October 24, 2002
Evangelism and Us
The issue of evangelical Christian churches attempting to convert Jews has arisen once again -- this time as an accompaniment to Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert's acceptance of a $500,000 gift from a church in San Diego.
It is admirable that any group would want to make a charitable contribution to help Israeli victims of terrorism. The problem is that this church and many others have an additional agenda -- they wish to convert Jews. Even when a gift is given with no strings attached, their message is that they see the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as a step toward their ideas of Messianic fulfillment. To Jews, this is yet another signal that the Christian spiritual onslaught on Judaism has replaced the physical onslaught we suffered in Eastern Europe.
As Jews, we need to be extremely clear about our differences from standard Christian beliefs. It is not merely a matter of Messianic claims -- when the Messiah shows up, will he claim to be the same Jewish iconoclast that was killed by the Romans or a reincarnation of a great Talmudist or Chasidic rebbe? If that were the only question, then few would care -- just so long as it's the real Messiah who ensures the Jewish people of integrity in their land and brings peace and unity to the world.
But Messianism isn't the only problem. A profound theological and spiritual chasm differentiates the two religions. For Jews, belief in a God-man constitutes idolatry. (For non-Jews, the standards are less exacting, and rabbinic opinions differ over whether one of the Seven Noachide Commandments is violated by Christian belief.)
At Sinai, we saw "no form." Jews die saying "Shema" because of their indefatigable belief in an infinite God beyond all human comprehension. Whatever mysteries or paradoxes are claimed about divine incarnation in human form, they have no place in Jewish belief.
Nor is this merely an arcane theological matter. The prohibition against worshipping or attaching supreme loyalty to any form has been the linchpin of Judaism's fabled ability to nourish multiplicity in opinions and practices. Our refusal to institute any single form or image as the standard of measure has enabled Jews to be critical of every ideology, party and figurehead -- and critical of themselves -- while simultaneously cherishing the divine image in every person and every aspect of creation. The idea that God shows a different face to each of us -- the distinctive "God of Abraham, God of Yitzchak, God of Yaakov" in our prayers -- has been extraordinarily precious.
Christians, on the other hand, have repeatedly demonstrated their expectation of conformity, of "one true faith," whether that expectation was voiced from Catholic authorities in Rome or Baptists in Atlanta. Historically, only the pressure from other competing Christian groups moderated that expectation, at least until the late 18th century. The European Enlightenment did lead liberal Christians to discard all but the most minimal standards of faith and practice, and therefore to become tolerant, nonevangelical religions.
But the liberals have been rapidly losing ground to conservative evangelicals and, as Philip Jenkins has recently argued in "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity" (Oxford University Press, $28), will have less and less power in world Christianity a generation from now. Will this lead to another kind of requirement of conformity? If fundamentalist Muslims and evangelical Christians face off in the Third World, what will happen to the tiny minority of Jews?
The answer depends, as always, on our inner strength, deep knowledge and thorough commitment to the values of Judaism and its spiritual path. Those values rest on its radical one-and-many theology. The spiritual path of Judaism rests on our firm belief in the tzelem elokim (the divine image) in each of us, and the trust in our holy teachings that, for millennia, have shown the way to fulfill that potential, both individually and collectively.
Soon, the Jews of Los Angeles will be the target of another campaign to undermine these beliefs and values. On Dec. 16, Jews for Jesus will bring to the City of Angels their Behold Your God campaign, which will try to convince Jews that they can believe Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jewish. We need to be prepared to stand up against this wave of pressure. Primary targets may be young people in high school or college as well as, sadly, our elders and even Holocaust survivors.
I suggest that each of us, over the next several weeks, raise the Christian campaign question at our synagogues and community events. What can we do to be aware and prepared in case someone in our family is targeted? I will mention a good source of resources and help is Jews for Judaism (jewsforjudaism.org), which offers to anyone, regardless of Jewish affiliation, ways of strengthening Jewish spirituality as well as rational responses to missionary tactics.
Let's remember that when we learn to respond to such challenges, it's not just knee-jerk defensiveness. Each challenge is given to us to strengthen ourselves, our children and our children's children, for the building of a more beautiful world.
Tamar Frankiel, a lecturer at the Academy of Jewish Religion, is the author of "The Gift of Kabbalah" (Jewish Lights, 2001).