Conversion and the Jewish People
A mysterious disparity exists in the words of the rabbis. While their sermons usually urge tolerance of others and their ideas, when it comes to Jewish evangelism, they voice a furious intolerance, even calling it spiritual genocide.”
Most novice evangelists are stunned by the angry response of Jewish community leaders because they fail to understand that this vitriolic reaction to the gospel is programmed into the consciousness of Jewish people. We respond reflexively to whatever we feel is an attempt at conversion. Since the reaction is reflexive, it is unreasoning and unreasonable. No amount of explanation, expression of love or appreciation will ameliorate the condition of offense. The only way the evangelist can relieve the tension is to back away from the confrontation.
This kind of reaction has its corollary in the treatment of the Jewish convert by family and friends. Jewish people who choose to believe in Christ and accept Christian baptism can expect ostracism to the same degree that their conversion becomes publicly known. One might then well ask, “Does the Jewish community really feel that angry toward converts or those who present the gospel?”
The answer is complex. When a porcupine bristles and raises his quills, is it anger or a defensive posture? While the Jewish community’s official display of anger may not always be completely genuine, it still causes pain. As with the bristling porcupine, close involvement is bound to be painful.
The bristling show of anger serves a sociological purpose. It is not aimed so much at the evangelist or the convert as it is at the rest of the Jewish community. The warning is, “If you convert to Christianity, this is the kind of contempt and abuse you can expect.”
Jews fear conversion because they are concerned about survival as a people. This involves several factors. First, my people face the frustration of dwindling numbers. According to a study by the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the world’s 13 million Jews reached zero population growth in 1982.
Also alarming is the global rate of intermarriage with non-Jews. Dr. Adi Stef, chairman of the Alliance Israelite Universelle reports that the intermarriage rate in Paris, where half of France’s Jewry lives, is 50%. In a 1971 United States Jewish population study, intermarriage was at 32%. In 1976 it rose to 40% and continues to rise. The Latin American Jewish intermarriage rate is even higher.
Perhaps most important, however, is the increasing problem of disaffiliation and assimilation, where Jews just don’t do the Jewish thing or relate to other Jews as co-religionists. According to Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, president of Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, “more than half the Jews in America play no part in Jewish communal life.” This would include attending synagogue or belonging to any of the numerous Jewish organizations.
Jews have lived as a minority in many lands where they did not have the status of “guests,” but of “usable aliens.” They lived precariously in the “Christian” and Muslim lands to which they had been scattered. Until the eighteenth century, no country gave Jews equal protection under the law or the right to consider themselves citizens, and we learned to survive as a minority. One of our most important survival skills was the ability to effectively resist conversion attempts by the majority without engendering their wrath. A most potent weapon was ridicule. Derisive laughter, loaded with contempt but disguised as humor, effectively dealt with ideas one did not want to consider. Nevertheless, no Jew would dare answer the conversionist arguments of the priests with sarcasm or ridicule because Church leaders often had the support of secular authorities and civil laws against blasphemy.
Instead, the rabbis devised several clever arguments to demonstrate that belief in the tenets of Christianity was not possible for one trained to be a Jew. These arguments supposedly pitted the Jewish understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures against such cardinal doctrines as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Substitutionary Atonement and the integrity of the New Testament. Many Christians who prepared careful, thoughtful expositions of these topics sadly found that their logical, well-documented answers seemed utterly unconvincing to the rabbis. The Christian scholars did not realize that Jewish resistance to the gospel could not be overcome by merely demonstrating the veracity of Christian doctrine from Scripture.
Nevertheless, not many disputes took place, even though both sides had carefully prepared and well-maintained arsenals of polemic arguments. At times, according to ecclesiastical decree, Jews were forced into formal disputes designed by the bishops to coerce Jewish leaders into admitting the rightness of the Christian religion. The era of these disputes produced much Jewish literature that ridiculed the Christian religion. Needless to say, this did not lead to better interfaith relations.
The one factor that saved my Jewish people from even more persecution was their relative isolation from those who followed the majority religion. They lived in their own community whenever possible. The Orthodox Jewish religion mandated that in order to begin to meet its requirements, one must live in a Jewish community. Ten Jews were necessary for a minyan (prayer quorum). Travel beyond 2000 cubits could not be undertaken on a Sabbath. Only meat slaughtered and sold by a kosher butcher could be eaten. This meant that regardless of whether the majority religion sought to exclude Jews from its society, the Jewish people needed separate communities in order to meet their religious requirements.
Though these Jewish communities often differed in culture that reflected their own history and experience, they were all bound by the Jewish religion and Jewish identity. In order to be inclusive of Jews, they had to be exclusive of Gentiles.
To be a Jew was to live in a Jewish community! To do anything else was to be something else. It was inconceivable to a Jewish person that he could ever live as a Jew outside of a Jewish community. The fear of anti-Semitism (real and imagined) made him reluctant to try life on the outside. His knowledge of conversion was based on what rabbis required of Gentiles converting to Judaism. He presumed that there were similar requirements for Jews converting to Christianity. Gentile conversion to Judaism required the convert not only to renounce his former religion but also to renounce his family and heritage, and to leave his people as Ruth left hers in Moab. The convert was to identify with the book of Ruth and her statement to Naomi: “Your God shall be my God and your people shall be my people.”
Though this process of conversion seems simple, the ramifications so far as Jewish law are concerned are many. Even today in Israel, the validity of conversions made by non-orthodox rabbis is hotly debated. By virtue of meeting all the requirements and having had appropriate rabbis follow the traditional procedures, the convert is certified to “take his or her place in the Jewish community.” By that term, the proselyte and the rabbis are to understand that converts are renouncing affiliation with their families and people of their nativity. Of course this is the standard of the traditional or Orthodox rabbis. Conservative or Reform Jews are somewhat more lenient.
One can understand that since proselytes to Judaism are required to forsake their families in order to become part of a new people, Jews might infer that all converts to Christianity must also abandon and renounce the Jewish people.
Jews make a distinction between conversion and repentance that does not exist in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew word for conversion, shuv, is identical to the word for repentance. The root meaning of shuv is simply to turn back or return.
By separating the word “convert” from “repent” the rabbis have complicated both concepts. But from the Jewish vantage, one can see the necessity of distinguishing between a Jew who repents by simply returning to the covenant relationship and a non-Jew who never had a part in that covenant.
In January of 1978, the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) passed a law making it a criminal offense for missionaries in the Holy Land to pay a Jew to convert to Christianity. This law concerned and puzzled evangelical Christians. How could anyone pay another to convert, since conversion is a faith response that requires conviction of the most sincere kind? No one can change his heartfelt beliefs by some exercise of the will! He can only feign belief for purposes of material gain, and that constitutes a deception, not a true conversion.
By that law, Orthodox Jews of the Jewish State demonstrated their understanding of conversion as more of a ceremony and initiation rite into the Christian religion than a matter of commitment based on belief.
The rabbis construe a Jew’s conversion to Christianity as an attempt to divorce himself from the Jewish community and to abandon his heritage. I say “attempt” because, according to rabbinic law, it is impossible for anyone born Jewish or even a convert to Judaism ever to be anything else. A dictum of Judaism is “once a Jew always a Jew.” Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of Santa Monica, California, says that he is forced by Jewish law to say that a Jew who becomes a Christian is still a Jew, but he doesn’t like it:
“What he (the convert) has done is a heinous and despicable crime. He has spit into his grandmother’s grave…but he is still a Jew if he was born of a Jewish mother. He has lost all his privileges as a Jew. He cannot marry a Jewish woman, he cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery and he better not show up at services I conduct. But he is still a Jew.”
In order to exclude the convert, other rabbis have stated that the Jew who is converted to Christianity is to be regarded as a sinner and shunned by his fellow Jews. Having forfeited all privileges of being Jewish, he has no right to participate in Jewish community activities, but still bears all the obligations of being Jewish. Ironically, this adds to his burden of “sin,” since he cannot fulfill these obligations. On one hand, the convert is excluded because he believes in Jesus; on the other he is condemned for departing from the community. It is a “no win” situation for the convert.
The following appeal to the Jew who is considering Christianity is made by David Berger and Michael Wyschogrod:
You were born a Jew because your ancestors clung to their faith. Often, they had to give their very lives when misguided Christians forced the choice of baptism or death on them. You were born a Jew because your ancestors had the supreme courage to choose death. Had they chosen baptism, you would not have been born a Jew. Their readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice creates a special obligation for their descendants not to render that sacrifice meaningless. Before abandoning the Judaism of your ancestors, you must make an all-out effort to study it, to know it, to live it.
In the early part of this century, a Jewish philosopher named Franz Rosenzweig was on the verge of converting to Christianity. He had been brought up in a fairly assimilated Jewish home in which Judaism played a very small part. But feeling he should convert as a Jew and not as a pagan, he decided to attend a Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service in a small traditional synagogue in Berlin. The spirit and liturgy of the day transformed his life. He came to know that God wanted Jews to remain Jews, to be faithful to the covenant God had made with the Patriarchs. Franz Rosenzweig became one of the great Jewish thinkers of our time.
The people of Israel was chosen by God to be “a nation of priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19:6). By remaining loyal to your people, you can help it live up to its divine calling. By considering the devotion of its martyrs throughout the ages, and by remembering the fate of the six million who were murdered in our own time because they were Jews, you can come to live a life worthy of their sacrifice.
You are facing a critically important decision. Your choice will determine not only your own religious destiny, but the identity of your descendants as well. Study intensively, consider carefully, and—with the help of God—choose wisely.
Perhaps the false logic of this appeal is eclipsed by its passionate intensity. It is true that if my linear ancestors had been killed I would not exist to be a Jew. There is the presumption that conversion involves “abandoning Judaism.” Yet it has been demonstrated again and again that Jews who become believers in Jesus seem to value Jewish culture more than ever.
A 1978 report by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism wisely commented:
Sometimes people resist the gospel not because they think it false but because they perceive it as a threat to their culture, especially the fabric of their society, and their national or tribal solidarity. To some extent this cannot be avoided. Jesus Christ is a disturber as well as a peacemaker.
Nevertheless, it is an observable phenomenon that once a person does accept Christ, he weighs the culture and traditions of his people on the scale of Scripture. In the case of my Jewish people, we discover a destiny determined by God himself that was only a vague perception before. Moreover, often those who thought little of Jewish ritual and lore before accepting Christ, now find such things very important.
Most Jews who come to faith in Christ are not comfortable with the phrase “converted Jew.” Perhaps that is because they know that in Hebrew the term “convert” means “to repent and turn from,” and therefore implicit in that phrase is the idea that being Jewish was a sin that required repentance or renunciation. Instead, we call ourselves “completed Jews.” Where the law and the covenants could not save us because of our sin, Yeshua as our Savior has made us whole. However, this does not move our fellow Jews who would oppose us. Any answer we might give to explain that we have not deserted our people will be impugned, then ignored.
The Jewish defense against considering whether or not Jesus is the Messiah continues to be a “huffiness” or contrived stance of being offended. As the number of Jewish believers in Jesus increases and becomes more vocal and visible, opposition to Jewish evangelism will also increase. This does not influence us who are missionaries to our own Jewish people as much as it seems to influence the churches and Gentile Christians who sponsor missions.
The greater problem is that many evangelical church movements and leaders have lost heart for bringing the gospel to the Jewish people. They seem to attribute more credibility to the statements of the rabbis than to the testimonies of Jews who have come to Christ.
Nevertheless, the words of Romans 11:1-5 still stand:
“I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid, for I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away his people whom he foreknew.…
Even so, then, at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.”