Jews and Jewish Christianity - Introduction

You were born a Jew. You may have gone to Hebrew school for some years and had a Bar Mitzvah or a Bat Mitzvah. Whether you had a good Jewish education, a poor one, or none at all, you are now a teenager, in your twenties, thirties, or any age. And you have a problem.

Your problem is Jesus of Nazareth. For a long time, he meant nothing to you. You knew that you were a Jew and Jews didn’t believe in Jesus. But at some point, that began to change. You may have read something or heard a speaker say that you cannot be saved unless you accept Jesus as your personal savior and, furthermore, that you can remain a good Jew and accept Jesus. In fact, you may have been told, to accept Jesus as your savior made you a fulfilled or Messianic Jew. Perhaps for the first time in your life you met sincerely religious people who reached out to welcome you and include you into a real fellowship. You were probably told that only through Jesus could your sins be forgiven. You then read portions of the New Testament and you were moved by the personality of Jesus: his love of God and his fellow man, and his compassion for the weak and suffering. And you are now in the process of becoming a Jewish Christian, or maybe you already have become one or are just beginning to think of becoming a Jewish Christian. Or your situation may be different from anything described so far. But you are a Jew and are attracted to Jesus and Jewish Christianity.

This book is for you. It was written in a spirit of reverence. Chances are very good that if you have begun thinking about becoming a Jewish Christian you have encountered some hostility from Jewish relatives and friends. Some of them may have had little Jewish commitment until they heard about your Jewish Christianity, at which point they berated you for apostasy, being disloyal to your people, and other nasty things. To you, all this sounded very unfair, because you did not think you were being disloyal to anybody, just happy with a newly found faith. And so you may be confused.

Can I be a Jew and a Christian? Why has Judaism rejected Christianity?

These and other questions come to your mind. You have heard these questions answered by your new Christian friends. But since you are a fair person, you want to hear the other side of the case. But you want to hear it from a Jew who knows what he is talking about and who won’t abuse you and call you names. After you have heard both sides of the story, you will make up your own mind, and this is as it should be, because every person is responsible for his own choices, whether right or wrong.

The purpose of this book is to explain the Jewish point of view with respect to Jews becoming Christians or Jewish Christians. Judaism never did and does not wish to discourage gentiles (those who are not Jews) from becoming or remaining Christians. The reason for this, as you will see, is that Judaism has A Jewish Response to the Missionary Challenge never believed that everybody should become Jewish. From the Jewish point of view, good people of all religions have a share in the world to come. Judaism does, however, believe that Jews should be Jews and nothing else. The purpose of this book is therefore to explain why Jews ought not to become Christians or Jewish Christians, but it is not directed at anyone who is not Jewish.

This book was written in a spirit of respect for those to whom it is addressed. We assume that you are a sincere seeker of the truth and that your search is a genuinely religious one. It is necessary to say this because often Jews who speak to fellow Jews attracted to Christianity find it hard to believe that such Jewish Christians are sincere. The reason for this is simple. For many centuries many Jews who converted to Christianity did so out of motives of self-interest rather than religious sincerity. Up to very recent times, being a Jew in a Christian world was a social and economic disadvantage. Many occupations were closed to Jews, as were the fancier social circles. Many Jews who embraced Christianity, therefore, acted out of self-interest rather than genuine religious conviction, and Jews resented such conversions of convenience, as did sincere Christians. Gradually this attitude became deeply ingrained in the Jewish mind, and as a result many Jews find it hard to believe that a Jew who embraces Christianity can be sincere.

But times do change. While discrimination against Jews has by no means disappeared, it has diminished, particularly in the United States. Today, in this country, most Jews who move toward Christianity do not do so out of social or economic self-interest. They must therefore be addressed with the respect that any sincere person who seeks truth deserves. And that is the spirit in which this book was written. In addition to respect, the Jew who has been attracted to Christianity also deserves honesty. We will not hide our goal. It is to retrieve for Judaism every possible Jew. We will attempt to do so honestly and with love, and with the knowledge that, in the final analysis, each person is responsible only to God for the decisions he makes.

One more word about motivation. Nowadays, many Jews who hear about Jews involved with Christianity attribute such involvement to lack of Jewish education and/or psychological problems. It is true that many Jews, both old and young, lack a proper Jewish education. And it is also true that many persons today have psychological problems. But religious choices can rarely be explained just on psychological grounds. In one way or another, a person is responding to God and to spiritual realities. The spiritual realm involves man’s soul, and that is deeper than the mind that the psychologist can understand. There will be no attempt here to “explain away” your interest in Christianity by reducing it to a psychological or educational problem. If your Jewish education is weak, then you ought to improve it, and this book will play a small role in so doing. But above all, you can be sure that you are being taken seriously on a religious and spiritual level.

There is one more important point that must be made before we begin to discuss the issues. To a certain extent, throughout our discussion we will be “proving” things or trying to show that the “proofs” offered by others leave something to be desired. As you read on, and especially if you pay careful attention to the various “proofs” offered, you might come to the conclusion that we consider religious beliefs to be based purely on rational proofs. But that is not our intention. Religious beliefs are to a large extent based on faith, and this is true of both the Jewish and the Christian believer. Let us look at some specific examples.

Much of the debate between Judaism and Christianity involves the interpretation of passages from the Bible. To the believing Jew, the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament in Christian terminology, is the word of God. To the believing Christian, both the Old and the New Testaments are divinely inspired. Now the belief that a particular book is or is not the word of God cannot be proven objectively. Such a belief is held by faith, and Christians speak of faith as something given by God as a gift to some and not to others. The encounter between Judaism and Christianity is, to some extent, an encounter of different faith positions, and honest Jews and Christians should recognize this fact. This is true not only with regard to the question of whether or not the New Testament is divinely inspired but also of a number of other questions, such as the divinity of Jesus and under what circumstances God forgives sins. Faith plays an important part in both Judaism and Christianity, and it would be less than forthright for either Jews or Christians to assert that they can prove their case beyond doubt and therefore do not require faith.

But what is faith? Is it simply believing things without any evidence? Is anyone entitled to believe anything simply on the grounds of faith without having to give any reason for his beliefs?

This is a difficult question to answer and theologians have written a great deal about it. Perhaps the best example of faith is that of Abraham, about whom the Bible says (Genesis 15:6): “Abram put his faith in the Lord, and the Lord counted that faith to him as righteousness.” It is important to note the context in which this verse appears. The verse appears in connection with Abraham’s puzzlement about God’s reliability. God had promised Abraham that his offspring would be as many as the dust of the earth. And then Abraham and Sarah had no children. After Sarah passed her menopause, it looked as if God was not going to keep his promise. It is at this point that we are told of Abraham’s faith. Abraham believed that God would keep his promise even though, from the human point of view, it didn’t look at all likely. This sort of trusting faith is somewhat different from the believing sort that we have in mind when we speak of faith in God’s existence or the divine inspiration of Scripture; nevertheless, it shows that faith has an element of trusting someone in spite of the existence of contrary evidence. If we truly love God and feel his love for us, we trust him to keep his promises and to do what is good for us.

At the same time, it cannot be the will of God that human beings act irrationally. Even if things held on faith cannot be proven with certainty, there is much that can be understood. Take something like interpreting the meaning of the Bible. In order to understand the Bible we have to read it. Those who cannot read Hebrew or Greek have to depend on translations, and translators often disagree about the correct translation of certain passages. Furthermore, when reading anything written many centuries ago, we have to be sure we understand the expressions and way of thinking of the people to whom the work was addressed. Otherwise we are in danger of misunderstanding its message.

This is particularly true of historical religions like Judaism and Christianity, whose claims to credibility are based on happenings in time and place. These religions have long histories during which certain ideas developed. Take something like the idea of the Messiah. It is really impossible to understand the meaning of the claim that someone was the Messiah without understanding what the idea meant among ancient Jews and how it came to mean what it did. Christianity was born within Judaism. Jesus and his disciples were all Jews. They were educated along Jewish lines and thought of themselves as Jews. To understand Christianity, it is therefore necessary to know a good deal about Judaism. And this is particularly true for a Jew who becomes interested in Christianity. He has to face the Jewish roots of Christianity and therefore his own Jewishness, which is something he may never have really examined before.

We will attempt to explain how Judaism views Christianity and why it cannot agree with some of the most important Christian beliefs. Because we will concentrate on areas of disagreement, we may give the impression that there are no areas of agreement. That is, of course, not so. Belief in the dignity of man as created in the image of God is one area of agreement. So is the teaching that we must help those less fortunate because God so desires it. And there are many other areas of agreement. Nevertheless, for a Jew to come to believe that Jesus was God – to take one idea in Christianity that Judaism cannot accept – is a very serious matter, and so we hope you will read on with an open mind.

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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Berger, David, 1943-

Jews and “Jewish Christianity”.

Bibliography: p.

1. Judaism-Apologetic works.

2. Jewish Christians.

3. Missions to Jews. I. Wyschogrod, Michael, joint author. II. Title

BM648.B45 296.3 78-9423

ISBN 0-87068-675-5