Alan was spiritually hungry. He wanted me to know that he strongly identified as a Jew, yet he was not finding answers to spiritual questions that haunted and preoccupied him.
I spent quite a bit of time with Alan. I told him that there were no easy answers to his questions. I shared my story with him and told him why I thought Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny, and the unique savior of the world. I asked him whether, if what I said were true, he would be willing to follow Jesus no matter what the cost. Alan could not answer. He knew that following Jesus would not be a popular decision.
I’d given Alan a New Testament and he said that he was reading it. I became concerned when I was not able to contact him for a couple of weeks. Then I received a letter from him. Alan explained that he did not want to meet with me any longer and that he had decided that for him “being Jewish meant not believing in Jesus.” He went on to recount the atrocities done in the name of Jesus. And then he expressed his desire to remain “open and ambivalent” in all matters of faith.
This ambiguity reminds me of the story of Pinhas, a famous Jew who taught in a rabbinical school in Europe before World War II. Tragically, he was murdered at Auschwitz. In fact it was in that notorious death camp that Pinhas spent his last Jewish holiday, the Day of Atonement. He decided that he was not going to go through the motions of observing that most solemn day of the year on which life and death were supposed to be in God’s hands. But that Yom Kippur, Pinhas reflected, life and death were in the hands of the Nazi executioner.
Pinhas decided that he had suffered enough. Accordingly, he told God, “It is enough.” Nevertheless, he asked a young friend to say the traditional prayers for him as the guards were leading him away. His friend asked why, since he had lost faith in God. “He took the tone he always used when he explained a passage in the Talmud: ‘You do not see the heart of the matter. Here and now, the only way to accuse him is to praise him.'”* Perhaps Pinhas believed that by praising God he was ultimately holding God accountable for the terrible things that were happening to him. That may seem ambiguous—which brings me back to Alan.
Ambiguity in the face of suffering or even in the fear of rejection is not uncommon. For some, ambiguity serves as a kind of shield.
Alan does not want his uncertainty about Jesus to be cleared up. He has created an integrated defense mechanism against the gospel. Since he believes that his Jewish identity would be compromised were he to believe in Jesus, and at the very least he would be seen as a traitor, he is not currently open to finding out that the gospel could be true.
The question may remain: “Is this a cause or an effect? Has Alan’s unbelief helped to shape Jewish culture or has Jewish culture shaped Alan’s unbelief?” I believe it is a somewhat complicated combination of the two. My prayer is that the God of Israel might break into Alan’s life, so that even as he counts the cost he would be drawn to the one who comforts in the midst of all of our trouble! It has certainly happened before. Many Jewish believers in Jesus once felt as Alan does now.
Bonus article: Andrew has further thoughts on the story of Pinhas, how the Holocaust has shaped Jewish thinking and how the problem of suffering affects Jews and Gentiles alike. Read Andrew’s ideas on viewing suffering through a different lens.
* Nathan Glatzer, ed. Modern Jewish Thought, 1977, New York: Shocken Books, p. 181-187.