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Why I’m not afraid of a Christian TV network

As a traditionalist, I understand and even respect their theological approach and thank them for their support for the State of Israel

The broadcasting of GOD-TV, an Evangelical network, on Israeli cable television sparked a major controversy. Haaretz reports that “What was not expected was that the outcry would be loudest among those Israelis known for their deep ties to evangelicals: religious, right-wing Jews.” At least one liberal rabbi and self-appointed moral police officer tweeted with great schadenfreude that basically “we told you so.” Haaretz quoted Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for the Hebron community, saying,

We honor and love and appreciate our friendship with the evangelical world. We have many shared values with these people, like a belief in the rights of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel … However, in every relationship there are red lines, and when they are crossed, that can be painful. Missionizing is one of those red lines.

I do not share the reaction many have to this channel and its efforts to proselytize to my fellow citizens in our native language.

Having grown up in the US Bible Belt, I certainly have experience with missionaries. In eighth grade, a friend who was active in a Baptist church accosted me for my religious beliefs and told me I was going to Hell. Our friendship didn’t last beyond that incident, and I was happy he switched schools at the end of the year.

READ: Trouble in paradise: ‘GOD TV’ spat exposes tensions between Israel, evangelicals

As an Orthodox rabbi and believing Jew, Christian theology of any variety is alien to my worldview. To understand why some Christians advocate for missionizing to the Jews, one needs to review essential elements of historical Christianity.

Like Islam, to some degree, from the early Church until today, many Christians understood that their faith replaced the Jewish covenant. Hebrews 8:13 reads, “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” And even if the Church did not replace Judaism for Jews, the faith in Jesus’ power to save is often understood as unique. In the book of John, for instance, Jesus declares, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Passages such as these lie at the foundation of Supersessionism or Replacement Theology. Many Christians of various denominations maintain these views.

All Jewish denominations reject such theology; it would seem, however, that Jewish groups oppose the television station for different reasons.

For traditional Jews, Jewish theology maintains that God gave a unique prophecy to Moses at Mount Sinai. Jews the world over commemorate this revelation tomorrow night on Shavuot. The principle declared in the Jewish liturgy based on Maimonides 13 Principles of Faith states, “God gave a true Torah to his people, through the hand of his prophet [Moses], trusted in his house, God will never alter the divine law or exchange it for another, forever and ever.” (Yigdal Prayer) The immutability of the Divine revelation to Moses stands as a central pillar of traditional rabbinic Judaism.

Even if one were to stretch traditional theology as far as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks does, there is no room in Jewish belief for Jesus. Rabbi Sacks writes,

The radical transcendence of God in the Hebrew Bible means nothing more or less than that there is a difference between God and religion. Religion is the translation of God into a particular language and thus into the life of a group, a nation, or community of faith. In the course of history, God has spoken to Mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims…How could a sacred text convey such an idea? It would declare that God is God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity. (The Dignity of Difference p. 55)

As interesting and even attractive as I find it, Rabbi Sacks’ approach is controversial to many Jews and Christians alike. He seems to allow for a Dual-Covenant type of theology where Judaism, Christianity, Islam and perhaps other religions as well represent Truth for their adherents. However, like every other Orthodox theology, this view rejects the need for Jews to accept Christian doctrine in any form. Messianic Judaism, for instance, is not regarded as Judaism but a type of Christianity and not an appropriate philosophy for Jews.

On the other hand, some progressively minded Jews seem to have a problem with traditional beliefs in general. Years ago, a well-known Conservative Rabbi and Professor told the following story at a public lecture: Recounting a speech he gave at an interfaith ecumenical conference, he said, “During the speech, I mentioned ‘the Jesus myth.’ At the end of the lecture, several Christian colleagues complained that I referred to Jesus as a myth. I responded, ‘well, I don’t believe in Moses either’ to which the Christian clergy exclaimed, ‘well, say what you want about Moses but leave Jesus out of it.'”

This story, told in jest, highlights the problem of non-traditional approaches and their fundamental lack of understanding of people of traditional faith. Like Orthodox Jews, Christian traditionalists cling to a more literalist approach to their religion. Pope Paul VI’s response in 1964 to Zachariah Shuster of the American Jewish Congress reflects this reality. When Shuster requested, during the discussions surrounding Vatican II, that the Catholics change some deeply held doctrines, the pope responded, “This view…is based on Scripture.” (Spiritual Radical p. 264) Beliefs of differing faith communities are often not impacted by the desires of those from other faiths. Religion doesn’t work that way.

The expectation in some progressive Jewish circles that Christians abandon parts of their theology stems from the almost complete rejection by liberal Jewish movements of foundational Jewish beliefs. As far back as the middle of the twentieth century, many liberal American rabbis had rejected what many considered the fundamental faith in God. In the harsh critical remark of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “I have discovered something in America. It is possible to be a rabbi and not to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity p. 106) This rejection of tenets of Jewish tradition has only become stronger over the past 75 years with liberal rabbis almost falling over themselves to declare their disbelief in traditional theology.

It is therefore not surprising that those who reject the authenticity of the narratives in the Hebrew Bible would feel at ease suggesting Christians abandon their fundamental beliefs as well. And it is the case that some Christian theologians and progressive churches have accepted radical theologies to the point that it can be hard to distinguish the differences between liberal Jewish thought and progressive Christian faith. These approaches seem to agree on rejecting particularist religious ideology.

The traditionally minded of all faiths reject a gray, neutralized, one-size-fits-all religion.

There is little doubt that traditional Christian notions of Supersession have led to outbreaks of anti-Semitism throughout the ages. However, I find the demand for a change in fundamental belief incomprehensible. In a celebrated letter to the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik clarified the problem of faith communities making demands of theological compromise on each other,

Jews have throughout the ages been a community guided exclusively by distinctive concerns, ideals, and commitments. Our love and dedication to God are personal and bespeak an intimate relationship which must not be debated with others whose relationship to God has been molded by different historical events and in different terms…We believe in and are committed to our Maker in a specific manner and we will not question, defend, offer apologies, analyze or rationalize our faith in dialogues centered about these “private” topics which express our personal relationship to the God of Israel. We assume that members of other faith communities will feel similarly about their individual religious commitment.” (Confrontation and Other Essays, pp. 117-118 emphasis added.)

It is unfathomable that Jews of sincere faith would expect Christians to change fundamental doctrines. This explains why, despite altering the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults in 2006 to exclude language which could be understood to no longer advocate Jews accept Jesus as their savior, the Catholic Church reversed the decision and again include such language. It also explains why Pastors John Hagee and Jerry Falwell can reject Dual Covenant theology while still supporting the State of Israel. As a traditionalist, I can understand and even respect their theological approach and, at the same time, thank them for their support for the State of Israel. Mainstream Catholics and Protestants have made incredible strides in rejecting the hatred of Jews that spurred centuries-old animosity while at the same time preserving their theologies.

Because the liberal and traditional approaches towards the rejection of Christian theology stem from different assumptions, reactions will differ. Liberal Jews who reject the religious message of the Hebrew Bible demand Christians change in the same manner in which they deny the rights of Jews to the land of Israel. They reject missionizing because they reject tradition. When faithful Christians support Jewish settlement in the land of Israel and at the same time pray that Jews recognize Jesus, some liberal thinkers feel vindicated. “You see,” they seem to say, “those Christians actually believe the Bible.” The only acceptable Christians are those who reject the truth of Christianity in the same manner. Liberal rabbis reject the truth claims of Judaism.

Traditional Jews, on the other hand, who view the Bible as the word of God, see the return to Israel and Jewish sovereignty as God’s plan. We can understand why Christians can support the Jewish return to our homeland and also want to missionize to us. It stems from a similar belief to ours. They believe what their Bible says just as Orthodox Jews believe what Jewish tradition teaches.

Traditional Jews don’t want to lose Jewish souls to Christian beliefs. Many liberal thinkers seem not to want to lose souls to any traditional belief system. The Orthodox response should be to increase awareness to our fellow Jews of the truth of Judaism.

Many of my fellow Jews fear that Christian anti-Semitism could rise again. White supremacy’s voice is getting louder around the world and anti-Semitic acts are increasing. I understand that justified concern. We would do well to remember that the two greatest sources of deadly anti-Semitism in the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism, were not traditional Christian beliefs. At the same time, I believe Christians when they say they reject anti-Semitism.

I trust that missionizing efforts in Israel will fall on deaf ears. While I certainly would prefer that Christians refrain from preaching to unaffiliated Israelis, if they do try to missionize, perhaps this will push us to increase efforts to bring Jews in Israel back to their spiritual roots.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.