine of discontinuity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people has undergone undeniable modification. Despite these steps forward, the dismantling of the Christian concept of history and the restoration of the Jewish experience in its widest sense will not be accomplished overnight.
Paradoxically, we may witness a gradual decrease in organized missionary activity by the established church paralleled by an increase in evangelical radicalism. Moreover, it would seem likely that such evangelical groups are also more successful in their missionary work amongst Jews. And it may not simply be a question of public relations and packaging.
Professor Charles Selengut of Drew University recently reported on the findings of his research into the departure of Jews from Judaism (“American Jewish Converts to New Religious Movements”, Jewish Journal of Sociology, December 1988). Selengut questioned 100 Jewish converts, aged between twenty and thirty-five, to the Unification Church (the Moonies) and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna) in the United States. All the participants proved to be highly educated people, some of whom had attended America’s most prestigious academic institutions. They were in turn the children of similarly highly educated, professional parents—America’s “New Class”. The converts were not “involved” Jews themselves, but had sprung from a family background where parents held synagogue membership but attended only three times a year. They celebrated Pesach and Chanukah, but only 6 per cent maintained kosher households-and only 9 per cent went to synagogue on a weekly basis. The parental definition of Jewish was Orthodox 3 per cent, Conservative 35 per cent, Reform 45 per cent and “just Jewish” 17 per cent. Some 97 per cent of the families, according to the respondents, were non-observant Jews of whichever stream of Judaism. Selengut’s underlying approach was not so much to discover why a specific cult had attracted the Jewish convert but why he had been “pushed” from Judaism.
One respondent was asked what he found attractive about Judaism. The reply was
to tell you the truth, I never experienced the Jewish religion. All I had was family traditions. We did things but never knew why we did them. It was all so sentimental. Our Jewish activities had nothing to do with God.
Another replied that education had been substituted for God. What is clear is that virtually all the respondents did not find spiritual satisfaction in their parents’ home, but subsequently located moral strength in their adopted religion. Moreover, Selengut suggests that it is incorrect to portray their conversion as a radical identity transformation. It was not so much a rejection of Judaism but a break with family and a secularized religion. For most converts, modernity had stripped Jewish life of its sacred dimension. In his investigation, Selengut clearly points out that such apostasy was not forced but the culmination of a long search for a meaningful spiritual code for living. “They reject what they perceive as an overly individualistic and acquisitive Jewish middle-class society where worth tends to be measured in materialistic terms.”
Such sentiments—if applicable to the Christian cults here—may well explain the evangelicals’ belief that Anglo-Jewry is fertile territory.
The fragmentation of Jewish identity since the Haskalah has led to the reality of pluralism today. Modernity not only created great opportunities for the Jews but, for some, it also sowed the seeds of confusion by introducing the element of choice. Detached from the certainty of a regulated life in a kehilla, the contemporary adaptation of faith and ethnicity is still in a state of experimentation. As Jews in transition, we exist in a somewhat ethereal state. And it is the very transient nature of this condition which serves the missionaries and cultists.
Whilst Pablo Christiani has become a symbol of the primitive past, his modem heirs carry forward his conviction that only they walk the path of the righteous. Irrelevant or not, they are perpetual actors in the continuum of Jewish history. The right to proselytise is a human right; only a Jewishness which possesses an intrinsic richness rather than merely a survivalist veneer will provide a protective shield.
Jewish Quarterly Spring 1989