Should Christians Convert Jews?

When I was 5 years old, my mother gave me a precious gift. I can still see that 78 rpm record, with its turquoise-blue label in the center spinning round and round on my little Victrola, playing over and over again songs entitled “Little Songs on Big Subjects.” One of my favorites was and is the one that went like this:

“I’m proud to be me, but I also see
You’re just as proud to be you.”

I have always been proud to be a Jew. I have always tried to respect the religions of others.

It was indescribably hurtful to Jews some years ago when the Southern Baptist Convention announced a concerted effort to bring Jews to belief in Jesus. In contrast, how proud I was to write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper expressing my support and my appreciation for two Southern Baptist ministers who disavowed publicly their movement’s attempt to convert Jews. These ministers bravely affirmed the legitimacy of religious diversity. They affirmed the legitimacy of different paths to the one, true God. Thankfully, many other Christian scholars have written in a similar vein.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, fundamentalist Christians talk of their unavoidable claim to follow the “Great Commission” of the 28th chapter of the book of Matthew and other passages in the New Testament to bring the word of Jesus to all the nations. But, according to my friend and my teacher, Prof. A.J. Levine, the “Gentile nations” is the reference in Matthew 28. The Greek word often translated as “nations” has a similar connotation to the Hebrew word goyim, which means all of the nations except the nation and the people of Israel. I commend these interpretations to evangelicals, and hope they will find their way to them.

People often ask me, “Why do Jews for Jesus campaigns cause you such pain? Why do you feel a need to respond so forcefully. I believe that attempts to bring Jews to Jesus is, at best, motivated by misguided love. One only need take a quick look at history and see the results–the inevitable results–of this so called love as it has played itself out over the centuries. In country after country after country, Christians have lovingly expressed their concern for our salvation and invited us to accept Jesus. Over and over and over again, when we refused that invitation, that love has turned to venom and hatred. Often it has led to expulsion and death.

The outstanding contemporary Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, of blessed memory,  put it this way. “The Holocaust was the culmination of a 2,000-year campaign by the Christian world against the Jews. It began early on with them telling us, `You cannot live here as Jews.’ And in country after country, they forced us to convert. Later the message became, `You cannot live here.’ And in country after country, they forced us to leave. Hitler’s message was, `You cannot live.’ And they exterminated one-third of our people.”

When a Jew accepts Jesus as his or her Messiah, he or she fulfills no biblical prophecy. When a Jew accepts Jesus as Messiah, he or she becomes a Christian and leaves the Jewish religious community. One cannot be both Jew and Christian at the same time. So it has been for more than 1,800 years, when our religions split and went their separate ways. So it remains today.
If one wishes to be a Christian, I hope that path brings him or her spiritual fulfillment. But he or she cannot be a Jew at the same time.

If the campaign to bring Jews to Jesus meets with its ultimate success, if it reaches its ultimate goal and every Jew becomes Christian, then the end result will indeed be as if Hitler had won the war. There will be no more Jews. That, in a nutshell, is why these campaigns cause such pain.

Four thousand years ago, Abram left the pagan world, along with his wife, Sarai, to teach of a single, good, caring God who wants us human beings to use our talents to create a just, caring, compassionate society. Christians call that justification by works, and they are absolutely 100 per cent correct. That is exactly what it is, and that is one of the fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity. We justify ourselves, not so much by what we believe, but by what we do. I understand and I respect fully that Christians see it differently, but I know how much good the world has derived because we Jews have insisted on following our unique and particular path to God.

My plea is that different faith traditions can live side by side in mutual respect and peace. Mutual respect precludes belittling the integrity of our religion as it is. If Jesus brings fulfillment and satisfaction and meaning in life to Christians, I say it again, I am happy for them. But Jesus plays no role, no role whatsoever in the religious thinking of the Jew.

Why? There are three major claims which Christians make for Jesus which Jews categorically reject:
1. That the martyr’s death that Jesus endured in any way effects atonement for the collective sins of humanity or the sins of the individual.
2. We reject the idea that God became or is likely to become incarnate in any human form, making any human being a suitable object for worship.
3. We reject that, as Paul contends in his epistles, the life and death of Jesus rendered the elaborate system of Jewish law and observances functionally useless. If you believe that any one of these claims is true, then you may be a Christian, but you are not a Jew.

By the time Jesus lived and died, Jewish messianic expectations were really quite clear. The Messiah our people expected would do four things, also on your sheet:
1. End the Roman oppression of the Jews.
2. Restore a descendant of King David over a reunited Land of Israel.
3. Bring about the miraculous return of the scattered exiles to the Land of Israel.
4. Inaugurate an endless era of peace and harmony in the world.

Put quite simply, Jesus did none of these things. Therefore, he cannot be the Jewish Messiah.
Bible-believing Christians often quote passage after passage in the Hebrew scriptures which they say point unmistakably to events and circumstances of Jesus’ life which the New Testament recounts. “How could this be,” they ask, “if Jesus were not the Messiah of whom the prophets spoke?”
“How can this be?” I answer. “It is very simple. The 18th-century preacher, Jacob Krantz, the famed Maggid (storyteller) of Dubnow in Poland, told a story which answers the question.

Once there was a man riding through the countryside in his wagon. He came upon a long barn, and on the side of the barn were several targets. Right smack in the middle of the bull’s eye in each and every target was an arrow.

The man stopped his carriage and said, “I must meet this person who shoots so perfectly every time.” So he stopped his carriage and found the owner of the barn. He asked him, “How is it that you never miss hitting the dead center of the bull’s eye every time you shoot your arrow?”
“It’s quite easy,” the man answered. “You see, first I shoot the arrow into the barn, and then I draw the target around it.”

How do New Testament writings show that Jesus’ life and actions comply with predictions in Hebrew scriptures? It’s easy. New Testament writers wrote their stories so that their accounts of Jesus’ life would match the prophetic passages which they knew so well from Hebrew scriptures.

A Jew for Jesus is every bit as much a contradiction in terms as a Christian Not for Christ. Make no mistake. Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism are big businesses backed by big money. They take out full-page ads in Newsweek, in Time, in The New York Times. They are on television almost every hour on every day of the week. There is a magazine called Charisma. In one issue, with a so-called Messianic Rabbi on the cover, they tell those who would lure Jews away from Judaism what to do and what not to do.

The article says, “Do be a friend. Create a sincere friendship first. Don’t just try to convert the Jewish people. Do say `Messiah.’ Don’t say `Christ.’ Do say `believer.’ Don’t say `Christian.’ Do say `New Covenant’ or `Old Covenant.’ Don’t say `New Testament’ or `Old Testament.’ Do say `congregation.’ Don’t say `church.’ Do say `completed’ or `fulfilled.’ Don’t say `saved’ or `born again.’ Do say `Messianic Jew.’ Don’t say `Christian.’ ”

It is a subtle and crafty and carefully contrived campaign to lure those Jews who don’t really know what it means to be Jewish into another religious faith. When I hear how Christians claim their tradition compels them to witness aggressively to Jews, out of their love for Jews, I think every time of the story of the Hasidic disciple who approached his rebbe and exclaimed, “Master, I love you!”
And the rebbe responded, “Do you know what hurts me?”
The disciple answered, “No, Rebbe, how can I know what hurts you?”
The Rebbe answered him, “If you do not know what hurts me, you cannot love me.”
For me, that is the bottom line. You cannot love me, you cannot truly be my friend, if you do not acknowledge what hurts me so deeply and desist from inflicting that pain.

One woman, in response to some newspaper articles in which I was quoted, wrote me a letter that said, “Rabbi, how can we not proclaim Jesus to you? If you had cancer, and I had the cure for cancer, would it not be an act of friendship and love for me to share my cure with you?”
With all due respect, I do not have, thank God, cancer! I have a faith which sustains me. I have a faith which I cherish. I have a faith which makes me a better person than I otherwise would be. I have a faith which is full and complete, and it is in no need of any cure or any outside savior.

If I wanted to put the argument in biblical terms, I would do it this way. Did God make a covenant with Abraham? Of course, God did. God promised the Jewish people protection, progeny, permanence as a people, and property, the Land of Israel. In return, God stipulated that we, the children of Israel, had to be a blessing in their lives. (Genesis 12:2) We have to walk in God’s ways and be worthy. (Genesis 17:1) We have to be teachers and examples of justice and righteousness. (Genesis 18:19).

Those were the terms of the covenant in the book of Genesis that God established with Abraham and us, Abraham’s descendants. Is that covenant irrevocable? Of course it is. Christian scripture says it over and over again. Is God a liar? Of course not. So I say to any Christian who would be my friend: We have our covenant with God. It is complete. It is irrevocable. God is not a liar. We have no need for Jesus. If you cannot respect our faith, then please simply leave us alone.

If we really understand the meaning of Abraham’s covenant, we understand too that the entire Christian metaphor of God sacrificing his son on a cross is antithetical to Jewish teaching. On Rosh Hashanah each year, we read of how God called Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him. At the crucial moment, though, God called to Abraham, “Stop! Do not lay your hand upon the boy, and do him no harm.” The lesson is that no true religion requires human sacrifice in its name. The lesson is that human sacrifice is abhorrent to the God we worship.

For Jews human sacrifice is in God’s eyes an unforgivable act. The gospel idea that God would sacrifice his son is antithetical to Jewish teaching from that day to this. It should surprise no one, therefore, that Jews do not accept Jesus as Christians do.

There was profound wisdom in the words of the song on the record my mother gave me so long ago: “I am proud to me, but I also see you’re just as proud to be you. It is just human nature, so why should I hate you for being as human as I? We’ll give as we give, if we live and let live, and we’ll both get along if we try.”