Suppose your pastor stops you on the way out of church to ask: Would you lead the congregation in a Passover celebration on Good Friday? I know our people would benefit from having a Jewish believer show us how the Old and New Testaments fit together!”
You can feel your heart pound and you pray that no tell-tale beads of perspiration will form at the top of your brow. Your brain is doing its best to convince your mouth to say “no,” but the words get transformed somewhere in your throat and you hear yourself stammer out, “Uh, sure. I’d be glad to.” The pastor beams at you and says he’ll be looking forward to taking notes on your presentation.
You walk away wondering how you can convince your religious Uncle Bernie to teach you to lead a seder in time for your church debut. After all, Uncle Bernie already thinks the only reason you believe in Jesus is your ignorance of Judaism.
Even if you never experience the problems the above scenario poses, there is a problem we all have in common. Many non-Jewish friends grant us undeserved prestige which they believe we deserve as “Old Testament” experts. It can be awkward and embarrassing to explain that being Jewish does not make us authorities.
Too often, Jewish believers are invited to teach messianic prophecy or some Old Testament theme when what we really need is to be students and not teachers. Many Christians have unrealistic expectations about Jewish believers. They assume we know all about Judaism, and that we can unlock the mysteries of the Old Testament with our Hebrew school training. People tend to put us on a pedestal without stopping to consult us.
I am a good example of a Jewish believer who was trapped into enjoying this undeserved reputation. It happened during my freshman year of Bible college, when I wanted to take a class in the minor prophets. It was bad enough that I didn’t know who the minor prophets were, (I thought maybe they were teenage preachers) but this was a senior class. I thought I’d be bored in the freshman classes and I was able to bluff my way in because I was Jewish. I have to admit, I was an arrogant “know-it-all.” But part of that arrogance stemmed from the fact that I had begun to believe what my friends thought about me.
One day, the teacher was discussing the book of Hosea and he made reference to the millennium. I raised my hand and asked what I considered a serious and scholarly question, “What is the millennium?” The entire class burst out laughing! I realized a bit late that even though I was Jewish, my knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures was lacking…from both a Jewish and a Christian perspective!
If you find yourself cast in the role of expert, evaluate your qualifications and be honest from the outset. Let people know if you are not able to meet their expectations. If you had a weak Jewish education, admit it. It will be a weight off your shoulders—a relief. Christian friends might be a little surprised, but they won’t think any less of you for it; they will respect your honesty. And they might realize they’ve had misconceptions about Jewish people.
Many of us are afraid to admit what we don’t know about Judaism because unbelievers like Uncle Bernie might say, “See, you had a weak Jewish upbringing and that is why you believe in Jesus.” Or, “How can you believe in Jesus if you don’t know what it is like to be a Jew?”
Relax! It’s okay to admit ignorance. What you have to know is that whether you are ignorant or well-informed, unbelieving Jewish people will still find reason to discredit and dismiss what you have to say about Yeshua. It is a natural defense system to help people justify their refusal to consider Yeshua. People will divert attention away from him and onto us.
Moishe Rosen tells a story to illustrate this. He and Rachmiel Frydland were witnessing in New York City. An elderly gentleman lambasted Moishe, accusing him of not being a Jew and certainly not being educated in Judaism. He asked Moishe if he had been bar mitzvah. Moishe answered “yes,” but when the man asked if he had gone to yeshiva, Moishe told him “no.”
The man retorted, “That’s why you believe in Jesus, because you are ignorant!” He then turned to Rachmiel Frydland, who had received a Jewish education which qualified him to be a rabbi. When asked if he had been bar mitzvah, Rachmiel replied, “Of course.” Then the man asked if Rachmiel had gone to yeshiva, and Rachmiel described his extensive religious education. Upon hearing this, the elderly gentleman glared at Rachmiel and pronounced, “Well then, you must be crazy, to know so much about Judaism and still believe in Jesus!”
Few Jewish people are both committed to the Jewish religion and well versed in the Scriptures. Even Orthodox Jews tend to know the Talmud more intimately than the Scriptures. If having knowledge (as in Rachmiel’s case) does not add weight to our message, hiding a lack of knowledge will certainly not make us more credible to the Jewish community. Only the Holy Spirit can make a heart receptive. We don’t have to be rabbinic scholars to make a responsible decision for Yeshua and we don’t have to be experts in Judaism to tell our family and friends about him. God will reveal the truth to those who seek him, regardless of our education. We have no reason to pretend we know more than we do. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care to learn more.
Seventy-five percent of the respondents to a recent survey of over 2, 000 Jewish believers show increased interest in Jewish identity after accepting Yeshua. Appreciating our legacy is important. For most of us, the first step is to swallow our pride and admit how much we don’t know about our heritage.
When we are rooted in Yeshua and fed by the Word of God, we are free to appreciate what is consistent with biblical truth and gain critical insight into what is not. Since some of you have expressed interest in learning more about our heritage, I have developed a crash course for learning about Judaism. The course begins with one each of two types of books—a reasonable, easily attainable goal—and I hope it whets your appetite to pursue the subject further.
First, I recommend reading a history book about our people, and second, a book on basic Judaism. Good selections for history are Solomon Grayzel’s book A History of the Jews1 or Cecil Roth’s book, also entitled A History of the Jews2 (both relatively light reading).
If you’ve already read some Jewish history you might want a more advanced book. In that case, I’d recommend The History of the Jewish People3 by Ben-Sasson. Once you complete your history book, I suggest a book like This is My God4 by Herman Wouk, or Basic Judaism5 by Milton Steinberg. Then, if you want more recommended reading, Jews for Jesus has developed a bibliography of books and articles about what it means to be a Jew. To receive the bibliography, just send a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your request.
I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities for study. Exploring the wealth of our traditions can bring us closer to Yeshua, the greatest Jew who ever lived. As we approach the Feast of Unleavened Bread, let’s remember that Jesus not only fulfilled the Passover, he celebrated it. How good it is to know and do some of the things Yeshua knew and did when he came to redeem us!
- Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969).
- Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews (New York: Schocken Books, 1954).
- H. H. Ben-Sasson, The History of the Jewish People (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976).
- Herman Wouk, This is My God (New York: Pocket Books, 1973).
- Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism (New York: Harcourt Brace and Word, 1947).