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."