When it comes to Christian-Jewish relations, particularly Christian-Jewish dialogue, the most sensitive issues of all, of course, are those of mission and conversion. Thus those of us Christians who are seriously engaged in such dialogue need to be particularly sensitive about conduct on our part that could even remotely be interpreted as being missionary in nature.
At the same time, the question as to what constitutes “authentic Christian witness,” particularly vis-à-vis our Jewish interlocutors, is as unavoidable as it is unresolved for us. From time to time assemblies of major denominations, in the course of discussing pronouncements about Christian attitudes toward Jews, have come close to concluding that Jews ought to be exempted from any Christian outreach. In the end, however, it would seem that the imperatives of the gospel prohibited them from going so far: the missionary mandate was maintained, albeit—practically speaking—in a state of dormancy.
Recently Dr. Michael Kogan, writing in the National Dialogue Newsletter (Winter 1990–91), proposed that we move toward something called “total dialogue,” that is, risk the vulnerability of “expos[ing] one’s own community’s beliefs to influence by the other in a mutual enrichment process.” This proposal has inevitably evoked a good deal of debate, raising once again as it does the issues of conversion and mission. Invited by the editor of the newsletter to contribute a few observations on the idea of “total dialogue,” I myself decided to up Dr. Kogan’s ante by adding a further complication: “To exclude from the dialogue as a class,” I declared, “all Jews who confess Jesus as Messiah in the Christian sense is wrong, as wrong as any other violation of people’s conscience.” My comment was accompanied by an editorial stating that such a position would lead to the “overnight destruction of dialogue,” because people like Jews for Jesus insist on engaging in proselytizing activities toward their own people.
By coincidence, just around the same time, David Novak’s article “When Jews Are Christians” appeared in the November 1991 issue of First Things. In it, Novak warned that the progress made in Jewish-Christian relationships could be jeopardized because of a “new type of Jewish convert to Christianity,” namely, one who claims to remain a Jew while accepting Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. Arguing that the views of Messianic Jews are a problem both to the Jewish and the Christian communities, the author pointed out that a sympathetic hearing for these views or the part of church leaders could well cause difficulties for those Jews who have precisely been the strongest supporters of Christian-Jewish dialogue.
The complexities involved in this situation-theological, historical, and psychological—are clearly immense and may not be possible to overcome. In addition, there is often even no common language in which to discuss the problem. Take for instance, the terms “a follower of Jesus” and “a convert to Christianity.” Some Jewish Christian accept the former designation, but assiduously avoid the latter because to them it seems to imply that they embrace all of historic “Christendom.” By focusing on Jesus, they can retain a critical stance toward much that goes by the name of “Christianity.”
There is also the question as to whether a Messianic Jew is by definition someone who confesses Jesus as Messiah. Some Jewish Christians do not wish to define themselves in those terms; they are content to be known as Christians, period. But what if those same people still claim to remain Jews? Such is clearly the position of Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris. In his book Dare to Believe (1986), he is reluctant to discuss his decision to be baptized in the Catholic Church—out of a desire to avoid provocation. However, when pushed by reporters, he is most emphatic about his conviction that he has not ceased to be a Jew. “I am discovering another way of being Jewish,” he reports having told his parents, because to him Christianity is “a natural extension of Judaism.”
If the status of Cardinal Lustiger presents a problem to Jews, even more problematic, not only to Jews but to many Christians as well, is what could be called “the organized Messianic Jewish community”—Jewish Christians who form separate Messianic congregations, observe the Jewish Sabbath, continue many Jewish practices, and celebrate certain Jewish festivals. Such congregations have also organized themselves into national and international networks, such as the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA), the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), the Messianic Jewish Movement International, etc. Then there is Jews for Jesus, a separate organization with its own agenda and constituency. The same is true of various Hebrew-Christian mission societies. A monthly, The Messianic Times, reports on items of interest to all these groups. As an increasingly organized community with a strong missionary thrust, such groups are sometimes viewed as a major threat to Jewish-Christian rapprochement.
There have been periods in history when the problem of Christianity for Jews was very much focused on Jesus. He, as the central figure of the Christian faith, became the great symbol of all the evil that had been perpetrated against Jews in his name. It was not uncommon for pious Jews to spit in disgust at the mere mention of that name.
Much has changed in this respect. Jesus, as a Jew who was faithful to Torah, has become a figure with whom many Jews have become quite comfortable. He is seen as “one of ours.” As a matter of fact, many students today are gaining profound insights into Jesus through the large and rich body of literature on the subject by Jewish authors. The line, to be sure, is drawn at the Christian belief in Jesus as Son of God.
As it is on the question of conversion. It is always difficult for faith communities to see one of their own convert to another religion. But a Jew converting to Christianity has often been experienced by Jews as particularly painful. Not only has the Jewish community historically had a profound sense of peoplehood, but it has also been a minority community regularly subjected to persecutions in which, one way or another, Christians have played a part. So in the case of a conversion there has not only been a painful sense of loss to the community, but a bitter sense of betrayal as well. Moreover, the fact that expediency sometimes played a role in a Jew’s decision to convert didn’t make things any easier. Assimilated Jews were usually despised because they tried so desperately to be just like gentiles.
Today, the Jewish community is confronted with a very different kind of conversion problem, namely that of converts who, having embraced Christianity, seem to feel a greater need than before to accentuate their Jewishness, sometimes even to the point of Judaizing their names. In many cases these people are well-educated members of the yuppie generation, determined to raise their children as Christians with a strong sense of Jewish identity. They appear to want to flaunt what assimilated Jews of previous generations often sought to hide.
Ironically, it is precisely their desire to retain a Jewish identity and to maintain certain aspects of the tradition of their forebears that often is turned against them, leading to accusations that all this is a ploy, part of a covert and deceptive missionary strategy whereby they seek to seduce other Jews to forsake their faith as well. For centuries the Jewish community has had to struggle to maintain its faith in the midst of an often hostile gentile world or in the face of the Church’s missionary efforts. But the movement of Messianic Jews must look to many like a fifth-column assault.
Permit me here to introduce my own experience, which has offered me a very special vantage point from which to view some of the perplexities of this most perplexing issue. My wife and I both grew up in Dutch Reformed homes. Our fathers were not only committed church members, but professional workers. Our youthful experiences in life were by and large typical of Dutch Reformed children in the Netherlands, even though my grandfather was an Hasidic rabbi in Poland and my father a convert to Christianity, while her father had been a socialist activist in that same country who had also converted. We were never really part of the Jewish experience—until the Nazis made us so.
Hitler and his cohorts reminded us constantly about “the blood in our veins.” They made us part of one of the most traumatic experiences in all of Jewish history. My father was arrested as a Jew who had written books critical of Nazism and, after spending some time in Buchenwald, he was murdered in Mauthausen. When Jewish children put on a show for International Red Cross executives who came to inspect Adolf Eichmann’s “Paradeise ghetto” Terezin (Theresienstadt), my wife was there and her younger sisters were part of the group that so famously performed “The Tales of the Vienna Woods.” So you might say some experience of “Jewishness” had come into both our lives, almost in spite of our upbringing—and along with it, a sense of ambiguity about being at the same time part of a people’s history but basically still “outsiders.”
We have never talked much about these experiences, certainly not among the wide circle of our Jewish friends and acquaintances. Not only would it somehow seem an intrusion, but we have no desire, either, to join the ever-growing band of Christian Holocaust specialists. Thus it has been granted us to live and work at the borderline of the Jewish experience and the Christian encounter with that experience.
This will explain the impulse behind my comment to the National Dialogue Newsletter. I have come to feel increasingly uneasy about a certain current tendency to characterize converts from Judaism as people of questionable integrity.
None will deny that the greater the fervor to convert others, the stronger may be the temptation to engage in questionable missionary tactics. Nor can serious Christians oppose the idea that there should be a constant critical evaluation of Christian evangelistic methods and practices. Converts (to almost any kind of movement) tend to be highly aggressive in their attempts to persuade others. The prophetic-apostolic witness too knows of an inner imperative to speak, a mandate to proclaim. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak anymore in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). “Necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). Sometimes it can be a bit uncomfortable to be confronted by a zealous convert.
Certainly all of us must be prepared to listen to the critiques of other faith communities, and especially those of our Jewish brothers and sisters. But critical analysis also requires that we avoid quick and easy answers, particularly if they are motivated more by feelings of guilt about past sins than by faith commitments.
In this connection, the word “proselytizing” ought to be used with some care. It tends to be applied in an indiscriminate fashion, and not seldom with an implied negative connotation, so that by simply stating that someone engages in proselytism, one can implicitly be making a moral judgment.
Historically, the word “proselytism” did not necessarily carry such baggage. Highly respected Jewish scholars, like Dr. Bernard Bamberger (Proselytism in the Talmudic Period, 1939) and Dr. William C. Braude (Jewish Proselytizing in the First Five Centuries of the Common Era, 1940) have used the term quite unapologetically. Building on their research, Rabbi Ely E. Pilchik felt that he was in the spirit of ancient Jewish tradition when he wrote the following—to many, no doubt controversial—sentences: “We need numbers. We need more Jews lest we wither and disappear. We need proselytes. We need to win over Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Shintos, and other ‘goyim’ to Judaism” (The Jewish Week, December 24, 1981). This was not meant as a Christmas Eve threat; it was meant as a call to righteousness and concern about the future of the Jewish people in the post-Holocaust era.
Still, in the minds of many, proselytizing has become a code word for unethical missionary practices, implying coercion, deceit, and even bribery. The Catholic scholar Tommaso Federici, in an important 1978 address, defined rather carefully what he meant by the word, namely “attitudes and activities engaged in outside Christian witness … anything which infringes or violates the right of every person or community not to be subjected to external or internal constraints in religious matters.…” Judging by such a standard, it becomes a bit more difficult to object to any kind of evangelization as unethical.
David Novak, in the aforementioned article, does not confine himself to quick brush-offs with terms like “proselytism” or “deception” as he presents his case for why Messianic Jews could pose a threat to the future of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Rather, he offers a theological analysis in order to explain why these people, although according to normative Judaism still to be considered Jews, are not justified in making their claims. Today’s Messianic Jews, says Professor Novak, should be compared to the (heretical) “syncretists of the second and third centuries,” not to the first Jewish Christians (with whom they often compare themselves). At one time it may have been plausible to view Christianity as a form of Judaism, runs this argument, but a long and eventful history, including the history of Christian doctrinal formulations (e.g., “Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, the second person of the Trinity”), makes that now impossible.
Novak is concerned that churches might come to accept the self-definition of Messianic Jews, which in turn would arouse the suspicion among the Jewish partners in dialogue that their Christian counterparts silently condone a new form of proselytizing aimed specifically at Jews. Thus the mission/witness issue which, at least in the “mainline” churches, had been largely but not entirely dormant, is once again moved to the forefront of Christian-Jewish relations.
One statement in Novak’s article is particularly striking. He points out that, according to the Pauline principle that “in Christ there is no Jew or Greek,” the Church has expected Jews to become what could be called “regular members,” just like all the other members. As a matter of fact, he then adds, Jewish converts to Christianity themselves almost always “accepted the Church’s definition of their new status. They no longer regarded themselves as Jews and were often quite vehement in repudiating their former identity.”
Here we remind ourselves that in the Middle Ages it was quite common for church authorities to force Jews to publicly renounce their heritage before accepting them into the Church. We know the formula: “I do here and now renounce every rite and observance of the Jewish religion, detesting all its solemn ceremonies and tenets that in former days I kept and held.” In short, a “good convert” was one who had totally abandoned his/her Jewish identity.
But in more recent times it has become recognized in Christian circles, missionary circles in particular, that our blindness to the need for contextualization of the gospel has been one of the biggest mistakes the Church has made in its worldwide outreach. The Christian message must be incorporated into the life and culture of the peoples to whom it is addressed, be it in Africa, Asia, or wherever. It has now become clear that the approach followed previously was unfortunately tainted by a certain ecclesiastical imperialism. A “good convert” was often portrayed as a person well acculturated to our Western ways. Missionary success stories were frequently about “native” evangelists who acted, talked, and even dressed like British Methodists or American Southern Baptists. Jews too were usually most welcome if they adjusted to our churchly ways.
Today the situation is quite different. The need for contextualization is widely recognized, and consequently the development of ethnically oriented churches is not only condoned, but actively encouraged. Even in the United States we see a growing number of Korean Presbyterian churches, Reformed Taiwanese churches, and the like. Each of these Christian communities is recognized as being unique in its own way, and yet all are seen as part of the one Body of the Church.
As it happens, discussions about the preservation of Jewish identity within the Church and the pros and cons of establishing separate Hebrew-Christian congregations have been going on for many years now. In the rather extensive body of literature produced by Jewish converts to Christianity one finds all sorts of questions raised, including questions about the early formulations of Christian doctrine. As the U.S. Catholic bishops pointed out in one of their pronouncements, a process of de-Judaization of the Christian faith started very early in its history. Elements of the Hellenistic thought world were introduced, and in many cases Christian theological expression became quite dependent on Greek metaphysical categories.
We know why this happened and how it helped communicate the gospel to the Greco-Roman world. But we also know that the process of de-Judaization eventually became a handy tool in the hands of those who advocated an anti-Judaic theology. After all, the biblical revelation came to humanity in Hebrew context; in order to learn to “spell the Name,” it is important that one be able to enter into Hebrew thought. Yet for many Jewish converts the Christian theological climate never seemed very hospitable, nor have they always felt “at home” in our local congregations.
The Church for its part has its own difficulties with trying to determine what constitutes an “authentic witness” vis-à-vis Jewish neighbors. Jews as Jews are not outside the orbit of revelation. Quite the contrary, they are the people of the covenant in whose midst the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob made himself known and revealed his Name. A growing number of denominations have confessed that they were wrong when, over a long history, they taught a replacement form of theology and contributed to the sufferings of the Jewish people. In light of that history, it is no wonder that many church leaders are inclined to pause before proposing ambitious missionary schemes. In the words of Professor Krister Stendahl, they tend to hold “the missionary urge to convert Israel … in check.” For most of them, however, this whole situation is experienced as a dilemma, because, with few exceptions, these church leaders also agree with someone like Professor Gabriel Fackre who, in a commentary on the 1987 United Church of Christ document on the Church and the Jewish people, declared quite unequivocally: “Antisupersessionism does not forbid sharing the Gospel with Jewish people.” The question is, how do we do that, while honoring the continuing covenant of God with Israel?
The apostle Paul was not yet burdened by the history that so heavily weighs upon the churches. But in his missionary outreach he faced some of the same questions that we must confront today. For instance, he never lost sight of the distinction between those who know Torah and those who do not, even when he argued their equal status before God … as people in need of forgiveness. Jews and gentiles live in a different thought-world; they raise different questions, because they do not share the same expectations. Take, for instance, a passage like 1 Corinthians 1:18–31: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.…” Jews know Torah. Their expectations about future redemption have always been closely related to historical reality. They want to know where the empirical evidence is to be found that the Messianic age has been inaugurated. How can the message of Christ crucified reveal the power of the Kingdom? Hence the challenge to preach the gospel in such a way that it does not preclude a theology of history and culture. The New Testament does that by emphasizing the cosmic dimensions of a biblical Christology.
The Greeks, on the other hand, seek wisdom. Their fundamental vision is one of world harmony. Hence, the message of the cross seemed, from the perspective of their philosophical presuppositions, a rather foolish idea.
But in terms of guilt before God, Paul sees both Jews and gentiles in need of the same grace. Similar ideas can be found in other passages. Romans 1:18–2:29 is an example. Those who are outside the orbit of revelation of the God of Israel, who do not know Torah, are tempted to deify the cosmos. Instead of glorifying God, who has revealed himself as Creator, they tend to worship their own images (1:23). Jews know better. But, as Paul sees it, they too are without excuse (2:1), because their actions do not conform to the demands of the law, and hence they stand guilty before God and are in need of redemption. So in the end Paul finds the answer for the predicament of both Jew and gentile in Christ’s fulfillment of the law, an obedience he interprets as an act of redemption.
Still, he is deeply aware of the dangers that loom on the horizon as soon as the Church loses sight of the mystery of the calling of Israel, a theme he develops in the much-discussed chapters Romans 9–11. Triumphalism takes over; the branches that have become ingrafted into the tree of God’s covenant with the people of Israel forget that they do not support the root; the root supports them (11:18).
Paul could hardly have imagined how his fears would play out on the stage of subsequent history. Now, almost 2,000 years later, we know what that kind of triumphalism has led to. To the inherent offense of the cross were added offenses that were rooted in the sins of the churches. And so for many Jews the thought of any Christian witness directed at them is scandalous. The late Rabbi Pinchas Peli raised a protest against missionary activities that was both sharp and direct: “What they are doing is something that cannot be pardoned, cannot be forgiven, especially in Israel, especially after the Holocaust. We have not yet settled our account with Christianity as it is. One doesn’t need to add insult to injury, and try to take us away from our religion.” And so we live in the tension field between our own peccavi and the gospel imperative to witness to all humankind. The missionary mandate is not denied, but in practice the issue is often surrounded by an embarrassed silence.
Enter the Messianic Jews, filled with the missionary élan of new converts, more than vocal in spreading the word about their new-found faith in Jesus, sometimes even taking out full-page advertisements in major newspapers. No closet Christians they. They do not see themselves as “targeting” a special group “out there” for their witness, because for them the confrontation normally starts among their immediate family, relatives, and friends, and then spreads through the broader community of which they still feel themselves a part, albeit perhaps in a state of estrangement.
How to respond to these realities? David Novak undoubtedly speaks for the great majority of Jews when he writes that Christians cannot expect them to accept any notion that Messianic Jews might serve as “a unique link between the Jewish people and the Church.” However, from the Christian point of view it could well be argued that the idea of such a link ought to be explored. If Hebrew-Christians were to introduce a more Hebraic mode of thinking into our often Hellenized ways of doing theology, the Church could benefit greatly. For decades we have been struggling to develop a prophetic-messianic vision, an eschatology that includes both expectancy and social responsibility, that would help us break out of our sterile either-or theological constructions and ideological preoccupations.
In our search for a vision of the future, we have traveled from fad to fad; from a historical existentialist theologies to theologies of revolution; from post-Christian celebrations of the secular city to the establishment of peace, justice, and liberation bureaucracies that are ever itching to be prophetic if denominations will provide secure financial support, even in some cases to the point of assessing (i.e., taxing) their membership for the “service.” The churches desperately need a theology of the Kingdom of God that incorporates the broad historical and cosmic themes of the Hebrew Scriptures and apostolic writings.
Can Messianic Jews serve as a link in such matters? Potentially, I would say, “yes.” Still, as of now there seems to be little reason to be optimistic on that point. In many instances their thinking seems to be permeated by Christian otherworldliness. Much of their piety is imbued with a “precious Jesus” Messianism that lacks a broad historical vision. The type of fundamentalism that many Messianic Jews have embraced has much to say about the soul (often in very Hellenistic terms), spiritualizing the gospel message so as to virtually empty it of its social-political implications. In short, to me all this sounds too much like more of the un-Hebraic dualistic mode of thinking that the Church needs to overcome. Furthermore, when a historical perspective is presented, it is often so charged with the hype found among some of the television prophecy preachers that a calm discussion of biblical theology becomes almost impossible.
Still, isolation without conversation cannot be the answer. Messianic Jews are part of the Church, a fellowship in which many differences coexist within a community of common faith. Potentially they have something important to contribute to the whole Church. Nobody’s interest is served by pushing them to become an increasingly sectarian movement. True, some of their present isolation may well be self-imposed. Perhaps there is an element of clannishness involved. Honesty, however, demands that we look deeper than that. The fact that these people often see themselves as “twice exiled,” rejected by their old home and not entirely welcome in their new one, requires our serious consideration.
Among evangelicals, who by and large do not experience mission, including mission to Jews, as much of a dilemma, one finds a measure of openness toward Messianic Jews. Since the evangelicals’ dialogue with the Jewish community is less developed than that of the Christian “mainstream,” they also feel less pressure to protect contacts that have been cultivated over a long period of time.
Still, evangelicals who are strong supporters of the State of Israel, even though they may have positive personal feelings toward Messianic Jews, are often inclined to tone down their churches’ mission theology and to keep cautiously quiet about any contacts they may have with them. The reason is quite simple: they are eager to maintain their close ties with Jewish leaders, both here and in Israel. Consequently, they are caught between conflicting loves and loyalties.
All in all one senses a good deal of ambivalence in the evangelical community at large about the Messianic Jewish movement. Theologically there may be a feeling of kinship, but on the level of community life there often is a hesitation about the otherness of the other. If dialogue is based on I-thou relationships rather than the absorption of one party into the other, if dialogue means expectant openness to mutual transformation, then it would seem that the evangelical and Messianic Jewish movements have a long way to go.
The “mainline” Christian-Jewish dialogue movement is quite another story. Some of the leading theologians in those circles tend to see a closer link between their faith and traditional Judaism than between them and Messianic Jews. Of course, they also have made a greater effort to develop contacts and exchange views with the Jewish community. Messianic Jews usually are seen as a disturbing, even threatening, element in the mix of Christian-Jewish relations, and hence they frequently evoke feelings of hostility.
Participants in the “mainstream” dialogue have reached a virtual consensus that no true dialogue is possible with anyone who may give even the slightest indication of believing that the answer to life’s mysteries in the final analysis is to be found in his/her religious tradition. That, they say, is the true mark of triumphalism and means the death of dialogue. Nevertheless, these same people express a desire to reach out to Islam, even though there is no reason to believe that Jewish-Christian-Muslim conversations presently can be conducted on the basis of a “theology of equality.”
No doubt, truth claims can complicate dialogue, but do they necessarily lead to the death of dialogue? All forms of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue were born when, in a general atmosphere of polemics and antithetical positions, some pioneers persisted in listening to each other even though their differences seemed insuperable. On the other hand, the death of dialogue may well be caused by indifference about fundamental beliefs that historically have been seen as touching on people’s eternal destiny.
At the moment we are facing a stand-off. Some of our Jewish partners want the issue of Messianic Jews on the agenda under the category of a “threat to dialogue.” Some Christian advocates of improved relations with the Jewish community, for a variety of reasons, find avoidance (if not rejection) of Messianic Jews an acceptable position, at least until the latter tone down their enthusiasm to share their new-found faith with others. Messianic Jews themselves, while often eager to portray themselves as potentially a creative link between Judaism and the Christian faith, may—also for a variety of reasons—prefer to make those claims “from a distance,” i.e., without making a real effort to contribute to a climate in which such issues can be explored. So, we end up with the worst of all possible dialogical worlds. All the parties seem stuck in their own peculiar fundamentalism.
Where will new incentives come from? The history of religious bodies shows that new initiatives usually come from pioneers who are prepared to probe the boundaries of establishment positions and establishment politics (including the politics of dialogue), people who are ready to take the risk of utilizing all the valuable lessons that have been learned during the past decades of interfaith encounters.
Issues raised by Messianic Jews today have deep roots in church history, going back to apostolic times. They deserve to be discussed, rather than summarily dismissed as mere repetitions of ancient heresies. Christians engaged in conversations with Messianic Jews ought not to be considered a threat to the ongoing Christian-Jewish dialogue, unless they say or do things that clearly are inimical to the integrity of interfaith relationships. Whether or not this is the case ought not be determined exclusively in terms of the politics of dialogue, but also, or perhaps even more so, in terms of the moral-spiritual values embedded in our faith.
Religious communities recognize a variety of callings. This is also the case within the context of interfaith dialogue. What we do not need are adversarial postures between people who feel called to explore different areas of dialogue. Maintaining links to both the Jewish and the Messianic communities will require a considerable dose of graceful sensitivity as well as a bit of political savvy. Only Christians who have honestly and humbly confronted the history of the Christian-Jewish experience should apply.
Dialogue, by its very nature, is an open process, always prepared to respond to new challenges. All new ventures in ecumenical and interfaith endeavors tend to start out as impossible dreams. The status quo never is good enough, least of all to those who have had long practice in the often painful process of dialogue and have tasted its fruits.
Isaac C. Rottenberg, a new contributor to First Things, is a minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has had broad experience in ecumenical relations and Christian-Jewish dialogue.