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In the Face of Proselytizing

By Ruth Broyde Sharone


Messianic Judaism is a Biblically based movement of Jews who believe in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah of Israel. According to web statistics, from 2003 to 2007, the number of Messianic houses of worship in the United States grew from 150 to as many as 438, with over 100 in Israel and more worldwide. As of 2012, population estimates for the United States were between 175,000 and 250,000 members, for Israel, between 10,000 and 20,000 members, and an estimated total worldwide membership of 350,000.

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Ten  years ago, while spending a weekend with a Christian friend in Palm Springs, I decided to visit a Messianic Temple. I chose to attend a Sabbath service on a Saturday morning. As a strongly identified Jew who goes to synagogue every Saturday and a passionate interfaith activist who has visited many houses of worship, I welcome opportunities to interact with people of varied backgrounds and beliefs. I am especially curious to learn what animates people most about their faith. I must admit, however, I approached the Messianic Temple that Saturday morning with some apprehension.

While growing up – and especially when I was in my teens – I had been specifically warned by numerous rabbis to keep my distance from “Jews for Jesus” who would attempt to prove that our Bible (Tanach) actually prophesied the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. “They want your soul and they will stop at nothing until they can convert you. Beware!” the rabbis said ominously. And I must admit that none of my frequent past encounters with Christian and Hindu evangelists in airports, on street corners, in county fairs and elsewhere even came close to preparing me for my visit to this Messianic Temple.

The seal of Messianic Judaism – Photo: Wikipedia

The seal of Messianic Judaism – Photo: Wikipedia

Entering the Temple that Saturday morning, aware of my own trepidation, I first spotted a group of men, each one wearing a yarmulkah (skullcap) and a tallith (traditional Jewish prayer shawl). Familiar enough. The men, mostly Latino, were studying biblical text together at a small table in the sanctuary. I had arrived early.

Within moments I was approached by Joan, wearing a red scarf inscribed in gold with the word “Jerusalem.” She welcomed me warmly. I complimented her on her scarf. Joan inquired if I was a first-time visitor. Yes, I said, and when I told her I was Jewish, she warmed up considerably and moved closer to me. She began to ask me more questions about my religious practice, where I lived, and so on.

Our conversation was going swimmingly well until I told Joan I was an interfaith activist. Her face suddenly became tense. “What exactly is ‘interfaith?’ she queried, moving perceptibly away from me.

“It’s a movement that has been around for a while, and now is gaining considerable momentum. We get together and share different aspects of our different religions, our beliefs, our practices. We don’t want to be strangers to one another, and we want to be able to live together harmoniously. Would you be interested in attending one of our meetings?” I asked.

Joan grimaced. “No, of course not. Why would I want to come to meetings like that unless I was there to convert people?” she said in a challenging voice. She turned and walked away. I watched her go over to a small group of women nearby and whisper to them. They all turned to look at me.

Did she expect me to leave? I wondered.

I decided to sit in the first row, and I hoped someone else would join me from the congregation. No one did.

My thoughts were interrupted by sharp shofar blasts. I was surprised. It wasn’t Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) or Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) when the shofar (a ram’s horn) is traditionally blown in synagogues around the world, as they did in ancient times. They were using the shofar to announce the beginning of the Shabbat service. Very unusual, I said to myself.

As the service unfolded and the Torah scroll brought out, I noted how the two religious leaders at the pulpit interwove their comments between the Hebrew scripture and the New Testament, reading passages alternatively from both holy books.

Like Jews for Jesus, Messianic Judaism is a fundamentalist tradition which synthesizes aspects of Jewish culture and Christian theology. – Photo: Spreadshirt.com

Like Jews for Jesus, Messianic Judaism is a fundamentalist tradition which synthesizes aspects of Jewish culture and Christian theology. – Photo: Spreadshirt.com

A group of dancers then appeared in the front of the sanctuary and, to the strains of a popular Israeli song playing over the loudspeaker, they launched into the opening steps of an Israeli dance I know well. But something was off. On the slide that had been projected above the Holy Ark where the Torah was stored, the original song lyrics, evoking the beauty and perfume of a rose garden, had been replaced. Instead I heard words praising Jesus, the Messiah.

The Jewish ritual objects and accoutrements I intimately knew had been co-opted, one by one, from the tallith to the shofar to the Torah reading to the Israeli dance and music. They were now being used to highlight another religion, certainly not mine. You shouldn’t be surprised, I told myself. It is called a Messianic Temple.

Next came a wave of testimonials by individuals who had been bussed the week before to Scottsdale, Arizona to proselytize in a prominent shopping mall. The audience showed their approval with abundant applause as each one announced his conquests.

Proselytizing and Judaism

We Jews don’t proselytize. Our history says that in the first century Jews did engage in evangelism, but it was short-lived. The early rabbis curtailed that, and the custom has prevailed until today. In fact, it is not an easy task to convert to Judaism today. Even before mandatory religious instruction begins, the rabbis are required to refuse prospective converts three times, to make sure they are sincere in their intentions. The Jewish conversion process is never casual or cursory.

I thought about all of this while I was in the Messianic Temple, trying to make meaning of what I was seeing and hearing. But my biggest challenge was yet to come.

In the restroom after the service, I chatted with a friendly, attractive young blond woman in her twenties. She was delighted to discover that I was Jewish. She insisted I meet her boyfriend, who was also Jewish, before I left the temple. I agreed. She accompanied me outside and took me to meet Jeff.

At least 6’2” tall, with a wild mane of dark hair, mustachioed and gregarious, Jeff shook my hand and immediately launched into his personal story about how he had become a Jew for Jesus. He described how several years earlier he had bottomed out emotionally and financially and was feeling lost. A terrible storm occurred one night, flooding his basement, he recounted in great detail. He went downstairs to try to bail out the water. In the process, he slipped, fell, struck his head, and lost consciousness. When he came to, he put his hand to his head and saw he was bleeding.

He got on his hands and knees in the watery basement and called out to God to intercede in his life. God answered, he said, and it was Jesus. In the vision he had, Jesus asked if he was ready to begin a new life and accept Jesus as his personal savior. Jeff, who had been raised as a Jew, said he searched his heart for an answer and then accepted unequivocally. Suddenly the pool of water in his basement miraculously dried up. He called his father and asked him to come over to hear about what had happened. His father came and witnessed the wound on his son’s forehead heal instantaneously. It was the second miracle of the night. Jeff accepted Jesus, as did his father, and they never looked back.

“How can you not accept Jesus yourself,” he emphasized, “if you know and believe what happened to me?” The crucial words were “know and believe.”

Jeff moved forward until his face was inches from mine. I saw both fire and religious passion in his eyes.

Having had my own mystical experiences, I would never express doubt about what happened to him. You can’t question someone’s personal subjective experience. But beyond that lay the danger, for Jeff was clearly on a mission that involved my soul. He was determined to win me over to Jesus by sheer preponderance of the evidence of divine intervention in his own life. I could see his eyes searching mine for confirmation and acceptance. I could feel his evangelical zeal as a searchlight boring into my soul. I realized that how I was about to respond, both in my tone of voice and my choice of words, would become crucial to our interchange.

“What a life-changing experience you had, Jeff!” I said in a genuine tone of awe. “I can only imagine how powerful those miracles were for you that night, and how they have heightened your desire to influence others to follow you.”

Jeff was regarding me intently, nodding his head. “Personally speaking,” I continued, “I have my own religious path that I also pursue with great passion. It animates me and gives me strength and purpose, and it connects me to an ancient ancestry that I value enormously. I am deeply committed to my path, as you are to yours, but I want to acknowledge and thank you sincerely for sharing your personal story with me. And thank you for letting me visit your temple today. I will not forget my experience here or what you shared with me. It’s truly an amazing story.”

Someone approached Jeff and his girlfriend at that moment. I used the opportunity to say goodbye and leave the premises. I took a deep breath as I left, not knowing how the dialogue between us might have evolved, or perhaps become more contentious, if I had stayed to protect my own religious turf. But I do know, ten years later, that I can still recall the passion for Jesus that Jeff shared with me. I can also recall the empathy for him I experienced being in the presence of that passion. I have never encountered evangelism among my interfaith colleagues. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the courage I felt I had to summon up at the Messianic Temple in order to defend my own faith. That is perhaps the ultimate challenge for all of us involved in this grand interfaith enterprise: how to remain respectful, empathetic, and true to ourselves.