Avoiding Spiritual Deception

Today's spiritual consumer encounters a tremendous range of choices and opportunities. A walk down the "Judaism" aisle also reveals a plethora of styles and approaches. Not all options, however, are necessarily wholesome. Therefore, the old watchword, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, is sound guidance.

Interfaith families face unique challenges when it comes to making spiritual choices. Unscrupulous missionary organizations, capitalizing on a possible impulse to blend, offer the illusory promise that Jewish-Christian families can "have it all." In fact, some of these organizations specifically design their evangelical outreach to target interfaith couples and families.

For millenia, Christian missionaries have sought Jewish converts. The choices were always quite clear, and for most Jews, the desire to remain Jewish has prevailed. In the middle of the 20th century, evangelical missionaries finally hit upon a way of circumventing this clarity by blurring the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity.

The so-called "Messianic Jewish" movement created a hybrid culture that diminishes the guilt normally experienced by Jewish people who convert to Christianity. Attending a traditional church service where the minister leads hymns worshipping Jesus would not feel "Jewish." A Messianic "synagogue" where the "rabbi," attired in a skullcap and prayer shawl, leads "Shabbat" services and Jesus is euphemistically referred to by the Hebrew "Yeshuah" feels much more comfortable.

The Messianic movement insists that since the original followers of Jesus were Jews, they are not engaging in a deception. They maintain that Jews who embrace Jesus don't cut themselves off from their heritage--on the contrary, they become completed or fulfilled Jews. However, it is misleading to suggest that Christianity is a legitimate Jewish option simply because Jesus' first disciples were Jews. After all, those who built and worshipped the Golden Calf were also Jews. Furthermore, the beliefs and practices of these original followers ultimately morphed when the movement was taken over in the 2nd century by non-Jews who were never part of the original movement. They developed ideas about the nature of God and how to relate to Him and the concept of Messiah and sin that veered dramatically from Judaism. They finally canonized a different set of scriptures and became a completely different religion.

The United States may have been a British colony at one time. However, it would make no sense to tell people living in England today that they can be more British by becoming American citizens. Ultimately, England and the United States had a parting of the ways. So, too, Judaism and Christianity once split into two different religions with very different belief systems. It is absurd to suggest that one can become more Jewish by embracing Christianity.

Unfortunately, you may sometimes need more than just a score card to tell the players apart. Messianic congregations often list themselves in the Synagogue section of the phonebook with congregational names like Beth Shalom or Tikvat Yisrael. They may offer Hebrew classes, Israeli folk dancing groups and Bar/Bat Mitzvah classes, as well as free High Holiday services. Unless you ask some carefully probing questions, you may feel you've found a welcoming and friendly Jewish congregation. It may be a good idea to double check with your local Jewish Federation or to call Jews for Judaism.

Some interfaith couples may actually be attracted to a congregation that seems to be both synagogue and church, where both Jews and non-Jews gather for friendly fellowship and enthusiastic prayer. It is vital to understand that this is no compromise. Such congregations are no different from any evangelical Christian church in terms of belief and theology. They merely camouflage their Christianity in a Jewish guise and are practicing no form of Judaism. It's important to be clear about what such groups are and what they're not.