Reprinted from j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California with permission of the author.
Friday, June 9, 2006
Atop a mountain in the Golan Heights, I struck up a conversation with two Americans in the ladies' room line. One was a blonde from Texas, the other a brunette from Pennsylvania. From their badges, it was clear they were not Jewish. We chatted briefly, and one woman asked me whether I was with a group.
"I'm here with my synagogue, Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, California."
"Is that a Messianic congregation?" one of the women asked.
"Oh God, no!" I responded.
The women then let me know that they were "gentile Messianics," in Israel on a Zola Levitt Ministries tour.
As I was about to duck into a stall, the blonde said, "Well, the Lord bless you anyway."
Afterward, the blonde approached me at the sink and apologized if she said something that offended me. Then she and her friend asked me about Yeshua, the term Messianics use for Jesus. I said that I viewed Jesus as a post-biblical prophet, adding that many of his teachings were also espoused by Rabbi Hillel, whom they had never heard of.
While remaining calm, I told them that we Jews have no problems with Christians, but we don't think it's OK for Christians to try to convert Jews. I also told them that in the eyes of Judaism, you can't be both Jewish and Christian.
"We are an endangered species," I emphasized. "If you try to turn Jews into Christians, you're not our friends."
Apparently my words were a revelation to the tourists. I had a similar reaction several years ago to a couple who attended Palo Alto's Jewish street fair wearing Jews for Jesus jackets. The woman, who wasn't born Jewish, was attracted to Jews for Jesus because she "loves Jews." I told her that if she loves Jews, trying to convert them is an act of aggression, not love.
"If you succeed in turning Jews into Christians," I said, "then you're cutting them off from the Jewish community, from their roots. They are not 'complete Jews,' as you call them, but apostate Jews who are no longer part of the people Israel."
Over coffee in Jerusalem's Old City, I talked about my encounters with Barbara Midlo, a former Palo Altan who became observant and now lives in Israel. The so-called Messianics and Jews for Jesus, she said, are a drop in the bucket. The real threat to Judaism is intermarriage and assimilation.
Ironically, when I interviewed Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus, a couple of decades ago, he voiced similar thoughts. In fact, one of the Messianic Web sites I checked out estimates the numbers of Jews-turned-Christians at 20,000 to 30,000, compared with more than 14 million or more who identify as Jewish.
Despite their in-your-face tactics and high visibility, the Messianics are small potatoes. Nonetheless, I find myself far more outraged by their activity than I do by the inactivity of the unaffiliated. For one, these organizations receive funding from evangelical denominations. For another, they are wolves in Jews' clothing, sending missionaries not only to the former Soviet Union to prey on naïve Jews, but also to Israel itself.
These organizations erode interfaith understanding by misrepresenting Judaism to Christians, perpetuating false information about Jewish holidays and traditions. Finally, they misrepresent authentic Judaism to Jews.
When I sat in the Jews for Jesus San Francisco headquarters in the 1980s, Rosen put on an inspirational album composed and sung by a "Messianic Jew."
"Now tell me," he said. "Have you heard anything like this in a synagogue?"
Once upon a time, I was not impressed by most synagogue music. But these days, cantors and chorales are singing phenomenal works by classical and contemporary Jewish composers. It was such music that enticed me to return to Judaism after decades as a secular Jew.
"If music be the food of love," as Shakespeare surmised, "play on." Perhaps we need to play and sing more seductively--literally and metaphorically--bring back the unaffiliated with the flavor of a faith that has endured, despite the toxic sweet talk of our enemies.