How to reply when the doorbell rings

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Many years ago, while a rabbi in Atlanta, I answered a knock on my door one Shabbat afternoon. Standing in front of me was a fine-looking couple – obviously non-Jewish.

“Shabbat Shalom, rabbi,” they said, and asked to have a word with me.

I sensed that they were missionaries and asked them what the subject was. They replied that they wanted to talk to me about the “Son of God.”

I suggested that while I respected their personal beliefs, in Judaism there is no such thing as a son or mother of God, that ours is a very strict monotheistic faith, and that our God is one, not two, and not three. I added that before attempting to convert Jews, they should consider converting Christians to Christian teachings, because throughout history, Jews had seen very little of Christian love and of turning the other cheek.

End of conversation.

WELL, AT least they were honest. Today, missionaries are much more subtle.

For one thing, they often pose as Jews themselves. And, most significantly, they do not initially ask Jews to accept Jesus as the son of God, nor mention that in Christianity, Jesus is worshipped as a divine being.

Contemporary missionaries realize that Jews – even secular, non-religious Jews – have a visceral revulsion at the idea of a human being as divine. They also realize that, for Jews, the figure of Jesus symbolizes a church that has for millennia condemned Jews to purgatory and eternal damnation; that the church, in the name of Christian love, has been responsible for oceans of Jewish blood because of the Jewish refusal to accept Jesus as a divine being; and for the belief that Jews deserve to suffer because of this refusal.

Aware of all this, many contemporary missionaries have apparently altered their strategy. They are now appealing to Jews from a pseudo-Jewish perspective. In order to entrap Jews, in other words, much missionary activity has been Judaized. Jesus is no longer Jesus; he is now “Yeshua,” a nice, Jewish-sounding name – as seen in recent missionary ad campaigns on Jerusalem’s buses.

A close reading of some of today’s missionary material shows that the central belief in the divinity of Jesus and his role as “lord and savior” is hardly mentioned. Today’s emphasis is on his supposed role as messiah. Further, many missionaries themselves now refer to themselves not as Christians but as “messianic Jews.” They wear yarmulkes, don a tallit, and even have their own “rabbis.”

The State of Israel is a crucial target for such missionaries, and many so-called messianic Jews are actually born Christians who have given themselves Jewish names and moved to Israel for one reason: to proselytize Jews.

THIS NEW strategy is illustrated by several recent media articles. The Washington Post ran a news article on June 21, picked up from the Associated Press, about “messianic Jews” who claim that they are discriminated against in Israel – a questionable accusation. The article’s description of messianic Jews made not a single reference to the divinity of Jesus. It slavishly followed the news release of the missionary group that issued it – which was careful not to mention the fact that so-called messianic Jews believe Jesus is the son of God.

Even The Jerusalem Post made no mention of the divinity of Jesus in its article last Thursday about the three-day messianic conference taking place that weekend.

An innocent reader comes away from such articles with the impression that “messianic Jews” are simply another group within Judaism. There are Orthodox Jews, hassidic Jews, haredi Jews, and there are messianic Jews – all part of one big, happy Jewish family

WHAT WE see here, in effect, is a renewed assault on the fundamentals of Judaism – not the traditional frontal assault, but, in a shift in tactics, one that attempts to infiltrate through indirect means by blurring the Jesus-as-God aspect of Christianity and stressing the Jesus-as-messiah aspect. Many missionaries feel this roundabout approach is less threatening to Jews, more “Jewish-friendly.”

In view of this renewed offensive against the basic beliefs of Judaism, some obvious truths must be reiterated:

First and foremost is the cornerstone belief of Judaism: God is a pure and unadulterated One. He is singular, the unity of all unities, alone, unique, and indivisible. He cannot be transformed into two or into three – and certainly not into statues or figures. He is not and never was human, and he has no physicality, no father or mother.

Millions of Jews have gone to their deaths proclaiming Shema Yisrael – Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Over and over again the Hebrew Bible prophetically warns against the inevitable attempts to dilute and distort this unity (see Deut. 13).

Further truths follow from this cardinal principle:

1. It is a distortion to claim that one can be a Jew and at the same time believe in Jesus as a god or as a messiah, or a prophet or savior.

2. It follows, therefore, that terms such as “Jews for Jesus,” or “Jewish Christians” are grotesque perversions. Such terms are misleading, misguided, misconceived, and ultimately a miscarriage of truth – for no Jew can believe in any divinity other than the One God, and no Jew can view Jesus as anything other than a teacher of another faith system.

AS FOR the true identity of the Messiah, we have no specific knowledge, as Maimonides states in his Code, in Hilchot Melachim. In Judaism, the Messiah will not be a divine creature but a man born of a man and woman; he will inaugurate an era of universal peace, spirituality and enlightenment, and will gather in all Jewish exiles to the land of Israel, as outlined in Isaiah 11.

Jesus has not fulfilled any of these prophecies. Furthermore, he is worshipped as a deity by another faith. For converts to Christianity to claim that they are “messianic Jews” is thus another pathetic distortion.

Having said this, it is important to state that Judaism has no quarrel with those who choose not to follow the pure monotheism of our faith.

We are not a missionary religion, and the benevolent behavior of the modern State of Israel toward non-Jewish religious minorities demonstrates Jewish magnanimity to those who do not follow Jewish ways. We have only respect for those who wish to worship their own deity in their own way, and to live ethically and lovingly with all people. We condemn those who would demean or use violence against believers of another religion.

AT THE same time, missionaries should know that Judaism disdains those who would entrap unlettered Jews through deception and falsehoods. To try to persuade innocent Jews that there is no real difference between Judaism and Christianity – even when these attempts stem from “love and friendship” for the Jewish people – is an example of such deception.

We welcome genuine evangelical love and friendship and cherish evangelical support for the State of Israel. But evangelicals must realize that words like “love and friendship” are very hollow when they come at the price of apostasy and betrayal of the millennia-old faith of the Jewish people.

Jews understand that the conversion of the Jews to Christianity is a central tenet of many Christian sects. We know that missionary societies around the world budget many millions of dollars annually in order to “save” Jews. If this is a basic teaching of evangelicals, so be it. But Jews can learn from them. We too should be budgeting millions to save fellow Jews around the world, and especially in Israel, from ignorance and Jewish illiteracy.

The old secular Zionist order, in its haste to be accepted by the outside world, deprived entire generations of Israeli Jews of even elementary knowledge of our Jewish heritage – with the result that too many Jews have no idea of what Judaism stands for, or of the deep chasms that separate Judaism from Christianity.

We must become missionaries to ourselves. It is long past time for us to deliver serious Jewish learning to our people. This is particularly needed for newcomers to Israel from lands like Russia and Ethiopia, who are particularly vulnerable to the artful blandishments of clever missionaries. They, together with all Jews, need to know how to reply when the doorbell rings.

Printed in the Jerusalem Post, July 3.

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14 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    Raymond: So if a secular Jew has no intention of changing, then the religious Jew would leave him alone, as mandated by Jewish law.

    Ori: How would the religious Jew know if the secular Jew is acting against Halacha out of ignorance, weakness, or a true desire to continue to behave in that fashion?

  2. Raymond says:

    As a matter of fact, I DO see parallels between a religious Jew trying to force Jewish law on me, with a Christian missionary trying to force Jesus on me.

    As it so happens, however, it is against Jewish law to reprimand a fellow Jew who is not likely to change that particular behavior. So if a secular Jew has no intention of changing, then the religious Jew would leave him alone, as mandated by Jewish law. And if a secular Jew DOES want to change, then he will actually welcome the religious Jew coming to teach him about the ways of living a Jewish life.

    But I am not convinced that Christian missionaries follow these guidelines. On the contrary, they either knock indiscriminately on everybody’s door, or specifically target Jews. As a man proud of my Jewish heritage, I regard such behavior as both obnoxious and insulting.

  3. Tzippi says:

    I think there is a difference between American missionaries and Israeli missionaries, especially since the Israelis are more likely to be Messianic. This would effect how to interact, if at all.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Nothing whatsoever is gained by our talking to missionaries. As for reducing their influence, the one way is to improve Jews’ basic understanding of Judaism and ties to genuinely Jewish communities.

  5. Aaron says:

    “1. It is a distortion to claim that one can be a Jew and at the same time believe in Jesus as a god or as a messiah, or a prophet or savior.”

    I’d correct this to

    “1. It is a distortion to claim that one can be practicing Judaism and at the same time believe in Jesus as a god or as a messiah, or a prophet or savior.”

    A Jew who eats bacon double cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur is still a Jew, despite acting in a non-Jewish way.

  6. The Hedyot says:

    I wonder if people would feel the same ambivalence if it was frum yeshiva bochurim knocking on secular people’s homes and talking about what they have to offer?

  7. Jason Berg says:

    I am finishing a great book by an Orthodox friend of mine, David Klingoffer, called “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus.”

    I strongly recommend it for any Jewish person that may be confronted by the Messianic cult.

    Out here in the western US, the Messianics tend to be people that were Christians but lost faith in Christianity.

    We find many of them get a taste of Judaism and then they come to our shul because they want to convert away from Jesus altogether. In the years that I’ve known them, they’ve never once mentioned a single nice word about their Messy
    past and privately have told me of their teshuva and reinvigorated hope since finding an open doorway to true Yiddishkiet.

    We still lose more Jews to rejection of the mitzvot than we do to any external pressures.

  8. One Christian's perspective says:

    What I am saying is that I consider the act of a Christian trying to make me believe in Jesus, as an act of both tremendous disrespect, and harassment. Why be polite to somebody who so obnoxiously tries to force his views down my throat? Should I be polite to somebody who wants me to swallow poison? Just call a spade a spade, and be done with it.

    Comment by Raymond

    I agree ! No authentic Christian was ever forced to accept Jesus as their Savior. Neither was Israel forced to accept G-d’s Laws at Sinai. It is a spiritual event where heaven and earth meet in the hearts and minds of men and woman. Otherwise it becomes a political/social event.

  9. Roman Catholic says:

    I write as someone who has many good friends among both haredim and messianic Jews. Those who write for this blog who know me personally know that I frown upon proselytizing. However, I find much in R. Feldman’s article that is sad and disturbing.

    First and most serious is the claim “THIS NEW strategy is illustrated by several recent media articles. The Washington Post ran a news article on June 21, picked up from the Associated Press, about ‘messianic Jews’ who claim that they are discriminated against in Israel – a questionable accusation.” Please, this is a very serious problem that should not be made light of, but rather, deserves being addressed honestly. There have been a number of violent attacks by haredim on missionaries and messianic Jews in places like Arad. You don’t have to search hard to find photos of Christian places trashed/fire-bombed/bombed, with local authorities reportedly doing little to go after the perpetrators. If Cross-Currents has been one to recognize hareidi-upon-hareidi attacks, then do you think Christians/messianic Jews have been spared? Why scoff at the notion?

    We Roman Catholics in the U.S. are hemorrhaging members to the Protestant Evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormon missionaries who target our communities. However, I would not minimize, I would not tolerate–no–I would CONDEMN any Catholic who took it upon himself to do violence to one of these, and I would chastise the fellow Catholic who minimized the violence. I certainly wouldn’t be trying to convince my fellow Catholics that the media was framing us.

    I am also dismayed that messianic Jewish practice is reduced by R. Feldman to mere strategy for gaining converts. Messianic Jews I know grew up with a Jewish identification of some kind, and therefore, in speaking of “Yeshua” or donning tallit, their desire hasn’t been one of snookering other Jews. The language and practice has been adopted as a means of believing as a Christian within a context of Jewish language, prayer and ritual. You and I may disagree on whether such a person can persist in calling him or herself “Jewish,” but please understand that I am asking that you not ascribe incorrect primary motives. It is not right to mislead other Jews about messianic Jews.

  10. Moshe says:

    As long as messianic Chabad is accepted as a legitimate stream of Judaism, it will be difficult to explain to the masses what is wrong with “messianic Judaism”.

    Yes, I know that there are differences, but to be quite frank, the differences don’t impress anybody. A line needs to be drawn, and those that pass it will be excommunicated. It will be bloody and nasty, but the more it is pushed off, the harder it will be.

    Yes, I know that people will claim that this is a small part of Chabad that is unimportant and not the main group, but as long as they remain part of Chabad, the entire organization is pasul and treif.

  11. Ori says:

    Raymond: What I am saying is that I consider the act of a Christian trying to make me believe in Jesus, as an act of both tremendous disrespect, and harassment.

    Ori: I know plenty of Jews who believe Halacha is morally wrong, and consider anybody trying to make them observe any part of it(1) as an act of both tremedous disrespect, and harassment.

    Do you have any argument against them, other than “we’re right, they’re wrong”? Or do you agree that trying to make them observe Halacha is disrespectful of their personal beliefs.

    (1) Beyond those they do anyway, such as not stealing

  12. Raymond says:

    My attitude toward Christians is the following. Politically, American Christians, particularly the Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Mormons, are the very best friends that we Jews and our Jewish State of Israel have. I wish more Jews would be as pro-Israel as I have found many such Christians to be. So, as long as conversation with such people stays in the political realm, I actually enjoy talking to them.

    However, if individuals from that same group of people starts in with me about Jesus, I feel no need to hesitate to tell them how I really feel about that false messiah. I want to say how I really feel about Jesus here, but it may shock people, so I will refrain. Let’s just say I do not exactly have a positive view of him. Abbie Hoffman, anyone?

    What I am saying is that I consider the act of a Christian trying to make me believe in Jesus, as an act of both tremendous disrespect, and harassment. Why be polite to somebody who so obnoxiously tries to force his views down my throat? Should I be polite to somebody who wants me to swallow poison? Just call a spade a spade, and be done with it.

  13. LOberstein says:

    Several times in my rabbinical career, I was asked to name a baby girl by her Jewish grandparents. Once the grandparents were very anxious to have a certificate from me that their granddaughter had received a Jewish name. By chance a member of the shul saw this man wearing a cross. He asked if he were the same man who had come to shul and named his granddaughter whom he had, in his words, married a non Jewish man. The man confirmed that he was indeed a “fulfilled Jew” but claimed to be a full Jew as was his wife. Both of the grandparents pestered me several times for he certificate, which I refused to give them. The “Jewishness” of their granddaughter was important to them. Was it to fool others or maybe they honestly could not accept that they were abandoning the Jewish people .
    Another time, I was wiser and asked if the baby would also be baptised.
    The grandmother told me that yes the child would be baptised to appease the father’s parents but it was meaningless. I refused to name the child. Later I asked the grandmother, who has another daughter who is frum, and she told me that it wasn’t a problem. They found another rabbi who didn’t ask so many questions.

  14. ClooJew says:

    How wonderful to see Rav Feldman again! Please contribute more, rabbi. We need your words of wisdom.

    I had always been skeptical, lulei demistafina, of the efforts of anti-missionaries. Is this Klal Yisrael’s biggest problem – Jews who want to enter cults? I thought it was a fringe audience that, nebach, had bigger problems.

    However, it has since been brought to my attention that the cult in question is, for the most part, Christianity, whose message of love and acceptance (not to mention financial assistance) – weaved under the spell of well-funded and highly educated missionaries – resonates to many within the spiritually starved and fiscally impoverished populace of Israel.

    Jews need to go back to the fundamentals that Rav Feldman lists, and not take for granted that they are at the forefront of every Jew’s mind.