May 31, 2010
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.
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.