Who is not a Jew? That was the question on my mind last week as I reflected on the legacy of Moishe Rosen, a man who brought more heartache to Jewish parents than anyone in a generation. Few Jews lamented the passing of the Jew by birth who became a Baptist minister and subsequently founded Jews for Jesus, an organization that targets Jews for conversion to Christianity. Since Jews who convert to other faiths are no longer accepted as Jews by their former coreligionists, the 600,000 American Jews who have left Judaism through conversion represent an incalculable loss to a faith community that is also witnessing an increase in interfaith marriages and decrease in synagogue involvement. I applaud Jewish leaders’ efforts to make Judaism more attractive and relevant to Jews, and share their concern over the efforts of over 1,000 groups to convert Jews to (non-LDS) Christianity. I certainly hold no brief for Jews for Jesus, which attacks Mormon beliefs as well as Jewish ones (Rosen noted in his farewell letter that “Judaism never saved anybody no matter how sincere,” while his organization’s website inexplicably calls Mormons “non-believers in Jesus”). Unlike Jews for Jesus, the LDS Church does not target Jews (or members of other faiths, for that matter) for conversion. As I thought more about the who’s-not-a-Jew debate, I realized that history often plays a larger role than theology in the drawing of red lines.
For Latter-day Saints, it’s fairly easy to determine who’s a Mormon. Once you’re baptized, you’re a member unless you are excommunicated or request in writing that your name be removed from the Church’s membership records (thankfully, both are relatively rare actions). Even if you join another faith, your name will remain on the records until the Church receives your written request to leave. Excommunication has not been a feature of mainstream Jewish life since the Enlightenment, and there is no central Jewish authority authorized to exclude people from the worldwide Jewish community. Nevertheless, certain beliefs are universally regarded as incompatible with Rabbinic Judaism to such a degree that their adoption places a person outside the bounds of the faith. The most well-known is the Christian belief concerning the Messiah.
Contrary to popular opinion, belief in a Messiah who has already come is possible for Jews. For example, the late Lubavitcher “Rebbe,” Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is considered by many of his followers to have been the Messiah. Their status as Jews is unquestioned. However, there is one big difference between the Christian Messiah and the Lubavitcher one: no Jew believes that the Rebbe was divine, let alone the Son of God. It is the belief in a divine Messiah, not one who has already lived on earth, that is ultimately unacceptable to Jews. In addition, it hasn’t escaped their notice that many followers of the divine Messiah have persecuted and killed Jews for centuries.
The Trinitarian notion of God is problematic for Jews (Mormons, like Jews, not only reject the concept of the Trinity but generally find it incomprehensible). For them, there is one incorporeal God, the God of Israel. For believers in the Trinity, there is one incorporeal God, the God of Israel, who has three manifestations. Some Jews have suggested that Trinitarian Christians actually worship three gods, though they claim to worship one. Mormons believe that the three members of the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) are separate divine beings joined in purpose, not in substance. Given the importance of ethical monotheism in Jewish thought, the acceptance of Jewish atheists has always puzzled me. Are Christian ideas about God more objectionable than the belief that God did not create the world, reveal the Torah to Moses, covenant with Abraham, or lead the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land? Again, it would seem that the linkage of Christian views of God to Jewish persecution by Christians throughout the centuries is their fatal flaw. Atheist governments persecuted Jews in the 20th century, but not before. Also, no one gets too excited if a Jew adopts a (Messiah-free) Buddhist view of deity; few if any Jews have died at the hands of practicing Buddhists.
Several Jewish friends have told me that what they find most objectionable about organizations like Jews for Jesus is their insistence that one can be a Christian yet remain a Jew. Jewish leaders like Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz of Jews for Judaism have devoted decades to countering this assertion, which they claim is deceptive. I wanted the perspective of a Jewish convert to Mormonism, so I turned to my friend Marlena Baker, who blogs at Marlena’s Musings. Her take? “I consider that Jews who are baptized as [Latter-day] Saints become completed Jews.” This sentiment is not uncommon among Jewish converts to Christianity, though it is obviously offensive to Jews. I agree with the rabbis that the Christian belief about Jesus cannot be reconciled with that of Rabbinic Judaism. One cannot believe that Jesus was and was not the Savior. However, Mormons who agree with Marlena almost always reference the pre-Rabbinic Judaism of the Hebrew Bible, which was based on prophets, revealed scripture, temples, and priesthood. In their view, a Jew who joins a restored religion with prophets, revealed scripture, temples and priesthood is becoming a more complete Jew, since he is returning to Judaism’s biblical roots.
Jews have every right to decide who is a member of their community. In terms of theological diversity, they have done an admirable job of balancing inclusivity with self-preservation. I do not believe that Jews should be targeted for conversion; moreover, I have never participated in proselytizing efforts involving Jews. According to the Book of Mormon, God’s relationship with Jews is pretty important to Him: “O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people” (2 Nephi 29:5). I recently came across an Evangelical organization, “Ex-Mormons for Jesus,” whose title makes as much sense as “Jews for Jesus.” If there’s one thing that honest people should be able to agree on, it’s that the English language has a precise word for a Jew who accepts Jesus as his Savior: “Christian.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.