In less than two months the long awaited biography of Jews for Jesus founder Moishe Rosen will hit bookstores and e-readers across the country. Over seven years in the writing and authored by Ruth Rosen, Moishe’s second daughter, this fascinating chronicle of Rosen’s life is entitled, “Called to Controversy: The Unlikely Story of Moishe Rosen and the Founding of Jews for Jesus.” No doubt Rosen was a most intriguing character, often appearing larger than life on the scene of the church and of Jewish missions during the latter half of the twentieth century. His impact within the Jewish community caused many to regard him as a true menace, a formidable foe to those who felt it necessary to “protect” Jewish people from the uncut message of the gospel.
With a large hulking frame, but a soft-spoken, sometimes stammering manner of speech, the man was not only eccentric, but also a true original. Anyone who ever met Moishe personally remembered him. During the 1980 presidential campaign, then candidate Ronald Reagan was walking through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport with his full entourage of campaign aides, security and press detail when he suddenly stopped and stuck out his hand to greet someone standing by an elevator. “Moishe Rosen,” said Reagan as he pumped Moishe’s hand up and down, “You’ve gained weight.” “Uh-uh-Mr. Reagan, how do you know me?” Moishe stammered. “I heard you speak at Bel Air Presbyterian Church, it’s good to see you again,” the soon to be President smiled, then he moved on.
Those who came to know him best loved to tell others their “first time I met Moishe Rosen” stories.
George Verwer, founder of Operation Mobilization, told me he would never forget the first time he met Moishe because when he mentioned an organizational conflict he was having, Moishe advised him to fire a top leader who was involved. Verwer didn’t take Moishe’s advice but neither could he forget it. John Piper told me he would never forget Moishe because of a question he’d posed to the well-known author and pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. “If you had $50,000 given to you solely for the purpose of getting out the gospel, how would you spend it?” Years later, John Piper was still musing over the answer to this question.
No doubt Moishe Rosen was hard to forget and yes, controversial. If you never had the opportunity to meet him I hope you will get a copy of his new biography to read for yourself—and if you did have the privilege of knowing him on some level, all the more reason to dive in and discover “the rest of the story.” (I’d like to encourage you to get your copy from the Jews for Jesus website as any “profit” from our sales goes right back into our evangelistic efforts.) With this biography comes a deeper understanding of the man: what made him tick as well as what principles he believed in and practiced that made him so very effective as the founder of Jews for Jesus.
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But what was really so controversial about Moishe Rosen is no mystery, though it was profound. In fact, the controversy is uniquely captured in a graphic element on the cover of the new book. If you look you can see that the letters “o” and “t” in the word “controversy” are replaced by two symbols in close proximity: the Star of David and the Cross. That is the controversy in a nutshell.
The unique life and ministry of Moishe Rosen brought renewed attention to both the Jewishness of Jesus and His unavoidable claims to be the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. For the church, this attention provided wonderful opportunities to reawaken and reinvigorate an understanding that many had neglected or forgotten: not only is Jesus the Jewish Messiah, but He is the only way to salvation for Jews as well as Gentiles.
For the Jewish community, the attention Moishe drew to these issues kicked up a scandal that Jewish community leaders had tried to keep quiet for about 2000 years. The idea that Jesus is for Jews was spiritual dynamite with the potential to change the hearts of countless thousands of Jewish people, many of whom had grown disinterested or disaffected from the mainstream Jewish religion.
Moishe Rosen was controversial and vigorously opposed by many because he believed with all his heart and chose to proclaim with all his might the truth about Jesus. The person and message of Jesus is just as controversial today as it was when He walked this earth—if people truly understand what He said and did. But of course that is often the problem. Throughout history, people have tried desperately to domesticate Jesus, to round off some of His sharp edges, to downplay the implications of His life and temporize the impact of His teaching.
Just this month a book entitled “Kosher Jesus” is being released with that very purpose in view. Jesus ought to be reclaimed by the Jewish community as a Jewish patriot, argues author Shmuley Boteach. Recycling pieces of old Jewish scholarship by Hyam Maccoby, the book argues that Jesus never actually stated most of the controversial teachings ascribed to Him—and therefore the meaning of His life and death were completely other than what the New Testament Gospels and the Christian church has proclaimed.
Those who take Jesus’ words at face value have always been a minority, and not only among Jewish people. There is nothing new in the effort to paint a more comfortable picture of Jesus—one that omits the controversy and ignores the implications of His death on the cross and His resurrection. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and even some who claim to be Christians have been trying to accomplish this feat for century upon century and have failed. Those who do not accept the Gospel accounts of Jesus retell His story from their own perspective. They often speak with the loudest voices, and their opinions echo throughout our educational institutions and in articles that appear between the pages of Time and Newsweek.
What made Moishe Rosen so very controversial is that as a Jew, he refused to go along with the majority. He saw Christ for who He really is and believed. Then he gave his life to making Christ known. He was willing to endure the shame and the scorn of identifying himself with the One who willingly bore the shame and scorn of the entire world. Moishe is controversial because he was willing to share in the controversy of Messiah Jesus. And he helped so many of us to realize the importance of being doggedly determined to do the same. The reproach of Messiah was the controversy of Moishe Rosen and it is the controversy of Jews for Jesus. Indeed, all of us who are called to follow Jesus are also called to controversy.