Our Common Language
By Gavriel Aryeh Sanders
She called herself a Messianic Jew.
She’d been born into a nominally Jewish home where very little of Jewish tradition was practiced by her family. By the time she got to college, she was spiritually curious, and a missionary supplied her with answers that appeared to make sense. She believed she could have the best of both worlds—to be Jewish and believe in JC. After all, he was Jewish, as were all of his original followers. What could be more Jewish than believing in the Messiah?
She’d been taught to see how JC had fulfilled so many messianic prophecies in the Jewish Bible. It made sense to her and she was thrilled to have finally connected to G-d, the Bible, the Jewish holidays, and her Jewish soul. Moreover, she knew JC as a personal agent of salvation, guidance, and provision in her life. He was her lord; she was his disciple. She spoke to him in prayer.
Armed with her certainty, she—let’s call her Sarah—had come to the home of a friend of mine in Atlanta to hear me speak about my journey to Judaism. During the question-and-answer session, Sarah hit me with a classic missionary question. She politely raised her hand and asked, “But what do you do with the person of JC? He was either a liar, a lunatic, or he was really the lord. Which is it?”
I love questions like this. They suggest that the options given are the only options there are. I suggested to her that there was at least a fourth option beyond her list. “Lore,” I said tersely. “I believe we have to consider lore as an option.”
I then proceeded to give her a brief overview of the “god-man” theme that runs through many ancient mystery religions existing prior to and contemporarily with early Christianity. Many of them share elements strikingly similar to the life of JC. A pre-existent deity becomes human through the agency of a virgin birth, lives a life of miracles, gathers disciples, dies on a cross or tree as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of others, is buried for three days, rises again, and ultimately ascends back to heaven. A memorial meal consisting of bread (representing the body) and wine (representing the blood) is also a common element amongst some of these mystery sects, such as Mithraism and the cult of Dionysus.
I suggested to my inquirer that she investigate this further. Baruch Hashem, she was willing to do some open-minded homework. Today, Sarah is Torah-observant and reclaiming the heritage she never knew growing up in a “typical American Jewish family.”
Sarah is an excellent case study representing so many Jews who’ve embraced an artificial, man-made faith system. While she was aware of being Jewish, she had no awareness of what being Jewish meant. Her parents had inherited pitifully little from their parents, and they passed on the declining influence as they raised their daughter to be a Jewish American rather than a Jew in America.
Sarah was a victim of the greatest enemy of Jewish identity and continuity. And what is that? . . .
I asked this question of some very bright Jewish high-school students in Los Angeles a few years ago. What’s the greatest threat we face today as Jews? They gave me a reasonable list: anti-Semitism, terror, Taliban (no ISIS then), intermarriage, assimilation. I then suggested to these brokers of the Jewish future that their list really contained symptoms of the threat. The real enemy is ignorance.
Hashem, speaking through the prophet Hoshea (Hoshea 4:6), declared:נִדְמוּ עַמִּי מִבְּלִי הַדָּעַת (nidmu ami mi’bli ha’da’at). “My people has been eliminated for lack of knowledge.” Ignorance has caused many sincere Jews to drift into scores of cults and isms. Baruch Hashem, our young lady in this case made it home to a spiritual treasury she hadn’t known existed, yet had been hers all along.
The Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews shows how far afield American Jews have drifted from the foundation blocks of observance (Shabbat, kashrut, halachah) that have been life preservers of Jewish identity.
Sarah’s story also illustrates a key factor in how Jews such as herself, deficient in the knowledge and experience so essential to Jewish living, are disappearing into the common culture. She was so easily influenced into a spiritual counterfeit. How does that happen?
In 2014, Jews for J released a 59-page “Profile of North American Messianic Jews.” From it, the reader learns the pivotal role that context plays in bringing a person such as Sarah into the fold of believers. Two elements stand out: (1) a person of influence, i.e. a caring friend; and (2) a caring community. Afterwards, a person studies the Bible, connects with other believers, and develops an emerging Jewish-flavored identity within the new fellowship. Parenthetically, this Profile contains (pp. 57, 58) a rather bold admission on the part of the Messianics. They have a serious intermarriage problem. While roughly 50% of Jews in the general population intermarry, 75% of Jews in Messianic fellowships marry “out.” With second and even third generations of intermarried children now growing up, fewer of them identify with the Jewish parent or grandparent and with the “Jewish” flavor of the Messianic church.
The Profile study cites Taglit/Birthright as one of the American Jewish community’s responses to fortifying Jewish identity through a connection with the Jewish state and wonders aloud how the Messianic movement can emulate such. Frankly, their options are very limited because they operate on the fringes of the larger Jewish community. While they are making efforts to insinuate themselves into more liberal organizations, such as Hadassah, Hillel, the UJA, local JCCs and Reform and Conservative congregations, once their real agenda is realized, even many liberal Jews recoil from them. According to the 2013 Pew study, 60% of American Jews still say that belief in JC is incompatible with Judaism.
In Sarah’s case, some authentically caring Jewish friends in Atlanta embraced her and brought her into an authentically caring community. They helped her work through her disconnection to the church world and slowly take on observant Jewish living and learning. She was a quick study. The last time I saw her, she introduced me as the speaker at an event and I yielded her a bit of time to share her own story. Her willingness and openness to study what Tanach really says turned her life around. She represents what I believe are thousands of Jews in the church waiting for someone to invite them to learn who is really lore and Who is really L-rd.
Note: During the summer, we are focusing on the Jewish response to missionary efforts to influence Jews to embrace the Christian message. We will iy’H return to our content on the Hebrew language in the fall. v
Gavriel Aryeh Sanders has spoken to tens of thousands of Jews across North America and abroad delivering lively lectures related to Jewish living and learning, including his autobiography on “A Minister’s Journey to Judaism.” He currently teaches Hebrew at a Long Island Jewish high school. Your comments and questions are always welcome at GavrielSanders@gmail.com.