November 22, 2006

Why This Jew Accepted Jesus

2006 1533 page28 capN FEBRUARY 1970 THERE WAS NO WARNING message on the television screen. Only a simple man in a large auditorium—New York’s Madison Square Garden, as a matter of fact—making simple points: we’re all sinners; we’ll die in our sins unless we repent; and God has made a way of escape through His Son, Jesus Christ.
I was almost 13 years old, and, frankly, I didn’t know enough to say “no.” In my heart, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord, as Billy Graham, the man on television, had asked his audience to do at the end of the broadcast. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents about this.
A Current Affair
For most families in America the anecdote above would be cause for rejoicing. A child has made a decision for Jesus. But in my household it was an occasion for shock, and not awe: I’m a Jew, the son of a Jewish mother and father, and, in case you weren’t aware, Jewish people just don’t believe in Jesus.
If you doubt that, go to your local bookstore and peruse a copy of David Klinghoffer’s recent book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History (Doubleday, 2005). Klinghoffer, an Orthodox Jew, is also a columnist for the Forward, a New York-based Jewish newspaper and a self-described political conservative who shares many opinions with equally conservative evangelical Christians in the United States. He appreciates those Christians’ support for the state of Israel, and their stand for morality. But Jesus? No thanks, he says.
In its first year, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus didn’t hit the major best-seller lists, but online book seller at one time ranked its sales at number 3,581 on its listing of millions of titles, which is very, very good.* (I should know: my three books, published in the mid- to late-1990s, are at 1.4 million or below on that same ranking.)
2006 1533 page28A Jews for Jesus street evangelist challenged Klinghoffer about the matter of Jesus’ messiahship some 20 years ago. Klinghoffer admitted then that he didn’t know enough about his own religion, Judaism, to understand why his people—my people, too—overwhelmingly rejected Jesus. Thus began a trek that led to orthodox observance for him, and to this book, which I read with a mixture of interest and frustration.
The basic thesis is this: Jesus didn’t fulfill the messianic prophecies the way they should have been fulfilled: there was no ingathering of all Jews to the Holy Land, no period of universal peace, no turning of all nations to the commands of the Lord. Thus, Jesus couldn’t have been the Messiah.
Oh, and to make matters worse—for the observant Jew, that is—Jesus rejected the oral law, the rabbinical traditions, and His followers abrogated the law of Moses even further, suggesting that circumcision and the Sabbath and the dietary laws weren’t important for salvation.
Klinghoffer’s bottom line: Jesus might be your Messiah, but He can’t be mine.
The Rainbow of Judaism
It’s a good thing that Mr. Klinghoffer isn’t 30 years older than he is, else I might have had this book when I was a kid and could have been turned away from Jesus more severely than I was, albeit temporarily, at the time.
My personal story isn’t as important here as what Mr. Klinghoffer’s argument represents. In some respects it seems to be an argument from fear. The notion that one can be a Jew and believe in Jesus is too scary for many Jewish people to accept, particularly outside of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, where many Jews are largely secular, although there is a large concentration of observant Orthodox and even ultra-Orthodox Jewish adherents.
There hasn’t been a monolithic Jewish structure in the Western world for well over a century; today Judaism is more fragmented in many respects than ever before. In America, in particular, to be Jewish is as much a cultural identity as anything else; the religious aspect can be easily dismissed, minimized, and rearranged, just so long as the “J-word,” Jesus, isn’t brought into the mix.
That may come as a shock to some Christians, but consider: there’s a whole subculture of Jews who blend Buddhist practice into their religious identity. These so-called Jewish Buddhists, “Jew-Bus” for short, are accepted to some degree within the community, and certainly far more so than any Jew who dares embrace the notion that Yeshua ha-Notzee, Jesus of Nazareth, is indeed the Messiah.
At another point on the spectrum, you have atheistic or agnostic Jews, typified by Harvard University law school professor Alan M. Dershowitz. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more strident support of Israel, or Judaism, but you’d also find someone who, in the pro-atheist magazine Free Inquiry in 1999, wrote: “I consider myself a committed Jew, but I do not believe that being a Jew requires belief in the supernatural.”
Professor Dershowitz, too, is well regarded in the Jewish community and is not generally condemned—so far as I have been able to determine—for his agnostic or atheistic belief.
Finally, on the farthest right point of the Jewish theological spectrum are the followers of Chabad, the Lubavitch Hasidic sect whose zeal might well have put the biblical Pharisees to shame. Unlike many groups in Judaism (again, there’s no monolithic structure such as the Roman curia to moderate things), the Lubavitchers are happy to go out and evangelize, although they evangelize only those Jews they imagine to be nonobservant. They will gladly cross deserts and ford rivers to make converts of the theologically lax.
The Lubavitcher sect is also distinguished by having many members who believe that their late spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is actually the Moshiach, the Messiah. In Lubavitcher neighborhoods—and elsewhere—you’ll see signs and bumper stickers bearing a picture of “the Rebbe,” as the late Rabbi Schneerson is known, with the words “We Want Moshiach Now!” At this writing, however, the Rebbe remains in the Long Island cemetery where his body was placed in a mausoleum more than a decade ago.
This broad spectrum of Jewish opinion about what is and isn’t acceptable within the fold is notable for its tolerance and openness—there was even, a few years ago, a widely circulated documentary film about “gay,” or homosexual, Orthodox Jews, even if Orthodox Judaism (not to mention the written Torah) condemns homosexual practice. Among more liberal Jewish communities, sexuality isn’t much of an issue: all, it seems, are welcome.
What is pretty much absent from the above list is, well, any mention of Jews who believe in Jesus. We are, on the whole, anathema to the larger Jewish community because we represent a distinct, direct challenge—something even David Klinghoffer understands. A Jew who believes in Jesus challenges the leadership of the Jewish community for the past 2,000 years. A little Buddhism? Well, maybe. A lot of Jesus? Forget about it!
The Unavoidable Dilemma
Contemporary Jews have to confront a key question: If it’s correct to believe in Jesus, what have we Jews been doing these past 2,000 years rejecting Him?
To make his case, Klinghoffer relies on some very old—some might say tired—arguments. The Messiah was supposed to bring universal peace: Jesus didn’t do this; in fact, many wars have been supposedly fought in His name. According to Klinghoffer, Jesus didn’t really fulfill the prophecies, some of which don’t actually apply to a messiah, but to the nation of Israel. And Paul? Oy vey, Klinghoffer might exclaim: here’s a “Jewish leader” (something the author doubts) who, like his Master, turns the law on its head. To make matters even worse, Christians, so-called, have taken Paul’s views and stretched them to the breaking point, scuttling the dietary laws of Judaism and most important the Sabbath, in favor of “freedom” and Sundaykeeping.
But go back to Klinghoffer’s original premise: the challenge that the Jews for Jesus missionary gave him sent him in search of evidence to shore up his belief. That’s his privilege, of course, but it’s a far different quest than the search many of us have made: to find and to know the one true God.
2006 1533 page28At the heart of Klinghoffer’s polemic is the notion that God is so immutable that He loses His freedom to be God. If every prophecy isn’t fulfilled the way Jewish scholars interpret, Klinghoffer argues, then the prophecy isn’t fulfilled, and the claimant, whether it’s Jesus or another pretender, is a fraud.
God, on the other hand, isn’t limited to Klinghoffer’s strictures—or, thankfully, to my own. God can and does choose to act in any fashion He decides. He declares in Isaiah 43:19: “Behold, I am doing a new thing” (ESV).† In Jeremiah 31:31, God says, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
In short, God retains the freedom He has always had to adjust circumstances based on the response of persons (an attribute we call “con-ditionalism”) and to fulfill prophecy in the manner in which He chooses. The fact that no one else in history has been able to come close to fulfilling the messianic prophecies in the way Jesus did—a fact David Klinghoffer vigorously disputes, nonetheless—shows that God is in control. He spared Nineveh after Jonah’s fish-bleached appearance. He has held back the final plagues and judgments until this very hour. But He has not abrogated His plan: Jesus is coming again.
A Telling Criticism
Perhaps the one area where David Klinghoffer can truly make an argument against Christianity is on the question of antinomianism. Merriam-Webster defines an antinomian as “one who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation.”
Klinghoffer rightly, in my view, questions why Christians ran pell-mell away from the Sabbath and holy days, as well as from the dietary laws. Even if Jesus (and later, Paul) concluded that the so-called oral law—the traditions of the rabbis, scribes, and Pharisees so prevalent in Jesus’ day—was of none effect (there is no law against doing good on the Sabbath), it’s still clear that Jesus and Paul worshipped on the Sabbath and “kept” the Sabbath day holy.
Honest Christians may debate the issue of the Sabbath. For many, it has been settled as still being the seventh day referred to in Exodus 20:8. For others, that discovery has yet to be made. But it is clear that the church’s overall blurring of the main Jewish practices is, indeed, a “stumbling block,” and people such as David Klinghoffer can get trapped by it.
What this means, of course, is that the church would do well to acknowledge and (in some ways) return to its Judaic roots. A rediscovery of the Sabbath would do wonders, and, indeed, many congregations in even “mainstream” Protestant communities are doing just that.
At the same time, just as in the days of the Jerusalem Council, it must be recognized that not all of the Mosaic law is intended to be binding on Gentiles. Circumcision remains an option, for example. It is clear that new, non-Jewish believers in Jesus do not have to first become Jews before they can be saved.
Overall, though, churches need to proclaim that obedience to the law is not legalism, something with which Orthodox Jews are well familiar. They will claim that such observance is freeing and fulfilling, and, indeed, it can be on many levels. However, since no one can perform perfectly, atonement for sin must be made. The Orthodox Jew will claim that he was redeemed at Sinai, and his obedience is in gratitude for that salvation. But if so, why have an annual Day of Atonement then?
Instead, I propose what many wise and thoughtful Christians have suggested: obedience springs from gratitude, not legalism. We are saved by grace—unmerited favor—through faith. But because we are saved, we respond with affection and obedience, not open revolt.
The Sum of the Matter
I said before that my personal story wasn’t all that important. Well, perhaps I’m wrong: it is important in this respect, that by having Jesus as my Savior, by following what I believe to be His commands, I have peace, I have hope, and I have joy. I have seen faith in Jesus transform the lives of thousands of people in dozens of places—and most important, I’ve seen that transformation in me. (That doesn’t mean I’m perfect—far from it. However, I’m far better than if I were left solely to my own devices.)
David Klinghoffer is happy in his life as a nonbeliever in Jesus, and I can’t fault him for that. I can dissent from his carrying that rejection so far as to suggest that no Jew really should believe in Jesus, since so many of us have, and to great and good effect.
If anything, the challenge of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus should not go unanswered—not by Christians, and certainly not by Seventh-day Adventist Christians. Our faithfulness to the Sabbath, our embrace of the Levitical dietary rules, our deep appreciation for what the Torah (the law), Nevi’im (the prophets), and Ketuvim (the writings) bring to our understanding of the conflict of the ages—all these are a compelling message for Jews, and anyone else, seeking to find Him whom to know is life eternal!
*As of October 2006, the sales rank has dropped to number 85,076.
†Texts in this article are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Mark A. Kellner was, until recently, assistant director for news and information for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists when he wrote this article. He now writes for Defense News, a newsweekly that covers the business side of the U.S. Department of Defense.