Here’s a question that came to me from the e-mailbag. It’s an often asked question and perhaps you might find the answer helpful should you find yourself in a similar discussion.
Recently picked up a pamphlet on my university campus called ‘Why You’re Important,’ and I have but one question: Isn’t a group called Jews for Jesus a contradiction? By advocating Jesus, are you not going against the Jewish faith? Isn’t the main difference between Christianity and Judaism the acceptance of Christ as Savior?”
One reason questions like this arise is because terms like “Jew,” “Jewish,” “Jewishness” and “Judaism” are not easily defined; in fact there is disagreement among Jewish people about the definitions. When it is convenient, rabbis insist that the term “Jew” requires the practice of the Jewish religion. But most people who describe themselves as Jews, do so because of ethnicity rather than religion. At any rate, here is how I answered the question:
Thank you for asking me. You didn’t mention the name of your campus, but, no matter.
To answer your question, one is a Christian by commitment to Christ. One is a Jew by birth and/or by culture, and the commitment to belong to a certain people. A born Jew can never become a Gentile. A Gentile can become a Jew by renouncing his former religion, renouncing his family (he then becomes a part of the lineage of Abraham) and by adhering to the religion of Judaism.
Whereas a Christian is a follower of Christ, by definition, a Jewish person is not a Jew because he or she follows Judaism. The people, in a sense, produced the religion—but the religion does not produce the people. In other words, Jewish people have produced Judaism, not vice versa.
A person who is born Jewish remains a Jew whether he is an atheist or a believer in Jesus like me. Though many if not most of my fellow Jews would make me an outcast, they have no power to excommunicate me or define away my existence. Jewishness and Christianity are not mutually exclusive categories and hence, I did not stop being a Jew when I came to believe in the Jewish Messiah. Conversely, the advent of Jesus did not make God’s covenants with Israel void. The Jewish people are still the Chosen People, though they are no different from other people in their need to receive Jesus. But the fact that my people need Jesus does not mean that the Church has taken Israel’s place in God’s plan of world redemption.
I am a member of the people to whom Jesus chose to be born. I am Jewish just as Peter, Paul, James and John, who brought the message of the Messiah to the world. I was born a Jew and I will die a Jew but since I have been born again, I will live my life as a Jew for Jesus.