October 17, 2002
-- Bill Gralnick
A few weeks ago, Sightings ran a piece on the efforts of Hebrew Christian groups to convert Jews (August 30, 2002). The commentary by Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez was made in the context of the Roman Catholic Church's recent statement on the matter (Jews have a special and eternal relationship with G-d, we should not try to convert them) and the sharp criticism this statement drew from some evangelical leaders, particularly Jews for Jesus and other Hebrew Christian groups (when it comes to hearing the "Gospel," no one is that special).
Jews have mixed emotions about proselytizing; it ranges from feeling put out to feeling harassed. While most would agree with the sentiments of the great Greta Garbo, "I just want to be left alone," Jews understand to a degree that those approaching them cannot help themselves. More properly put, Christians are just doing their job as Christians. To say that the Inquisition and the Holocaust should exempt Jews from today's zealots is too easy an out for both sides. The Catholics, to their credit, did not use the Holocaust as a reason; they used theology. For Evangelicals to accept such reasoning concerning the Holocaust would mean a theological compromise.
For Jews to get a free pass on anything because of the Holocaust is a cop out. When the Southern Baptist Convention announced in l999 that its goal for the new millennium was to convert all Jews to Christianity, a friend and Baptist Pastor told the American Jewish Committee, "Jewish education is the best defense against Christians." And he's right. If the Jewish community creates secure, knowledgeable, theologically-rooted adherents it can say, "Let's get it on!" to all comers. Jews must have more people affiliate, more people study, more people be Jewish as our answer to the Holocaust. Having Christians issue "free passes" is like farm-raising an animal and then turning it out into the world. Fat, content, and slow, it doesn't stand a chance.
But when it comes to Hebrew Christians the issue is yet more complicated. "Who is a Jew?" is a rabbinic question. "Who is a rabbi?" is a communal question. The Jewish community, and only the Jewish community, has the right to make those decisions. So "Seamus O'Reilly", 20th generation Roman Catholic, can stand up and proclaim himself a Jew but as we learned from Porgy and Bess, "It ain't necessarily so." There is such a thing as a Jew FOR Jesus. There is no such thing as a Hebrew Christian, until of course someone figures out how to have one's cake and eat it too. The theology is complicated; the bottom line is not.
Instead of a "free pass" however there are things Christians should do when dealing with Jews. Using courtesy is a good start. The act of proselytizing should be courteous. It should not be insistent; it should not be harassing. It should never be intolerant. It should never, ever be deceitful or devious. Remember what mom used to say, "I said no and I meant it?" That is a good rule of thumb.
If Christians invite Jews to church to learn from them, the Jew can decide whether or not to go. But if conversion, or hoped for conversion, is the reason, how does the Jew know what he is saying yes or no to? If a Shabbat service is run with Jews as a learning experience, similarly a Passover seder, to get in touch with Jewish roots, that is wonderful. If Christians are running them by themselves or inviting Jews to attend them as if they were "authentic," that is deceitful and devious. It is also fairly common.
If the motive for Christians attending synagogue is to have a learning experience that is again wonderful. If they are going there to distribute Christian literature or use the information to ingratiate themselves with Jews for an ulterior motive that is not wonderful. How "Christian" is it when someone joins a Jewish organization or house of worship as a Jew, rises to a position of trust, and then announces that he or she is a so-called Hebrew Christian? It has happened more than once.
Finally, real Christians, if they profess a love for Jews should not be giving aid and comfort to the "enemy." More than a few Christian churches house Hebrew Christian operations or allow Hebrew Christians to conduct worship services within their walls. Others give money at arms length to separate themselves from the obvious conflict. Jews expect Christians to be honest and upfront, not because of the Holocaust but because it is Christian.
Bill Gralnick is Southeast Regional Director of the American Jewish Committee