Friday, September 01, 2006

Rabbi on Beliefnet.com Tries to Maintain the Inconsistent Standard of Jewish Identity

My friend Jenny Moyers is not the most connected Jew ever to walk the earth. She doesn’t belong to a synagogue and does not celebrate any of the Jewish holidays in her home. She seems to regard my rabbinic career path with something bordering between amusement and disdain.

So it came as something of a shock to me when one day we were walking together in the Philadelphia subway and a yellow-shirted Jews for Jesus missionary approached us to offer some literature. Jenny went completely ballistic and started yelling at him at the top of her voice, screaming that he ought to be ashamed of himself for calling himself a Jew. “Jews do not believe in Jesus!” she yelled. “What you are doing is disgraceful!” Needless to say, Jenny’s outburst made quite an impression on me, and it got me thinking.

When Jews for Jesus was in Philadelphia, my hometown, this time last year, I don't think they ever wore yellow shirts. I was proud to have been a part of that effort, so I have first-hand knowledge. Maybe the author is using "Jews for Jesus" in the generic sense.

But whether through Jews for Jesus or through another organization or an individual or through a congregation, may the Lord be glorified by the proclamation of His message.
Jews for Jesus push a lot of people’s buttons–even people who would otherwise not really care about Jewish tradition or practice–because they reside at the messy little intersection of identity and belief. For the most part, you can believe (or not believe) and do (or not do) whatever you want and still be Jewish. That’s because being Jewish isn’t a function of a particular belief or set of actions so much as it is a cultural, historic, and spiritual identity into which you are born or choose to convert. You’re just Jewish and, like Jenny, you don’t really need to worry about the particulars.

Jews for Jesus messes that all up.

Yes, it's called inconsistency. The author and his friend apply a different standard to Jewish believers than they do to themselves.
If you really can believe whatever you want as a Jew, couldn’t you be Jewish and believe in Jesus? The answer is no, and I think it has less to do with theological objections–although these certainly exist–than it does with identity issues. For 2,000 years, at least in the West, Christians are what Jews defined themselves against. Oppressed, victimized, expelled, and slaughtered simply for who they were, Jews had their identity and outsider status reinforced over and over again. They were Other, and the oppressors were Christians.

The symbol of Christianity par excellence, the defining element, is Jesus. So to hear the words “Jew” and “Jesus” strung together into the phrase “Jews for Jesus” hits a very raw nerve for many Jews today–I imagine something akin to what Jews for Allah(!) would do to Jews who were oppressed in Islamic societies.

It’s not out of hatred of Jesus, or of Christians, or of Christianity, but rather as a reaction to hundreds of years of oppression. And for the many Jews like Jenny who don’t participate in Jewish life in any way, rejecting Jews for Jesus affirms their own bona fide Jewish identity. But, perhaps just as revealingly, the forceful reaction also acknowledges an underlying insecurity and doubt about whether you really can do or believe whatever you want and still be Jewish. Because the truth is, you can’t–there are some lines that just can’t be crossed.

In other words, the objections are based in sociology.

Now, persecution of Jews by Christians is a horrible history. A major problem of the combonation of church and state was the confusion of what constituted a believer. Everyone was assumed to be Christian unless you were Jewish.

Now, much can be said on the topic. But the main thing I want to say is that this doesn't mean Jesus isn't the Messiah. If people who were believers and those who weren't acted inconsistently with the commands of the Messiah, that doesn't mean you can't be Jewish and believe in Jesus.

It explains the sociology behind the reactions. But it doesn't negate the truth of God and His Messiah.

Our standard must always be God and what He has said.

Update: Here was a great comment left by one person to the rabbi/author.
As a Jew who believes in Jesus, I appreciate Rabbi Waxman's cogent observation about his friend Jenny. I agree with him that the question of identity hits a raw nerve.

I believe the issue that he brings up, however, that history is the defining factor of being Jewish to be erroneous. Aside from the strange position that one defines Jewishness by a negative, 2000 years of history in whatever form it might have taken does not change who Jesus is: neither his identity, nor his message.

As a Jew who grew up in Judaism, I have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah that was promised by Moses and the prophets. If that is the case, then believing not only allows me to be Jewish, it is the most Jewish thing I can do. If he is not that Messiah, then no one should believe, whether Jew or Gentile.

The truth comes down not to history but to the proper understanding of the truth of Scriptures, which is something I'm sure both Rabbi Waxman and I can agree our Jewish people are sorely lacking in, as a rule.

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