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Jews for Jesus Founder Dies, 'Messianic Judaism' Controversy Lives On

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When I tell you that Moishe Rosen died a couple of weeks ago, your reaction will likely be: "Who?" But I bet you've heard of the organization he founded: Jews for Jesus.

If you happen to be Jewish, I'll further bet that the mere mention of the organization makes your gorge rise. And if you aren't Jewish, you might well be wondering why it was – and why it remains – such a viscerally revolting concept to many Jews.

After all, 21st century America is the land of boundary-spanners: Blue Dog Democrats can practice Yoga at a Christian church whose members probably started in many denominations. Log Cabin Republicans are gays and lesbians who support a political party whose policies include some that seem antithetical to their own interests. Polls about religious belief indicate that many Americans create their own personal faiths by plucking what they like from a variety of traditions.

And any Christian will tell you that Jesus himself grew up Jewish. So what's the big deal about Jews for Jesus and the larger phenomenon of "Messianic Jews"?

Trust me on this: For many Jews, the idea that one can be both Jewish and Christian is as revolting as it would be for a vegan to consider "Vegetarians for Big Macs." Not merely disrespectful, but an offense that pushes powerful emotional buttons.

Why? The answer says something about religious identity, and how difficult it is to generalize about such ideas, even today.

Rosen was famous enough to get a New York Times obituary.

I can't improve on most of the top:
"Moishe Rosen, who was born Jewish, ordained a Baptist minister and went on to found Jews for Jesus, the largest messianic Jewish organization in the world, died Wednesday at his home in San Francisco. He was 78. . . .

"Controversial from its inception, Jews for Jesus was officially founded by Mr. Rosen in San Francisco in 1973. In the decades since, its missionaries have been a familiar presence on street corners in cities around the United States and elsewhere. Mr. Rosen was the group's first executive director, a post he held until 1996.

"The organization's central tenet is that it is possible simultaneously to be Jewish and to accept Jesus as the Messiah."

I'd say the obit doesn't go far enough with that last line: For Rosen, it was not merely possible, but was theologically required. And any Jew who does not is headed for Hell. As Rosen himself said in a piece published after his death on the Jews for Jesus website:
"Judaism never saved anybody no matter how sincere. . . . Within Judaism today, there is no salvation because Christ has no place within Judaism."

To which you might say: It's a free country. He had every right to think that, and even to try to convince Jews to agree with him. Which is absolutely true. (By the way, I'm making no comment, here or anyplace else, as to the Theological Truth held by either side of this debate. That's an argument not likely to be settled this side of the Great Perhaps.)

So what's the big deal? I asked Rabbi Tovia Singer, an Orthodox rabbi who founded an organization called Outreach Judaism. As his website puts it, Outreach Judaism "is an international organization that responds directly to the issues raised by missionaries and cults, by exploring Judaism in contradistinction to fundamentalist Christianity."

That includes a broader movement in which Rosen may have been the most in-your-face, aggressive representative.

"Messianic Jewish" congregations include many Jewish rituals and customs -- wearing of Jewish-style prayer shawls, blowing of the ram's horn, observance of Jewish holidays, calling their religious leaders "rabbis" – but all in support of Christianity. Some are straightforward about their identity and have a membership that is almost entirely Christian-born but interested in the Jewish roots of their faith. Other such congregations have placed newspaper ads around major Jewish holidays, inviting people to attend services -- without making it clear that the services will be Christian.

Beyond that, there are individual churches and denominations that have devoted specific proselytizing efforts at converting Jews. Most famously, in the mid-1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for a special evangelical focus.

Singer is on guard against all of that. But he's particularly hot about what he sees as the dishonest appropriation of Judaism's trappings in an attempt to seduce Jews into becoming Christians. Which is just how he sees Jews for Jesus and Messianic congregations. Imagine this, he suggested:
"What if I decided to dress up like a Catholic priest and went to the mall? And what if I approached people wearing crucifixes and suggested they could become 'Completed Christians' if they sat down with me and studied Talmud? That would be very deceptive."

It also bothers Singer that some Christians tend to aim their efforts at Jews who may be the most vulnerable (though the missionaries would probably prefer the word "receptive"): College students, the elderly, Jews from the former Soviet Union whose knowledge of Judaism is relatively scanty.

"They seek to blur the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity in order to lure Jews who would otherwise resist," Singer said. From a traditional Jewish perspective, a claim that one can be both Jewish and Christian runs into a couple of roadblocks.

Start with history. Pretty much from the point that the apostle Peter wins the argument about circumcision until the middle of the 20th century, Christian theology and political power was focused on the denigration of Jews and Judaism. From John Chrysostom to Martin Luther and beyond. For Jewish history, 1492 has nothing to do with Christopher Columbus. Instead, that's the year the newly installed Christian rulers of Spain gave Jews the choice of converting, leaving, or dying. Retention of Jewish customs was grounds for being handed over to the Inquisition.

Jump to more modern history, if you like. Even to the United States, where Christian anti-Semitism was broadly acceptable across much of American society for almost 200 years. I guarantee there are few American Jews older than, say, 40, who were not called "Christ-killer" at school at least once.

And then there is the unavoidable historical black hole of the Holocaust, the attempt by the Nazis to systematically exterminate Jews -- and even converts who were now Christian. And even the children of converts.

(The unanswerable reality of that horror was responsible for dramatic changes in the rhetoric of many Christian institutions toward Jews and Judaism, most notably "Nostra Aetate," issued by the Vatican in 1965, which stated: "Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures." A basic respect for Judaism has also become part of the official doctrine of many Christian denominations.)

Next, let's look at theology, recognizing that any broad-brush discussion will miss a lot of nuance:

The God of traditional Judaism lays down a lot of laws and demands a lot of sacrifices, true. But the traditional liturgy also discusses God's mercy for those who fail to meet every standard, but who repent and ask for forgiveness. In fact, every year, the Yom Kippur service is very much about settling accounts with God for the previous year, along with a promise to do better for the following year.

As for the afterlife, Judaism is pretty murky on that. The "World to Come" is a place where God will settle all inequities. But exactly how? Judaism has lots of stories, allegories and parables that are not generally considered to be actual description. The idea of eternal damnation due to a lack of faith? You won't find anything remotely like that anyplace close to the Jewish mainstream. In fact, even non-Jews are promised their own rewards in the World to Come.

Traditional Christianity has rather different answers to some of the same questions: The God of the Old Testament is a creator with infinite power and love but not a lot of flexibility. Human failure to meet His standards results in an inevitable, eternal punishment that could only be removed by the blood sacrifice of God's own son. And by the acceptance of that sacrifice by each individual person through acceptance of Christ as Savior.

The messiah in traditional Judaism is a political and spiritual figure whose very existence immediately affects dramatic changes in the world, particularly for the Jews. The Christ of Christianity plays a dramatically different role.

As Rabbi Singer puts it: "Christianity is not the same religion as Judaism. It's a different religion. If they tell me that believing in Jesus is Jewish, that's simply not true."

Which means, from a Jewish perspective, that someone who was Jewish and now professes to be Christian is denying some of the most fundamental tenets of Judaism. And has adopted a belief system whose proponents oppressed and persecuted Jews for many centuries.

So: "Vegetarians for Big Macs."

Of course, the perspective is different from the other side: For some Christian missionaries, Jews are particular targets of opportunity who run the same risk of damnation as anybody else. That justifies finding the best way to get Jews "saved." After all, the stakes are literally eternal.

You can find plenty of places where Christians offer responses to Singer's POV. Here is one. And here is another. And here is another. Singer came face to face with Rosen only once, he told me. About 15 years ago, there was a "Messianic Judaism" conference held in Dallas. Like Rosen, Singer has a bit of "in your face" in him. He had checked into the conference hotel "to make myself available to any Jews who happened to be attending."

While waiting for the elevator, he looked across the lobby and saw that Rosen had recognized him.

"We just stared at each other. It seemed like an eternity. He started screaming in the lobby at the top of his lungs: 'Does everyone know who is here? Rabbi Tovia Singer, who is an enemy of Christ! Who was an enemy of Yeshua!' "

From everything I've read about Rosen, that does not sound out of character.

What's your takeaway from this? Maybe a better understanding that there are some divides that cannot be bridged by compromise or combination. And that even people of goodwill can look at the same situation and reach very different conclusions that cannot be absolutely proven or denied by either side -- or by anybody else.

Rosen's efforts in this world are done. Singer is still cooking. (He's got a new book called "Let's Get Biblical! Why Doesn't Judaism Accept the Christian Messiah?" )

But Singer is also careful to support the right of Rosen's spiritual successors to continue their efforts.

"It's very important that Christians have the right to evangelize Jews," he said. "If Christians' rights in America are not protected, then God help us."







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keepforefront

Sorry. I'm not buying it Jeffrey. What kind of stupid rule is it that you can't believe in Jesus in order to be a Jew? Do you know where that came from? Do any of the Jews?

I don't think so. Stone me if you must, but the history books are pretty clear on this one: The Jewish never considered the rejection of Jesus as Messiah intrisic to their Jewish identity until long after early Christianity persecuted them with that as the rationale. I.e., that is where this absurd illogical rule came from: from the gentiles.

The point is that since then those who didn't really understand what "Christlike" meant did horrible things in Christ's name for sometime afterwards, namely persecuting the Jews for 2000 years under the rationale that they crucified their God. For 2000 years they made that part of the Jewish identity, and the Jews, to their credit made their own resilience and self-determination in the face of such persecution by so-called Christians part of their identity. But as you can expect, evil rarely begets pure good, and even if the Jews were the best of people being told by not only their persecutors, but also by their Rabbi's for 2000 years that they rejected the Jesus as the Christ ... How could that NOT eventually become one's self-imposed identity.

Today that idea is central: Being Jew means rejecting Jesus as Christ. Now consider the efficacy and intrinsic value of the idea ... it is foolish to judge someone merely out of hand as a rule, out of pure bias, MIND YOU AGAIN: not by their fault but because non-Jews planted that seed long and deep that such defined exactly who they were. It's a foolish, illogical, and unjust rule no group should be proud to espouse - espousing such prejudice should bring shame and be expunged if it were not so institutionalized as it is.

Nowhere in the scriptures, Old or New Testament do I know it says that you should accept the word of any man who preaches evil of another. Even the Old Testament is replete with the efficacy of prayer as a means to gain understanding so this is not a concept unique to Christians. I know outside of this one case Jews are taught to judge fairly, and everyone with a brain knows God gave it to be used to judge between light and dark, not cast it aside for the kind of institutionalized spite that has made the middle-east the bloody mess that it is.

In short, why would anyone want institutionalized prejudice as part of their identity ... is there no wonder why it is therefore so easily applied toward the JFJ just as it is to be applied toward Jesus, a man no Jew knows nor would attempt to understand but it quick to judge unfit as a Messiah because of scriptural interpretation by Rabbi's who are not to be questioned?

Now don't get me wrong here ... They need not accept Jesus to be considered a fair and just people, but they only need to strike the elements of prejudice from their self-imposed definition of what it means to be a Jews. Reserve judgement of anyone until fair investigation is made, without bias, but with compassion.

But I'm afraid the Haredi have too tight a grip. JFJ aren't allowed citizenship despite one's lineage ... making prejudice against the JFJ a matter of State sanctioned religious discrimination. I'm ashamed my own country has looked the otherway as this has happened and become increasingly worse over the last 20 years. Mark my words ... Israel's future lies in it's ability to mete out justice and mercy to all it's inhabitants and neighbors in a way that is fair and equitable and if it cannot do it within there is no hope of it doing it without. I pray they live up to the expectations and responsibilities in this and similar matters with which they've been entrusted. This is a serious matter that will not go unnoticed forever.

July 29 2010 at 12:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
tribes3clans2

Actually, according to the Jewish Bible, Rosen was not Jewish. By his own admission, in a speech I heard, he said, "My mother never converted to Judaism, but I retained the identify as a Jew in name only which I have used successfully for my own persuits." So true, he has taken the meaning of the words by Paul of the KJV to new heights, "I became a Jew to win over Jews ..."

If one is serious about allowing missionaries to target kids, the disabled, the poor and homeless--just how would a Christian missionary feel about a Muslim posing as a Christian to win over their son or daughter to Islam?

There are no missionaries in Judaism, but there are righteous gentiles or non-Jews (God-Fears) well before the common era, welcomed as such in synagogues for Yom Kippur, Purim and even Chanukah. The Jewish view has always been for deists, that all righteous have a share in the world to come regardless of race, creed, color or gender. And they taught the real "Golden Rule": "Don't do to others as you wouldn't want them to do to you." This line was not lost on America's Founding Fathers where the majority were deists or God-Fearers and did not want one church or mosque to end up running the show over the minorities. Perhaps this is why we have "Freedom of Religion" here as law. However, not all soldiers or politicians felt this way and there are many laws still on the books that prohibit Jews the freedom many Christians have. The true issue of missionaries hiding behind charitable works is surfacing around the country among cults and mosques. Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Islamics and new "Moonie" groups use religion to further their religious beliefs that in essence removes the very laws to have a just and righteous court system where all religions should be treated equally. Something to think about--we don't need missionaries, we need people that are religious to help their neighbors without asking to hear a sermon or their version of the Hebrew Bible they really never studied as a Jew.

July 15 2010 at 2:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Laurel

"I guarantee there are few American Jews older than, say, 40, who were not called 'Christ-killer' at school at least once...(The unanswerable reality of that horror was responsible for dramatic changes in the rhetoric of many Christian institutions toward Jews and Judaism, most notably "Nostra Aetate," issued by the Vatican in 1965, which stated: 'Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.'"

Please re-check your timeline here. It should probably say something like Jews over 50 or 60 were not called "Christ killer" at least once in their lives. Forty-year-olds were born in 1970, five years after the Vatican declaration. Other than in backwater locations in the US that are permanently stuck somewhere between the 19th and early 20th centuries, I can guarantee very few American 40-year-old Jews were subjected to this nonsense. I was born in 1965 and was never, not once in my life, subjected to this crap. Not a single Jewish friend of mine of the same age has experienced this either. The 1965 Vatican changes took hold very quickly, to the credit of Pope John XXIII. By the time those of us born around 1965 were old enough to be in school, this particular accusation was largely a thing of the past.

July 12 2010 at 2:21 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Petenera

Thank you, Jeffrey, for interviewing Tovia Singer as part of this story. He's the best spokesman on this issue!!

BTW, even if a Jew "converts" to Christianity (or Hinduism, Buddhism, Wiccanism, or anything else), he is still a Jew, according to the Torah (Jewish Bible), assuming his mother is/was legally Jewish.

At the same time, any NON-Jew can become a Jew, if converted according to Halacha (Jewish Law/Torah/God's Law for all Jews for all time).

And all Jews are required to treat a "ger" (convert) as if he or she were a Jew from birth.

In addition, someone with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, or whose mother was converted by a non-Orthodox rabbi, meaning not according to Jewish Law (laws that God made for Jews), is not a Jew, regardless of how he/she was raised or may consider himself/herself, or what revisionist Jewish streams may try to assert as OK.

This may not be "p.c.," but that's the way it is!

July 11 2010 at 1:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
weissenbuddy

"Pretty much from the point that the apostle Peter wins the argument about circumcision"... don't you mean Paul?

June 03 2010 at 11:25 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Mark

An observation - one cannot hold to orthodox Judaism and simultaneously be a Christian, since orthodox Judaism rejects Jesus as being the Christ (Messiah, or Moshiach). But one can certainly be ethnically Jewish and accept Christ - one's religious beliefs does not change his/her genetics, correct? If an American of German parentage converts to Islam, he's still a German-American, not suddenly an Arab!

June 02 2010 at 12:27 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mark's comment
dstack9781

your entire premise is wrong just because you stated "ethnically Jewish", which is a non existent being. Judaism is a religion, period. Unless you can point out some ethnic Protestants, your comment is invalid.

June 02 2010 at 2:05 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
beemerboxer

History informs us that the Jews were the first to embrace a religion recognizing one God. Jews discontented by the heirarchies of their faith broke away to accept Jesus as the Messiah, God's only son. Christians formed breakaway religions in later years, only to see persecution and mayhem exist between the factors. The Jews, now reduced in numbers and affected by the diaspora, often played the ultimate scapegoats to Christian manipulations. This bloody history is man made. It has nothing to do with God or Jesus. It has to do with homo sapiens, money, power and politics no matter in which century the blood letting was done. If you believe anything else, I have yet to reach your power of intellectual analysis before I can concur!

June 02 2010 at 12:17 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
Nancy

Rest in peace, Moishe Rosen. Thank you for helping Jesus spread the Good News to those he died to save. God bless you!

June 02 2010 at 12:04 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
ajgould

lsw916 - Your belief in no Creator takes far more faith than any religion has ever required. Both Jews and Christians alike understand that the statistical probabilities of life evolving from nothing is non-existent.

June 02 2010 at 11:38 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
lsw916

What is life but time. Why waste it on delusional, fictional, worship of someone or something that can,t be proven. Wearing the old coat of belief your parents and clergy hand you is absurd. The pusher man and the clergyman are both selling highs.
Humans have dicarded Zeus, Apollo, Venus and The Tooth Fairy. Let's do the same with religion.

June 02 2010 at 10:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to lsw916's comment
muffin83e

This is Pascal's wager. My belief in God, if wrong, costs me nothing. But you who reject belief in God, if wrong, will have an eternity to regret it.

Having a lifetime of companionship with like believers is joy and bliss, not a waste of time. Try it.

June 02 2010 at 2:37 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

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