Sweet Singer of Israel: Unpublished Poems and Devotional Thoughts of Max I. Reich, With a Memoir by His Son
|Book Title:||Sweet Singer of Israel|
|Author:||Max Isaac Reich|
|Publisher:||Books for Libraries Press|
|Review Date:||Sep 1, 1995|
This unusual book is a little gem for anyone interested in Jewish missions and Jewish Christians. Max Reich (1867-1945) was for fifteen years head of Jewish Studies at Moody Bible Institute until his death. Prior to that he had been one of the founders of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America (HCAA) in 1915 after which he went on to edit the Hebrew Christian Alliance Quarterly. Additionally he helped found the International Hebrew Christian Alliance (IHCA) in 1937. This reprint of the 1948 original gives us a glimpse into the mind of an influential and godly Jewish believer of a previous generation.
The volume opens with a 20-page biography, really more of a eulogy, written by Reich’s son John. The style here is old-fashioned and flowery by modern standards, but that should not deter readers from following Reich’s fascinating life story. Another difference from contemporary books about Jewish believers is that the modern stories usually brim with references to one’s Jewish background, identification with the Jewish people and so forth. There is not a lot of that in this volume, and some may wonder how Max Reich felt about his Jewishness and his own people. In his own words: I did not imagine that I had left my religion. I had found it, discovered its true meaning, and saw it transfigured and elevated in Christ” (p. 16). John Reich notes pointedly that, “Max Reich never forgot his own people. Though he moved widely in Christian circles and his family was wholly identified with the Christian community, his deepest concern was for the spiritual fulfillment of the Jews, that they might know their Messiah.
The heart of the book is a large selection of Reich’s unpublished poems, devotional thoughts and aphorisms, divided into ten sections. They give us an inspiring glimpse into the heart of Max Reich as a man deeply devoted to God, ready to sacrifice everything and fully willing to undergo whatever God had for him in this life.
It must be left to others to judge whether Reich was a good craftsman of poetry. The verse is certainly worshipful in tone and varied in meter and structure. Most of the poems show Reich’s Quaker influence, as he pens stanzas about the inner light or when his writings have a pietistic and mystical edge to them. (The “inner light” doctrine of the Quakers did not mean that God was in everyone, but that God broke into the consciousness of every person; but each still had to choose for or against Christ.) Quite a few of the poems deal with the theme of sacrifice and dying to or giving up of oneself.
Reich sometimes uses creatively odd metaphors and images to convey spiritual truths: we find an elevator boy serving as a pattern for the Christian (p. 179); and nature serves as a paradigm for the human soul in “Back to My Origin” (p. 90).
Besides poetry, numerous sayings and aphorisms are included. Some are vividly memorable: “Jacob at his birth took his brother by the heel; in his youth he took his brother by the throat; but after Peniel he took his brother by the hand” (p. 125). Sometimes they are humorous but pointed: “An agnostic is a man who confesses that he does not know anything, yet, strangely enough, keeps on talking” (p. 38).
Those interested in Reich’s attitude to his own Jewish people will find the section “Songs of Zion” of interest. It is worth looking more closely at this part of the collection. On his own Jewishness, Reich writes in “A Jew” (p. 161):
They meant to shame me, calling me a Jew!
I pity them—they know not what they do.
They little think the name which they deride,
Each time I hear it, fills my heart with pride.
Since Jesus bore that name when here on earth,
No princely title carries half such worth.
In “Songs of Zion,” one theme is repeated over and over again: The Jewish people are suffering for turning against God’s Messiah two thousand years ago and will never have peace until they come to acknowledge the Prince of Peace, Jesus. In the light of the recent assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Reich’s poems in this section take on a modern relevance.
And finally, Reich speaks on the Jewish believer’s attitude to his own people, in “The Hebrew Christian to His Nation (Passover 1921)” (pp. 168-69):
Mother, wilt thou thy children spurn
And can thy mother-heart forget,
No more in pity o’er them yearn?
We claim the self-same heritage;
We glory in one common past,
The record of our sacred page.
We share thine exile, Israel;
Yet ’tis a twofold exile, ours,
As exiled from thy love as well.
And now, when hopes revive again,
And Zion calls her banished home,
Say, may we follow in their train?
And take our share her walls to raise,
And help to make Jerusalem
Once more a glory and a praise?
Ah! Mother, why are we apart?
Because of One by thee despised,
Whose name we carry in our heart.
Reich wrote before the establishment of Israel in 1948, yet how relevant his words are for a country that steadfastly denies Jewish believers in Jesus the same right of return as is granted to other Jews!
A word should be said in light of the modern Messianic Jewish movement. Some Jewish believers may be tempted to dismiss Reich because, his poetry about Israel notwithstanding, he appears to have been an “assimilated” Jew who did not live a Jewish lifestyle.
Yet “Jewish identity” is not monolithic. Liberal or Reform Jews are not generally observant but by and large continue to identify, often strongly, as Jews. In Israel, “secular” Jews maintain a Jewish identity in a different way from that of “observant” Jews. If Jewish believers such as Max Reich do not seem as outwardly “Jewish” as some would think proper for Messianic Jews, it is not because faith in Christ leads to assimilation but rather that Jewish believers reflect the overall variety in the Jewish community. If some Jewish believers of past generations denigrated rabbinic traditions and customs, it must be remembered that so did sizable portions of the mainstream Jewish community of the time!
Therefore contemporary Jewish believers should read this book with understanding and not dismiss Reich as assimilated compared to today’s Messianic Jewish community. In these poems and thoughts we enter the heart of a man of God who helped lay the foundation earlier in this century for what God is doing in bringing Jews to faith today. For that we can be grateful.
Ultimately, “Jesusness” and not “Jewishness” must be our focus. This collection is highly recommended. It will help you turn your mind and heart to our Messiah.
Rich Robinson is editor of The Messianic Review of Books.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.