by Rabbi Avi Shafran
"Jews for Jesus," perhaps the best known of an assortment of Christian
missionary groups that target Jews for conversion efforts, has adopted a
creative new advertising campaign. It has enlisted a Holocaust survivor to
convince Jews to consider accepting the Christian messiah.
The group, possessed no doubt of deep convictions and apparently of deep
pockets, has purchased space in a number of national media to feature a
close-up of the kindly face of a Jewish woman of a certain age who spent
part of the war years in a concentration camp. "Before you judge my belief,
listen to my story," she implores the reader, and then proceeds to tell of
her personal adoption of Christianity. The ad offers a video featuring
footage of cattle-car trains and corpses with voices-over of Holocaust
survivors who embraced Christianity. Verses from the Jewish Bible appear on
the screen, and the viewer is told to say a prayer in acceptance of Jesus.
The words "Mazel Tov" then flash on the screen.
The Jewish community's encounter with the Christian one has a long and
largely inglorious history. From the harsh anti-Jewish rhetoric of early
Church fathers (the apostle John claimed Jews are born of "their father the
devil"; Chrysostom of Antioch, that they "murder their own offspring to
worship the avenging devils") and Protestant leaders (like Martin Luther,
who asserted that the devil "through the Jews his saints... mocks and curses
God and man") down to the pogroms, blood libels and "Christian
Identity"-genre internet hate-sites of more recent years, the Prince of
Peace has all too often been invoked to provide Jewish people anything but
Jews, as a noted basketball player/theologian recently reminded us, are
stubborn folks, and one of our adamant stances is our refusal to divest
ourselves of our religious heritage, including the conviction that the
Messiah, at present writing, still tarries - a belief that, while it
threatens to harm no one, has resulted over the centuries in untold hatred
and violence on the part of countless Christians. The Holocaust itself can
be traced in part to the religion-based Jew-hatred that was so endemic and
deeply rooted in European lands.
To be sure, here on this side of Vatican II and the Lieberman candidacy,
relations between Christians and Jews are much improved. Both the Catholic
Church and many Protestant churches have straightforwardly rejected
anti-Semitism, and that is deeply appreciated by all Jews. But the past
cannot but continue to inform the present.
Jews have suffered beyond belief at Christian hands. And Judaism, in the
end, remains a faith entirely apart from Christianity.
With its new ad campaign, Jews for Jesus cynically overlooks the former fact
in an effort to deny the latter one. For Jewishly-conscious Jews, nothing
could be more outrageous or insulting.
The contemporary Jewish religious world is famously fractious. There are
deep ideological and theological differences among Jews today. But one
belief that Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews share
entirely in common is that the assertion that the Messiah has arrived in the
person of Jesus of Nazareth is simply incompatible with Judaism.
Which is why the claim of missionary groups that one can be a good Jew by
accepting the fundamental belief of Christianity - indeed that one can be a
"fulfilled" one only by embracing Jesus as Messiah - is anathema to the
broad Jewish community.
As members of a faith that eschews the proselytizing of others and counsels
"outreach" only in the sense of helping our own brothers and sisters come
closer to our religious heritage, most of us Jews are irked when others
target our coreligionists for conversion efforts. And the irk turns to
irritation, even outrage, when misleading tactics are employed, when
"sharing the good news" becomes "suckering the uninformed," when groups like
Jews for Jesus adopt, as they do, Jewish holidays, symbols and trappings
like prayer shawls and phylacteries in an effort to convince Jews that being
a good Jew can include, indeed requires, adopting Christianity.
And when they go further still in their attempts to lure Jews from their
ancestral heritage, and seek to enlist the Holocaust - a horrific happening
that fed heartily on the fecund medium of a Europe steeped in centuries of
Christian anti-Semitism - their efforts creep, slowly but unmistakably,
beyond the bounds of even outrage, and enter the realm of the grotesque.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel